A Science of Happiness? Yes.

From Greenland fishermen and African Massai warriors, from Americans, Danes, Turks, Swiss, Fijians, and Japanese, a new “positive psychology” is discovering what makes us happy, and how we can become happier.

For fifty years or more, psychologists have focused on our negative emotions -- on helping miserable people feel less miserable. In the process, they have relieved oceans of human suffering.

Only recently have psychologists begun to focus scientifically on our positive emotions, those feelings that make us happy, that give us a sense of well-being. Their findings are both fascinating and very practical.

“Positive psychologists are learning that happiness is not success at work, or pots of money, or power or fame. Rather, happiness is found in simpler pleasures: family, community, sex with someone you love, pleasant surroundings, trust in fellow human beings, a less stressful commute.” [1]

Happiness has always been suspect. Quipped playwright George Bernard Shaw: “A lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth!” Conventional wisdom among the glum is that happiness is selfish, that unhappy people are more creative, that happy people are airheads. Not so, say the positive psychologists. You can’t be really helpful or truly useful unless you’re happy yourself. True artists aren’t tortured souls. Happy people are more creative. Happy people are more resilient to disappointments, loss and grief, and more realistic about what’s possible to achieve. What’s more, happiness is fun!

Six researchers wondered if positive psychology, practically applied, could elevate the happiness of an entire town. The six spent the summer of 2005 in Slough (rhymes with “cow”) 25 miles from London: population, 120,000.  They enlisted local volunteers who worked hard and succeeded at raising the happiness bar in their own lives and the lives of their neighbors. How they did it is captured in a four-part TV special, “Making Slough Happy”, aired in November and December 2005 on BBC2.

Each Slough participant was asked to sign on to this “Happiness Manifesto”:
  1. Get physical. Exercise for a half hour three times per week.
  2. Count your blessings. At the end of each day, think of five things you’re grateful for.
  3. Take time to talk. Have an hour-long uninterrupted conversation with your partner or closest friend each week.
  4. Plant something — even if it’s a window box or pot. Keep it alive!
  5. Cut your TV viewing by half.
  6. Smile at or say hello to a stranger at least once a day.
  7. Phone a friend. Make contact with at least one friend or relative whom you’ve not spoken to in a while and arrange to meet up.
  8. Have a good laugh at least once a day.
  9. Give yourself a treat every day and take the time to really enjoy it.
  10. Spread some kindness. Do a good turn for someone every day. [2]

In this column, let’s explore together what positive psychology might do for your happiness. It’s going to be fun!

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