How to become a leader

Happiness and how to attain it

Former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan used to say, “You don’t have to get serious about business until you hit 40.”

Well this week, I turned 41, so watch out.

With all the people calling to wish me a happy birthday, today’s blog post is about happiness. Perhaps because my name is Joy, I’ve been interested in the scientific research around happiness. And because this blog is about how to joyfully succeed, I’ll blog more about happiness in the future. For now, here’s an overview of the subject.

The power of happiness

Happiness seems to have almost magical properties. Science suggests it leads to long life, health, resilience and good performance. Studies show that the happiest people live nine years longer than unhappy people. This is a huge effect, considering cigarette smoking can knock only three years off your life, six if you really smoke a lot.

Happiness can be measured

Neuroscientists say that happiness is more than a vague concept or mood; it is real. And now scientists can actually measure happiness. University of Illinois Professor Ed Diener says that the science of happiness is based on one straightforward idea: that you can simply ask people questions about their lives. And that produces answers that are valid. It’s a remarkable claim: simply by asking people, we have a measure of happiness that is as good as the economists’ measure of poverty or growth.

You can take his happiness test here.

The three ingredients of happiness

Researchers say that happiness consists of these vital ingredients:

  1. Family and friends: The wider and deeper your personal relationships, the better. In fact, friendship can ward off germs. Our brains control many of the mechanisms responsible for disease, so just as stress can trigger ill health, friendship and happiness can protect us. In fact, friendship has a bigger effect on happiness than one’s income.
  2. Meaning in life: This encompasses a belief in something bigger than yourself – including religion, spirituality, or a philosophy of life.
  3. Goals embedded in your long term values and which you find enjoyable: Psychologists say that we need to find fulfillment, by having goals that are interesting to work on and which use our strengths and abilities.

You can increase your happiness

According to the father of happiness research, University of Pennsylvania Professor Martin Seligman, we can increase our happiness if we work at it. When Seligman taught his course on positive psychology, he had his students keep gratitude journals, a nightly record of the people and the experiences they were thankful for. The highlight of the semester, he says, was “gratitude night,” an evening when his students read aloud a letter to one of the people who meant most to them.

Seligman himself counts his blessings in the evening. “I’m addicted to it,” he says.

For my earlier blog post on the Discipline of Gratitude, and how to use it to increase your happiness, click here.

Happiness comes with age

Researchers also find that older people are happier than younger ones. In a study of 50,000 Americans, China-born University of Chicago professor Yang Yang eliminated the possibility that older people seemed happier because they were raised in a generation that was taught to be content with its lot. She found that older people had not always been happy, but rather that it was the fact of being older that conferred the contentment that they reported.

Yang believes that this is because with age come positive social traits such as self-integration and self-esteem and that these signs of maturity contribute to a better sense of well-being.

As for me, I’ve found that each year in the past five has been ever happier. Consistent with the research, my marriage, at age 38, has had a highly positive effect on my happiness.

(My wedding also was a great source of happiness — and relief! — for my parents, as you can see from this photo of my mother dancing with my husband Dave’s father at our wedding.)

Perhaps too, my happiness has to do with the simple fact that I’m getting just a little bit older.

Comments in English and Chinese are welcome, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.