The Science of Happiness
We all want to be happy, but sometimes life seems to get in the way.
Sick kids, unexpected bills, job loss, strained relationships, overwhelm, exhaustion…you name it. It can all contribute to unhappiness and can even play a role in conditions like depression and anxiety.
What’s a mom to do?
First, you have to decide what happiness means to you. While scientists generally describe happiness as positive feelings you have related to engaging in pleasurable activities, even scientists don’t agree on one perfect definition.
Some researchers define happiness as positive emotions with the absence of negative ones. But do genuinely happy people really have no negative emotions?
Seriously…it’s time to get real.
Positive Psychology 101
According to research on Positive Psychology, there are several things that can increase our happiness score and help us flourish in this unpredictable world.
While it’s true that money might not buy happiness in particular, it might add to your life satisfaction and emotional well-being. Research shows that the magic money number is about $75,000 per year. Beyond that, research showed no significant change in people’s rating of life satisfaction or emotional well-being.
And think about it. If you aren’t worried about how your bills are going to get paid each month, wouldn’t that make you a little more satisfied with your life? Or—I’ll say it—happier?
Greater income means we can also give more to causes that we care about. But no matter how much you make, research shows that giving money or time - to organizations we’re passionate about makes us happier.
Spending more time with family and friends can bring more happiness into your life, too.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. There is no way that spending time with certain family members makes you anything but stressed.
Side note: Did you know that stressed spelled backward is desserts? Just sayin’.
People of faith who are spiritual and/or religious tend to be happier (think peace, purpose, connection…).
Another side note: If you’re not the church-going kind, you really should consider it. Just make sure they have a children’s program. It’s like a mommy break. You can even close your eyes during the service and take a little nap and they’ll think you’re praying.
Sorry. Just a little spiritual mommy humor there…
Happiness and Health
You might think that happiness simply has to do with your mental or emotional health. But happiness has perks for your physical health, too.
For example, researchers have found that happiness is linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate.
And people with heart disease who rated themselves as happiest also had healthier heart rate variability, a test of heart health.
One study had people rate certain positive emotions, like joy, happiness, excitement, contentment, and enthusiasm. They then took these same people 10 years later and found that those who rated themselves higher in positive emotions had lower rates of heart disease. In fact, for every one-point increase in positive emotions, their risk for heart disease was 22% lower.
Happiness has also been shown to strengthen the immune system, protect against stress, reduce the perception of pain, and may even help you live longer.
This is all great. But what if you’re not feeling the happiness warm-fuzzies? How can you get more of it—starting today?
Hunting for Happiness
Scientists estimate that 30-40% of our happiness quota is genetic. So, for example, if you have a child who just seems more sullen, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. They just might be naturally a little less happy.
Okay, so if 30-40% of your happiness is in your genes, that means that a whopping 60-70% of it is within your control.
Don’t allow this to overwhelm you. Having control over how happy you are is a good thing!
And it doesn’t have to be difficult.
Here are a few science-backed, evidence-based findings based on researchers in the field of positive psychology, including a pioneer in this field, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., to help you up your happiness levels.
- Are you isolating yourself? You’re likely to be less happy. Build close relationships with people you can be yourself with. Find a mom’s group. Meet up with girlfriends.
- Volunteer or spend time helping other people. This is a great opportunity to get your kids involved, too. Start with people in your family or neighborhood. Do they need their snow shoveled or leaves raked? Would they like a plate of homemade cookies? Bringing happiness to others makes us happier.
- Being physically active can help us be happier. In fact, according to research, it’s a pretty powerful antidepressant. Exercise has also been shown to improve sleep and mood, and is associated with better quality of life in general.
- Meditating, praying, practicing mindfulness, and showing gratitude have all been shown to increase happiness. Ditto for being a part of a church, and spiritual exploration - even for kids.
- Being fully engaged in a hobby or activity that you really enjoy can make you happier.
- Discovering your strengths and using them to showcase and enhance your purpose will also bring you more happiness.
So, some of these might have to wait until kids are a little older (like being fully engaged in…anything!). But use that creative brain of yours and find little ways that you and your family can begin to incorporate some of these things into your lives.
Of course, you also get to decide what will contribute to your happiness (a warm, sandy beach with a beautiful view and my very own cabana boy come to mind…).
Maybe at this very moment, being able to take an uninterrupted hot shower would make you happy.
Or having five minutes to do abso-freaking-lutely nothing would make you happy.
Keep the big picture in mind. Some things will make us momentarily happy…and other things add to our happiness and satisfaction long term.
It’s nice to have a little bit of both.