Source: Prevention Magazine, August, 2014 edition.
How To Be Happy On Purpose
How To Be Happy…Even If You’re Not Exactly An Optimist
Making life a mix of mirth and meaning sounds so great. And it’s totally possible.
How can we make ourselves happier? The question came to me the other day when I saw what looked like the very picture of joy. A little girl, probably 5 or so, was ambling toward me down the sidewalk, holding a yellow balloon and chatting to her mother in Spanish. As they approached, the girl gesticulated wildly and lost hold of her balloon, which, of course, floated skyward. Everyone on the sidewalk paused.
She didn’t cry, as I would have at her age. She looked saucer-eyed at her mother, up at the balloon, then back at her mother again. And then? She whooped and spun, threw up her little hands, and, as we all watched the bobbing yellow orb sail away, gave a full-throated cheer: “¡Adios, globo!” “Good-bye, balloon!” She was letting go, and she was happy about it. Everyone on the sidewalk smiled. Even I, not often awash with lovely, happy brain chemicals, smiled.
It was the same smile I get when I hear the hot-air balloon that could go to space line in Pharrell’s goofy-infectious song, “Happy.” The same smile I get when I’m diving into a bowl of nicely sauced pasta or getting a neck rub from my mate’s strong hands. It is that elusive, slippery, incredible sensation we pursue for a lifetime even as it sometimes feels, the older we get, that pure joy belongs more to little kids with balloons.
Yet we should all be more optimistic about happiness. That’s what we feel deep down and what the scientists now know for sure. All those grinning grown-ups on the sidewalk may or may not have related personally to the uncomplicated, unreasonable joy we were witnessing, but we were all getting a contact high from this carefree moment, a small lift magnified by the breezy sunshine—a small lift that was part of a big picture that determines our very health and well-being.
Why I would have cried when that girl laughed likely starts with my genes: Joy is partly inherited. In April, Japanese scientists found that roughly half of us carry a covetable form of the cannabinoid-receptor 1 gene, which primes us to respond more amply when, say, relaxing into an episode of Orange Is the New Black. (Yes, the brain chemicals triggered are the same ones found in marijuana.) This bonus bliss is one of many signs of biologically determined pleasure, says lead author Masahiro Matsunaga, at Aichi Medical University in Japan.
But just as science delivers that fatalistic verdict, other research holds that 40% of our happiness is dictated not by special genes but by how we engineer our own joy. Imagine being 40% happier. That seems almost orgasmic. Yet that is the DIY-style bliss the other happiness articles on this site promise.
Psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina studies this model, and she makes this balance sound more than doable. Pure pleasure is called hedonic happiness—yes, hedonism—and it’s the counterpoint to that meaningful-life kind of happiness. Hedonic happiness is the sweet pint of Ben & Jerry’s and the long walk in nature that sustains us on the hard road ahead.
The “hard road ahead” is the foundation of the second type of happiness, and it’s been in the science spotlight since Fredrickson found that people who scored high in it showed 30% more activity in genes associated with virus-killing antibodies. Fredrickson and her ilk call this type of happiness eudaimonia—a word that dates back to Aristotle—and since learning about it, I can practically feel the full-hearted contentment radiating off those under its spell: my old friend snuggling her toddler on the playground, the weathered woman on the bus clasping her hands in gratitude to her God.
If eudaimonia is the health giver, the purpose that gets us up in the morning, then hedonism is what we need alongside it—the dose of fun in our daily lives that’s also dangerous when we let it operate in a rogue state by itself. Fredrickson found that subjects with frequent feelings of pleasure but little sense of purpose carried genes that were 20% more active in causing inflammation. Think of someone you know who is prone to bingeing or addiction and how the sense of purpose of a 12-step program might help that person recover.
Purpose and pleasure in sync create what Fredrickson calls an upward spiral—her lovely evocation of the broadening circle in which eudaimonia and hedonism in balance get us a bigger positive emotion yield out of everyday events, which in turn feeds our happiness some more. Optimism or resilience—whatever you call it, it’s yours to control. And really, expanding happiness with an upward spiral? That suits just fine. ¡Adios, globo!