Happiness. It's that feeling of pleasure, fulfillment or contentment people all seem to be perpetually pursuing. Why is happiness so elusive and transitory? What makes people happy? Since the early '90s, a good deal of research, generated by psychologists and others, has attempted to answer these very questions. The outcomes of this research show some interesting, and often surprising, results.
Many studies, for example, have confirmed what most suspected - advertisers lie. Wealth and the accumulation of consumer goods do not contribute significantly to contentment. A study of lottery winners, for instance, found that they were not significantly happier after their win than before. Apparently, once a person's basic needs are met, additional income contributes little to contentment. Neither education nor intelligence seems to play lead roles as enablers of happiness. Nor does youth. In fact, most studies show that older people are more consistently satisfied with their lives than younger folks.
Evidence suggests that genetics plays a role in happiness. Genes influence personal traits such as how easygoing people are, how well they deal with stress and the degree to which they experience anxiety or depression. Perhaps some people are genetically blessed - almost pre-determined to be happy.
Certainly, when researchers examine differences between people who are generally happy and those who are generally not, they see strong differences in personality traits. Looking at responses from over 5,000 people, researchers have noted that happiness is most strongly associated with core character traits that were labelled "heart strengths": gratitude, hope, zest and the ability to love and be loved.
For those who do not have character or personality traits that predispose them to contentment, several studies show that anyone, even the gloomiest of individuals, can raise their happiness quotient through certain activities.
One successful way to court happiness is to savour life's many special gifts: the sweetness of ripe fruit, the smell of the ocean in the morning, the smile of a baby. Some psychologists suggest taking "mental photographs" of pleasurable moments, then storing them in one's memory for review in less happy times.
Research also indicates that developing gratitude increases happiness. Gratitude exercises, such as keeping a daily diary that lists what a person is thankful for, increase feelings of contentment for as long as the diary is maintained. These exercises, carried out over time, have also been found to raise energy levels, improve physical health and even relieve pain and fatigue.
It would seem that gratitude, in whatever form, is an affirmation and reminder of the goodness in life. Little wonder, then, that performing acts of altruism or kindness on a regular basis will boost contentment. These acts may be random, for example, letting a harried mother have the parking space nearest the store, or systematic, like bringing Sunday supper to a shut-in friend. The outcome is the same - an increased sense of well-being.
An extremely potent gratitude exercise involves the expression of thankfulness or appreciation to another person. In one study, participants were asked to write and personally deliver a gratitude letter to someone who had been particularly kind to them, but who they had never adequately thanked. This gratitude visit was found to be more effective in increasing happiness and decreasing depression than any of the other research activities.
Overwhelmingly, research shows that the biggest factor in developing happiness involves personal relationships. Those people who nurture close, meaningful interpersonal ties tend to be more content. Being able to give and receive affection, combined with a life full of enjoyment, commitment and purpose seem to produce individuals who are uncommonly happy and fulfilled.
It is a goal for which all can strive.
For more information about happiness research and questionnaires that assess happiness, visit: www.authentichappiness.org