"What Is Happiness?" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO

What Is Happiness?

November 1st, 2012 - Basically, happiness is the sum of all things that make us content.

Interestingly, the frequency of positive experiences is a much better predictor of happiness than the intensity of an individual event, according to psychologist Ed Diener, who is quoted in a recent Harvard Business Review on the subject of what makes us happy.

This same article, “The Science Behind the Smile,” notes that someone who has a dozen good things happen—such as a vigorous exercise work out, a productive conversation, positive feedback from a business or personal friend—is happier than someone winning a significant prize one time. Small stuff matters—such as an unexpected smile or hug, a sweet treat, a comfortable outfit, or a good night’s sleep.

So, happiness is the totaling of scores of little things. Now, it’s also true that, in general, people who are in good romantic relationships are happier than those who are not; healthier people are happier than those who are sick; people who are participate in organized religion are happier than those who don’t; and rich people are happier than poor people.

The size and robustness of your social network is an excellent predictor of your feeling of being happy and content. The strengths of your bonds and trust with family and friends create a feeling of security, safety, belonging, and refuge—all of which lead to happiness.

Modern technology has added to recent studies by psychologists, economists and neuroscientists who are interested in why folks are happy, spend money, or what is going on in their brains, respectively. Using the technology of the Smartphone, Matthew Killingsworth, a Harvard University researcher, has assessed more than 15,000 people in 83 countries about their emotions and activities. They used a phone app to report on everything from resting/sleeping and working to shopping/running errands and preparing food to playing, talking, exercising, and making love.

There are five keys to happiness:

1. Deal with one’s own negative emotions

We are what we think, so being positive as we daydream has a beneficial effect. People’s minds wander about half the time they are awake. And much that mind-wandering time is focused on negatives, which can make you unhappy and less productive. Being engaged and satisfied becomes self-fulfilling, which should be no surprise. Namely, the more interested you are in your work, family, hobbies, or whatever, the happier you will be.

Unfortunately, those who dwell on negatives get sucked into a vicious vortex. Our everyday, routine interactions should strive to be positive and self-fulfilling. The ability to deal with negative emotions also helps keep us in a positive mood.

It’s worth realizing that the evolution of happiness in individuals begins early in life. Children’s personalities are mostly formed by age three. Sadly, each day an average toddler receives hundreds of “no” remarks such as “you can’t do this,” compared with fewer than 20 positive compliments such as “good job.” We can do better early in life. We can create a different, happier and more engaged person.

2. Stay Cool Under Pressure

Maintaining our equanimity under duress also contributes to happiness by avoiding unnecessary stress. Most of us experience some level of stress in life. How we handle stressful situations can make the difference between long-term dysfunction and its therapeutic opposite—transient discomfiture with a quick return to a steady state of happiness.

When you’re under pressure, the most important thing is to keep cool. Holding back a response to a perceived “attack” is a good initial approach. Then, follow with a thoughtful, non-reactive response. Cooling off with a walk in fresh air or vigorous exercise will also take away the negative—or at least put the attack in perspective.

3. Understand Others

Reading social clues, understanding others’ motivations and having the emotional intelligence to see things through other people’s eyes also helps with happiness. We may not always agree with those around us. But understanding others can make a world of difference in our ability to be happy.

Before accepting someone’s negative attitude, seek clarification and understanding for the reasons behind such attitudes. Quite possibly there are unrelated motivations for such behavior—and that can cross over into a nearby space and spread unhappiness and anxiety.

4. Know when to be assertive and express difficult emotions and thoughts

Setting boundaries is important for everyone. It is okay to say “no” and to disagree. No need to feel guilty or have remorse. Life is full of difficult decisions, ranging from the very personal to the typical business stresses of allocating limited resources. How we all interact with each other determines our degree of mental health and level of happiness.

Years ago, as a “Leadership Collier” participant, I rode along with a Collier County police officer on a Friday. At the shift change the officers discussed ongoing concerns, with notes on a blackboard. At the top of the board was the reminder: “You can be polite and still give the ticket.” The core idea was that the officers are responsible for everyone’s traffic safety by enforcing traffic code, but they can still do this in a constructive manner.

5. Share intimate emotions in close relationships

Humans have long had the ability to express our tender and loving emotions to family and friends. Human relations should be nourishing, fulfilling and supportive. Giving and receiving constructive emotional support is significant. Even asking a seemingly trivial question about how someone is doing, you can attentively listen to the answer. Positive body language such as smiling, making eye contact, hugging, patting an elbow, placing an arm around a shoulder—all are important in the right context.

The once-fuzzy concept of happiness is now getting better defined by many scientific disciplines. No doubt the happier we are, the happier those in our social network will become. In turn, those around us will feed back similar good thoughts and vibrations.

So think about all those little things – the frequency of positive experiences—that bring us contentment. A happy life is certainly more joyous and productive than the contrary.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.