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Scientists Think They Know What Makes Us Truly Happy

So what’s the secret?

Rose Dannay, who is in her 90s, lives on her own in New York City and has recently been busy at book signings—her own. She just self-published her autobiography, My Life With a Man of Mystery: The Love Story of Ellery Queen and Me. Ellery Queen was the pseudonym of her late husband, Frederic Dannay, and the main character of the popular mystery stories he wrote with his cousin.

Maybe it’s her life experience, but Dannay knows some of what scientists have been working hard to discover—the secrets to happiness.

A self-described naturally happy person, Rose Dannay loved going out with her famous, but rather private, husband. When he received invitations, “He kept saying ‘no,’ and I kept saying ‘yes.’ ” But to stay happy, “I have to practice,” she says. These days, that involves taking yoga classes and participating in a weekly social activism group, where members work on local community issues. She has a close relationship with her two children. And one other thing: “I tell dirty jokes all the time—you stay young that way.”

Scientists now have the data to show that what Dannay has—close ties with her community, the drive to remain active and a pinch of innate good cheer—is the foundation of happiness. Their data come from asking thousands of people around the world to rate and describe their happiness or “subjective well-being.” And armed with their findings, scientists are rejecting long-held assumptions about what makes people happy, such as wealth.

Money can’t buy you love

The Beatles knew that money can’t buy us love, and studies reveal that it can only marginally help with happiness. The limits of wealth become evident when researchers ask participants to describe how they feel about their very recent activities, as opposed to how they view their life as a whole.

In a survey of people in 140 countries, the Gallup World Poll found that money is linked to how people rate their lives as a whole. However, it’s not tied closely to how they feel emotionally, their positive and negative feelings—a distinction overlooked in earlier research, psychologist Ed Diener of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reported in the July issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Assuming you’re not impoverished, more money doesn’t generally boost emotional happiness, in part because people adapt to income and don’t keep enjoying their added wealth, says economist Richard Easterlin of the University of Southern California. That’s what the studies show, but “it’s very hard for people to come to grips with the idea that if you make more money it won’t make you more happy,” says Easterlin, an editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies.

When you’re 64, will you still be happy?

These days any reports of middle-age happiness have a dark cloud hovering over them, as new figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that people ages 45 to 54 are more likely than any other age group to commit suicide. People ages 75 to 84 are the second most likely, and the cause for the increase remains unclear. Alcohol was a factor in about one-third of all suicides, and alcohol and drug abuse ranked second behind depression and other mental disorders as the most frequent risk factors for suicidal behaviors.

But most people in these older age groups in the United States report being happy, and the ongoing question for happiness researchers is how does aging influence those levels.

Recent headlines may have trumpeted that fiftysomethings are, on average, happier and less stressed than twentysomethings. However, the study that produced those headlines, published in May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, actually showed that levels of sadness don’t change much as people age, says lead author Arthur Stone, a psychologist at Stony Brook University in New York.

The good news is that “people, as they age, are feeling much less stress, much less worry, much less anger.” But “when the body really does start to fall apart [in our 80s]—then it’s not a happy scene,” says Stone.

Happiness genes

Dannay’s daughter, Dale Koppel, 67, says she shares her mother’s cheerful attitude toward life, even when life threw her a curve ball. She and her husband of 25 years divorced when he realized he wanted a male partner. Within days, she signed up for an online dating service. Three years and hundreds of dates later, she has not only remarried but also authored The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Online Dating: And She Lived Happily Ever After. “Even on the worst dates I’d find something positive that happened,” she says. Then she’d regale her friends with the story.

According to genetics research, it’s no coincidence that Dannay and Koppel have a similar disposition. Studies suggest your genes may account for about 50 percent of your natural happiness level. In particular, they likely affect how quickly people’s sense of well-being returns to its normal level after a bad experience, and the extent to which “normal” changes permanently, Alexander Weiss of the University of Edinburgh reported with his colleagues in Psychological Science in 2008. Psychologists are quick to point out, however, that only part of a person’s happiness is predetermined; people can, in fact, boost their happiness with some effort.

Want success? It helps to be happy

Whichever way you look at it, it pays to be reasonably happy, researchers report. In fact, happiness often leads to success. In a review of 225 studies, “study after study shows that happiness precedes fulfilling and productive work, satisfying relationships, and superior mental and physical health and longevity,” reported Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, in Psychological Bulletin in 2005. Why is that? Feeling happy generally goes along with feeling confident, optimistic and energetic, all great traits for finding success.

America’s mission statement

Countries such as Canada, Germany, Bhutan and France are taking a strong interest in their citizens’ happiness, measuring their life satisfaction and emotional well-being and, in some cases, incorporating those findings in their government policies. If you want to know how happy your fellow U.S. residents are, check out this poll, a graphic mood ring of the nation’s well-being.

Even economists are paying attention to this link between happiness and success. In fact, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave a speech called “The Economics of Happiness” at the University of South Carolina commencement ceremony in May and pointed out that even “economists have gotten into the act” of assessing people’s happiness. And, he suggested, it’s about time.

Happiness “is right there in the mission statement of the United States,” he said. After all, this country was founded on the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Tina Adler is a freelance writer who covers health, science and the environment.