Can happiness bring better health and longer lives? Data from scientific research seem to suggest so. By Michael Lim

DEFINING happiness is a challenge, let alone measuring it. According to Richard Davidson, a professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, happiness is a combination of positive emotional states. It’s associated with being fully engaged and actively embracing the world.

By using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to map blood flow to active parts of the brain and electroencephalograms (EEG) to record the electrical activity of neuronal circuits, scientists are able to associate brain activity with happiness or positive emotions.

Studies using functional MRI and EEG show that the left pre-frontal cortex (front portion) of the brain is the prime site of happiness. Using these methods, scientists are able to “measure” happiness.

A study on Tibetan monks shows that when Buddhist monks experience bliss as they enter a trance-like state deep in meditation, the electrical activity of the left pre-frontal lobe of their brain increases tremendously. This sensation of happiness is related to neurotransmitters, the chemicals that carry the signals from one brain cell (called neuron) to another. One of the chemicals called dopamine may be one of the most important neurotransmitters involved in the transfer of signals in the brain associated with “feeling good” or happiness.

Happiness saves lives

A Canadian study published in the European Heart Journal on more than 1,700 people followed up for over 10 years by Karina Davidson of Columbia University Medical Center showed that positive emotions like joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm and contentment, collectively known as a “positive affect”, are associated with decreased risk of heart disease.

The researchers ranked the “positive affect” across five levels ranging from “none” to “extreme” and found that for each rank the risk of heart disease fell by 22 per cent. Participants with no positive affect were at a 22 per cent higher risk of heart attack or angina than those with a little positive affect, who were themselves at 22 per cent higher risk than those with moderate positive affect. Davidson suggested that it might be possible to help prevent heart disease by enhancing people’s positive emotions.

There are other studies to support this. In a 2005 study of British civil servants, the happiest participants had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Under stress, the happiest participants had lower increases of plasma fibrinogen, a protein associated with heart attack.

In the largest study of the relationship between optimism and cardiovascular disease, almost 100,000 women, healthy at the outset of the Women’s Health Initiative study in 1994, were followed for eight years. The optimists (the top quarter) had 30 per cent fewer coronary deaths than the pessimists (bottom quarter).

The trend of fewer deaths – both cardiac and deaths from all causes – held across the entire distribution of optimism, indicating again that optimism protected women and pessimism hurt them relative to the average.

Benefiting from happiness

Benefiting from happiness-associated good health requires long-term positive emotions. Having positive emotions for a few weeks for those with heart disease will not make a difference. Modifying your lifestyle to have positive emotions and minimal stress over the long term may reduce your risk of heart disease.

The pursuit of happiness varies with the individual.

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, a proponent of the concept of positive health, divided the pursuit of happiness into three quantifiable pathways:

The pleasant life – the pursuit of happiness by seeking pleasurable emotions and sensations, focusing on reaching happiness by maximising pleasure and minimising pain;

The engaged life – the pursuit of happiness by finding the greatest satisfaction from being totally immersed in and concentrating on what one is doing;

The meaningful life – the pursuit of happiness by doing what is considered meaningful, good and virtuous.

Source of happiness

Contrary to common perceptions, having more money does not always equate with happiness. “Once you get basic human needs met, a lot more money doesn’t make a lot more happiness,” notes Dan Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard University.

We tend to overestimate how much pleasure we will get from acquiring more, be it the latest car, a large-screen television, the latest electronic gadgets, etc. But you soon get used to these objects, a state of running in place that economists call the “hedonic treadmill”.

Earning more gives us temporary happiness which we will quickly adapt to. Your constant desire to compare yourself with the next person, like your tendency to grow bored with the things that you acquire, seems to be a deeply rooted human trait.

Harvard economist Erzo Luttmer found that your happiness can depend a great deal on your neighbours’ pay cheques. The group you are likely to compare yourself with are folks Luttmer calls “similar others” – the people you work with, people you grew up with, old friends and old classmates. As you are unlikely to be worrying about making ends meet, you can afford to step off the hedonic treadmill and focus on what brings long-term happiness.

Happiness research has shown that friends and family can be major sources of happiness. Studies show that those with five or more close friends are 50 per cent more likely to describe themselves as “very happy” than those with smaller social circles. Investing in your friendships can increase your happiness.

More importantly, those with a life partner in a happy, stable, committed relationship are happier than those who are not. A University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center survey showed that some 40 per cent of married couples said they were “very happy” compared to about 25 per cent among the never-married. While a happy marriage is a major source of happiness, the children that come after the marriage are more of a mixed blessing with conflicting data on their impact on happiness.

One of the truths of happiness is that experiences can bring us more happiness than acquiring things and experiences, although they do not last, can create the most lasting happiness. A vacation can bring more happiness than just buying a car. One possible reason is that experiences warm the heart and become more meaningful over time.

Humans by nature tend to enjoy taking up challenges and we’re happier taking up the challenge compared to after we reach our goal. Challenges help you attain what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of “flow”, total absorption in something that stretches you to the limits of your abilities, mental or physical. When you are in flow, you lose track of time and your surroundings. You are completely focused on your activity, whether it be playing the piano, painting an art piece, cycling or skiing. You work effortlessly and you feel mentally relaxed.

A study by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California-Riverside, on what distinguishes the very happy from others found that they don’t waste time dwelling on unpleasant things, they tend to interpret ambiguous events in positive ways and very clearly, and they aren’t bothered by the successes of others around them.

Hence, we can indeed be both happy and healthy. Understanding what really gives you happiness can lead to longer and healthier lives. For most people, it means healthy relationships and positive experiences, and not fame or fortune.