The scientific trick to healthy happiness

October 25, 2017, 4:09 p.m.
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Photo: Tatiana Popova/Shutterstock

Science has proven a few things about happiness. First, there is the well known research that having fewer things, and fewer choices over consumer goods, actually makes us happier. It's the experiences-over-things approach to happiness, and it works.

"You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences," said Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, after decades of studying what makes people happy.

Recognizing that happiness isn't looped into material things has sparked another way of living: the Buy Nothing Project. The project is comprised of people who have decided to buy nothing but the essentials as a way to reduce anxiety, debt and yes, unhappiness in their life.

The conflicting keys to happiness

But happiness isn't all wrapped up in what you do with money. There's another scientific finding about happiness that you'll want to consider in your pursuit of this elusive state of being. Why you feel happy is an important component of the health you gain by being happy.

Steven Cole, a professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that different kinds of happiness affect the human genome in different ways. There are people who seek happiness in pleasure and people who seek happiness by having a deep sense of purpose in life. In an article on his findings on MNN, "The study showed that people who had high levels of eudaimonic well-being showed favorable profiles with low levels of inflammatory gene expression and exhibited a strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes. For the pleasure seekers, the opposite was true; those with high levels of hedonic well-being showed an adverse gene-expression profile, giving high inflammation and low antiviral/antibody expression."

So not buying stuff, or buying experiences instead of stuff, isn't the one and only key to happiness. Science has also showed us that happiness, or at least healthful happiness, is also wrapped up in a connection with a sense of meaning to your life. Trying to get happy isn't the same as trying to be happy.

Why does this matter? Because there is a backlash for happiness seekers. If you're looking to be happier, actively seeking it out, you may actually be setting yourself up for unhappiness. You're creating goals or expectations for an emotion that may not be possible to achieve. You're also only thinking about yourself and how happy you are (or aren't).

"The happiness backlash might also be sidestepped, paradoxically, by avoiding an excessive focus on oneself, or on happiness. So, for example, you might think about what you can do to build stronger relationships with friends and family. You could do things that will bring joy to friends, family, or perfect strangers. These things, the psychological literature suggests, will bring you dividends in well-being." reported Gareth Cook previously on MNN. "But, hopefully, you will come to see that that is not really the point."

Everyone has advice about happiness

Even Albert Einstein weighed in on happiness. In 1922, he scribbled his theory on happy living on a piece of hotel stationary in Tokyo.

The note, which was recently auctioned for $1.56 million, says in German that "a quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest."

Einstein gave the handwritten, autographed note to a courier in lieu of a tip, either because the man refused to accept one or because Einstein didn't have cash on hand, reports Phys.org.

His thoughts strayed from science, but shed light on the private thoughts of the world's most well-known genius.

If we're going to radically simplify the scientific literature, we could say that finding the most healthful state of happiness is done by not trying so hard to be happy. Instead, look for ways to live a more purposeful life. Happiness — the genuine, healthy, lasting kind — will follow.

Editor's note: This file was originally written in May 2015 and has been updated.

Related on MNN: Happiness is all in your head