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Happiness can prolong your life

Donna G

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Posted on Sun, Feb. 06, 2005


• Test your happiness level

Don't worry, be happy

Experts say positive thinking can change, prolong your life.


Knight Ridder News Service

Happiness is in, say trend-spotters and psychologists. Real happiness — the

kind of happiness that doesn't depend on luck or mere happenings. With

apologies to the late Charles Schulz, happiness is not a warm puppy.

Much of the happiness talk is scientific, coming chiefly from the field of

psychology, which for decades uttered few words on the topic. Psychology

journal articles over the years mentioned depression or anxiety more than

150,000 times, noted psychologist David G. Myers in a new book. Happiness

and "life satisfaction?" About 12,000.

Now, happiness is all the rage: what it is, where it comes from and the

$64,000 question, can you get more of it?

The ballooning field of "positive psychology" emphasizes human strengths

rather than weaknesses as a way forward in life. Psychologists haven't

stopped thinking about negative emotions, of course, but research in

positive psychology has risen dramatically in the past few years.

"There's more and more emphasis on what's right about a person rather than

what's wrong," said Marita Wesely-Clough, trends expert for Hallmark Cards.

"The focus is on their good qualities rather than dwelling on mistakes of

the past."

That shift is now spilling over to society, she said, and that's a good sign

for the future.

"This hopefulness and optimism could really have an effect not just on

individuals but on society as well," she said.

Rick Snyder, psychology professor at the University of Kansas, delved into

positive psychology in the late 1980s, before the term was current. His

longtime research interest has been "hope."

Snyder realized early on that the traditional focus on people's deficits led

to a fix-it approach. That often missed the equally important work of

building on strengths, said Snyder, author of "The Psychology of Hope."

In Snyder's corner of positive psychology, happy people are "high-hope"

people, and his ongoing research has led to strategies to enhance

hopefulness. The pursuit of goals is hope's engine, he has found.

"I've been amazed at how powerful hope is," he said.

Researchers have learned a lot about the characteristics and behaviors of

happy people. In one study, Sonja Lyubomirsky, associate professor of

psychology at the University of California at Riverside, examined "social

comparison" and happiness. Her guess was happy people "compared down," that

is, compared themselves to people with less money, less education, less


"I was totally wrong," she said.

Turned out, happy people didn't do much social comparison at all. And when

they did, they quickly got over any bad feelings.

Unhappy people dwell on such comparisons, Lyubomirsky said. For instance, an

unhappy person can move into his dream home only to get miserable a few days

later when he discovers the house next door has a bigger kitchen.


Why worry about happiness at all? Because happiness has its rewards. Happy

people are more productive, healthier, more creative and more helpful. They

have longer marriages and more friends. They even live longer.

A happiness study on a group of nuns found that 90 percent of the most

cheerful nuns were alive at age 85, but only 34 percent of the least

cheerful made it to that milestone.

Of course, maybe it's the other way around: Maybe people with natural

gifts — creativity, good health, sociability — have an automatic bead on

happiness. And that could mean your happiness quotient is pretty much set at


Myers, a psychologist at Hope College in Michigan, said studies of adult

twins living apart show that happiness is, indeed, inherited but not

entirely. An analogy is high cholesterol, which runs in families but also

can be lowered with diet and exercise.

Studies also show people are quite good at returning to their normally happy

or unhappy states, despite new experiences or outside factors. People think

more money will make them happier, for example. Except for people in dire

financial circumstances, though, the happiness boost is only temporary.

People adapt, which is why studies show, on average, lottery winners and

people who are paralyzed report similar levels of happiness.

Besides wealth, other factors that don't seem to affect happiness much

include age, education level and physical attractiveness.

Certain factors do seem to contribute to happiness, research has shown,

although even these are limited by our genetic capacity for happiness. They

include religious faith, an outgoing nature, close friendships and

"purposeful" work and leisure.


Researchers have concluded that about 50 percent of happiness is due to

genetics and about 10 percent to life circumstances. That leaves 40 percent

unexplained, said Lyubomirsky, a big chunk that individuals potentially can


Lyubomirsky is in the midst of research to find out more about how people

can influence their own happiness. A book is in the works. So far, it's

clear that making happiness stick long-term is the hard part, she said.

"It's like weight loss," she said. "If the set point for your weight is

higher than you'd like, you have to engage in a diet and exercise program

for the rest of your life."

"There's no cure," Lyubomirsky said about a happiness shortage. People have

to pick strategies that work for them and practice every day. "You have to

commit yourself."

For Snyder, increasing hopefulness is a doable strategy. His studies have

shown that hopeful people are adept at pursuing goals and attaining some of

them. Just as people can get better at goal pursuit, he said, they can learn

to think hopefully.

So the hard truth is that just sitting idly on your yacht won't make you

happy after all.

Wesely-Clough summed it up this way: "Human beings feel good when we're

engaged, when we're involved with others, when we know we're doing the right


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