Positive psychology: exploring the science behind happiness

Science behind happiness

Happiness is doing it tough right now. Everyone seems to want to beat it over the head and tell you its pursuit will only lead you to misery! muse Positive Psychology Expert Dr Suzy Green examines the science behind happiness.

Best-selling books like Bright-sided and The Upside of your Darkside suggest that the pursuit of happiness or wanting to feel good all of the time negates the normal human negative emotions that exist for a reason, and that trying to quash them may in fact lead us to feeling unhappy – and there is research to support this. However, despite the call to stop this self-indulgent pursuit of happiness, we all want to not only feel well, physically and mentally, but to function well and lead flourishing lives.

Unfortunately, finding means by which to do this is a bit of a minefield as the wellbeing industry bulges with gurus and programs promising methods of achieving mental wellbeing – many of which are conflicting. In a way, happiness has become the new weight loss.

So as an evidence-based practitioner, what do I do? I look to the science. This science sits under the umbrella of ‘positive psychology’ – often mistakenly defined as the science of happiness. Positive psychology has a much broader remit than just advising what makes us happy. Its aim is to scientifically investigate the “science of the conditions and processes that lead to optimal human functioning” according to a 2005 review entitled ‘What (and why) is positive psychology?’ That certainly doesn’t mean being yellow-smiley face happy all of the time. In fact I usually tell my audiences that if you walk around like that all day every day, not only will you annoy people, you may very well get locked up! Among the definitions of ‘optimal functioning’ is experiencing the full range of human emotions – including joy, rage and sadness.

Generally, psychology is very good at helping to manage negative emotions like fear, anger and sadness and some of us need help to befriend these. But we also need to learn how to cultivate positive emotions to flourish since research and experience suggest that an optimally functioning or flourishing individual experiences more positive emotions than negative emotions on a daily basis.

Generally, psychology is very good at helping to manage negative emotions like fear, anger and sadness and some of us need help to befriend these.

Thanks to the science of positive psychology, we can now prescribe evidence-based strategies that increase levels of positive emotions and overall wellbeing. There are many strategies, but I would have to say the non-negotiables for a happy life are gratitude and kindness. Gratitude is one of the most researched areas of positive psychology and evidence overwhelmingly suggests that people who cultivate and express gratitude are ‘happier’ (experience higher levels of psychological wellbeing) than those who are ingrates. Kindness too has a big effect – not just for takers, but for givers, as Professor Adam Grant articulates in his book Give and Take.

Finally, if you’re looking for a happiness silver bullet or wonder drug, I hate to disappoint you, but the research suggests that the ingredients for flourishing come down to what’s known as the ‘person-activity fit’. It’s horses for courses. What can be widely applied is the optimal starting point in the quest for optimal you: an open mind and a willingness to experiment with wellbeing strategies. Try before you buy, if you like. For instance, many of my clients and students have been amazed by the impact of a simple mindfulness practice on their moods and their lives (even those who initially thought it was hippie stuff or required meditating on a mountain for a month). When they tried it, they not only felt calmer and happier but others noticed too. The science of mindfulness is well beyond doubt.

There are myriad other ‘positive psychology interventions’, which I look forward to sharing with you in coming issues of muse to help you sort the wheat from the chaff in the pursuit of wellbeing, not just happiness. Until then I’d love you to ponder one of my favourite quotes by self-esteem researcher/author Nathaniel Hawthorne –  Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you”.