Historically, psychology has emphasized negative emotions (depression, anxiety, anger) and pathology (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder) more than positive emotions (happiness, love) and well-being, but that is changing. The growing field of positive psychology explores how we can foster growth, promote psychological well-being, and maximize our potential.
Research in positive psychology has given us clues as to how to cultivate greater happiness in our lives. First, happiness is partly biologically determined, and we are all born with a certain happiness set point. Thus, although positive and negative events may temporarily change our level of happiness, we usually return to our baseline level. This is not to say, however, that we cannot make ourselves happier. Just as some people may be born with predispositions to heart disease or obesity but can make lifestyle changes to reduce their risk, so too can you learn to maximize your level of happiness.
Second, research has something to say about the old adage that money can't buy happiness. While being very poor leads to less life satisfaction, having more money does not lead to greater satisfaction. This is in part because of the happiness set point: winning the lottery makes you happier temporarily, but then you return to baseline. This is also partly because of what is known as the "hedonic treadmill"--the fact that we adapt to whatever good things happens in our life. Thus, once we have obtained a 50" LCD TV, we get used to it and need something even better.
It may also surprise you to find out that happiness is also not significantly correlated with physical attractiveness, physical health, youth, intelligence, education, climate, race, or gender. Thus, even reaching goals like losing weight, getting an education, or moving to Hawaii may temporarily make us feel better but do not change our overall level of happiness.
So what factors do contribute to happiness? Some include:
- Being married and having a rich social network,
- Feeling connected to things outside ourselves, or spiritual enrichment,
- Having a cognitive bias in which you assume everything will work out, or optimism,
- Flow experiences in which you become so engrossed in an activity lose your sense of yourself,
- Having time for activities that you enjoy,
- Expressing gratitude to the people who have made a difference in your life,
- Forgiving those who have wronged us.