Happy Times

The Secret To Living A Happier, More Fulfilling Life

A happiness researcher explains what it really takes.

Originally Published: 
Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images, Stocksy

The ability to be generally, consistently happy can feel like an innate gift bestowed upon a lucky few. Even those who seem to have it all and have seemingly nothing to be unhappy about can feel they’re not happy enough, or even unhappy, a lot of the time.

If you wonder why you’re not happy more often, you have plenty of company. Many Americans have a wealth of comforts and advantages available to them, yet the US doesn’t even crack the top 10 of countries with the happiest citizens, according to the latest World Happiness Report. Gallup’s 2022 Global Emotions Report concluded that global unhappiness was at an all-time high. (Pandemic-era research about a rise in unhappiness isn’t too surprising, but note also that the authors found that levels of self-reported, worldwide happiness had started their downward slide long before COVID.) According to the annual General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), the number of Americans who said they were “very happy” dropped from 25 percent in 2018 to 19 in 2022.

Why, despite decades of research in positive psychology, hundreds of self-help books, and a daily onslaught of influencer-guru videos claiming to reveal the secret to happiness, are Americans so unhappy? Why do so many people not know what happiness is, exactly, what it should look like, or why it can seem like a frustrating and unattainable goal?

Studies merging positive psychology and neuroscience are providing useful insights about how to create real, sustainable happiness. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., is one such researcher of happiness, as well as the science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. An expert on the neuroscience and psychology of compassion, kindness, gratitude, and other prosocial skills that bolster human happiness, Simon-Thomas teaches the flagship Science of Happiness course and The Science of Happiness at Work. She also contributed to the Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science.

Fatherly spoke to Simon-Thomas recently about what people often get wrong about happiness and what can help us all create more fulfilling and happier lives.

Let’s establish a baseline for what we’re talking about here. What is happiness, and what are some common misconceptions about what it is or what it should feel like?

I define happiness as a general characteristic of a person's life. It essentially means you generally feel good. You have an easy time experiencing pleasant states when things are going well. You feel like you matter, like your life is worthwhile, and that what you do is of value to something beyond yourself.

It's not exclusive to life's inevitable unpleasant moments. That's a really important misconception. “Happiness” kind of means something different than the momentary emotional experience of feeling happy.

Can people learn how to be truly, authentically happy?

It’s a myth that you're born with your level of happiness as a set point, and you're pretty much stuck with that. Research has shown that people can shift their behaviors and create experiences that actually lead to reliable and significant improvements, or increases in their scores on standard measures of subjective well-being, or happiness, or whatever term you choose to use.

Would you tell us a little about what students learn in your happiness class?

We called this class “The Science of Happiness,” knowing we were going to immediately redefine it for people. Because the popular rendering of happiness is that it's about entertainment and consumerism; that's the thrust of marketing messaging and social media information we're constantly getting. If you just have the newest Tesla, another vacation house, or more power and status in your professional life, then you'll be happy.

But the reason this course is interesting at all is because none of that works. Happiness isn't about pleasure and entertainment; it’s not feeling good all the time. The main emphasis of the class is on what people can do, what kinds of priorities they can make, what kinds of actions, what kind of behaviors they can engage in to actually strengthen or foster happiness.

We share [research] data [such as, for example] how you can feel happier by keeping a gratitude journal. Or by making it a habit to actually express gratitude, to say thank you to other people in a particular way that acknowledges their effort and explains how what they did benefited you.

“Happiness isn't about pleasure and entertainment; it’s not feeling good all the time.”

What typically draws people to the class?

First, I'm going to glibly say that when we launched this course in the fall of 2014, it was around the same time that Pharrell released the song “Happy.” And I honestly feel like the construct was on the tip of the tongue for a lot of people then. They saw everybody dancing around and singing in the video and thought, “That looks pretty good. But why don't I feel this way? Pharrell does. Maybe there's something I'm missing.”

A lot of people who take the class are care providers in some capacity. They want the data so they can be more confident when offering some of these ideas to the people they serve. Another big group are people who are going through something really hard. They're not experiencing major depressive disorder, but they know they're not flourishing. They’ve felt happier at other times in their lives, and they're not sure why. They've got the great job, the attractive spouse, the two kids who are straight-A students; but they still feel miserable when they put their head on their pillow at night.

It’s kind of a cliché to say that money can’t buy happiness, but research backs that up, actually, doesn’t it?

It’s a myth that richer people are happier. There is data, and it's incontrovertible, that having more money, up to a certain degree, has a logarithmic relationship with happiness. What that means is that if you're really poor and struggling, it's harder to score high on happiness scales. As income goes up, you have more flexibility, more autonomy and more stability, and happiness does go up.

But at a certain point, it just doesn't make a difference anymore. Let’s say, for example, that $130,000 a year is enough to give you all those things; that’s enough money to make a difference to your happiness. Once you go higher than that income level, the impact is tiny. It doesn't really make much difference to keep desperately allocating all of your energy and resources towards activities that are for the sake of getting more money, instead of prioritizing time for basic health stuff, like exercise, quality sleep, and diet.

What does increase happiness is investing in your relationships: spending time with your loved ones, getting to know your colleagues and friends, having spontaneous conversations with people out in the world who you've never met about things that you might have in common. Those kinds of pro-social activities, actions, and priorities continue to influence happiness throughout the course of your life. And unlike happiness that comes with a certain income level, there's no end, or no maximum, to their impact.

“What does increase happiness is investing in your relationships.”

You mentioned that happiness doesn’t mean not having unpleasant emotions, but that happy people are able to manage them effectively. Would you expand on that? How can people feel bad about certain things but still be generally happy?

Happiness means you feel good when things are going well; it does not mean you feel good when you've lost a loved one. It does not mean you feel good when you're exposed to information about social injustice or a deeply unfair circumstance in the world, or a tragedy, or when you eat something moldy. Unpleasant emotions are necessary in shaping our decisions about what to do in any given moment, given the context that we're in. And trying to stifle, or avoid, or prevent them is a disservice to happiness in life.

[In other words], resilience has a significant role in happiness. Like, how can we manage setbacks and the inevitable difficulties? Embracing our unpleasant emotions, and identifying and labeling them in a way that enables us to use that action tendency — or the urge that comes with that emotion — helps us make the best next decision that helps us instead of hurts us.

We can make better decisions if we learn about our own emotions, and how to restore ourselves to calm and engage in constructive behavior instead of going off the handle, or being ruminative, hostile, or confrontational.

“ Resilience has a significant role in happiness.”

How do happy people stay generally happy in the face of terrible or unpleasant realities? That is what helps them be more able to find a balance between having empathy for people when they should, but still maintaining a sense that everything's okay?

That's the million-dollar philosophical, spiritual, existential question. How do we embrace the suffering in the world and see ourselves as agents of benefit while maintaining our own stability and comfort? How do you meet all of these objectives in one precious and brief lifetime?

Most people think about compassion as if it’s always about other people, and it's always about suffering we can’t do anything about. That's why people might shy away from or avoid it. I like to say that compassion is dynamic, a kind of 360 degree worldview. It doesn’t mean exclusively expecting to orient yourself to the suffering of others. It means that when you have the resources, knowledge, and the physical proximity to do something, you will. You’ll do what you can, when you can. But you’re not depleted by it. You’re not giving, giving, giving without noticing, Hey, my resources are low.

We can make better decisions if we learn about our own emotions, and how to restore ourselves to calm and engage in constructive behavior instead of going off the handle, or being ruminative, hostile, or confrontational.

Why would you say happiness is an important or meaningful pursuit?

We know that people who are doing better in the sphere of happiness, or subjective well-being, are more likely to advocate on behalf of themselves. They're more likely to engage in social activism, and they feel more empowered to do something about the circumstances they find themselves in.

You’ve said that social connection is important for sustained happiness. Would you talk more about why that is?

Researchers David Sbarra, Ph.D. and James A. Coan, Ph.D. studied the neural pathways in the brain while people did tasks alone or with other people. What they found was that being alone is scary; it's inherently threatening to be in solitude. Ultimately, this led them to question their assumption that individuality, or aloneness, or solitude, is an appropriate baseline.

Consider our deepest form of punishment for people we've decided are morally corrupt: solitary confinement. It's the most harmful thing we can do. What this team argued is that social contact is a biobehavioral resource. Meaning, if we’re deprived of each other, we’re lacking in a fundamental resource we require for survival. Thinking about how to bring more honesty, authenticity, supportiveness, recognition, compassion, love, generosity. and cooperativeness to your social relationships tends to increase happiness.

“Thinking about how to bring more honesty, authenticity, supportiveness, recognition, compassion, love, generosity. and cooperativeness to your social relationships tends to increase happiness.”

Positivity is a major aspect of your happiness course. How can it foster meaningful happiness?

Positivity means figuring out how you can savor experiences that are enjoyable and prioritize experiences that really provide genuine and lasting joy. Note that positivity is not about leisurely consumption of exorbitant luxury experiences. That doesn't matter, even though that's kind of the message we often get about happiness.

Even when you're in between [or not experiencing unpleasant emotions], like when you're just waiting in line at the supermarket, are you ruminating about all the terrible things that happened earlier, or annoyed by another person's foot tapping? People can work on changing those mental habits to be more optimistic and hopeful.

You’ve also recently written about how a sense of awe is important for real happiness. Why?

There's research on the experience of being in nature and immersing oneself in the miracle of the universe, and ideas that really transcend our normal day-to-day considerations. There’s also research on laughter: There are real benefits to spending time with friends and feeling amused.

That’s important to remind ourselves of.

So again, social connection. I think of it as CPR: connection, positivity, resilience. And there are practices and exercises beneath each of those buckets that come up in the class.

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