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Your Happiness Can Be A Gift To Others

Your Happiness Can Be A Gift To Others

By Neil Frude

Doing whatever you can to make yourself happy can be a powerful act of kindness towards the people around you, your family and friends and, in your work context, your colleagues, patients, pupils or customers. Far from being a selfish act, increasing your happiness can be regarded as a social duty. Even if you're not bothered about being happy for your own sake (which would be rather strange!) you have a duty to maximize your own happiness for the benefits that this will bring to other people. Of course, this idea assumes that it is possible for us to deliberately enhance our level of happiness and this belief has often been challenged. It's easy to find quotes from many different cultures and many different historical periods that maintain, in effect: "It's pointless trying to be happy. The more you try to be happy, the
less happy you will become". On the other hand, it's not difficult to find quotes suggesting that happiness can come about as a result of focussed effort.

For centuries this debate has persisted, and for centuries it was just one person's opinion against another. But recent psychological research has now provided solid answers to the question of whether you can cultivate happiness as well as to related questions such as: "Why are some people happier than others? "Why are some people more optimistic than others?" and "Why are some people highly resilient and able to cope with whatever life throws at them, while other people are highly vulnerable?"

Much of the recent research that has explored these questions has been carried out within an exciting new field of psychological research - Positive Psychology. This branch of psychology focusses on wellbeing and resilience. It explores what makes people happy, strong and optimistic and uses the knowledge gained from these explorations to develop ways of helping people to become happier, stronger and more optimistic. Positive Psychology has been defined as "… the scientific study of optimal human functioning that aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive" (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). It is a wide-ranging enterprise which covers a vast spectrum of topics and can truly be described as a "bio-psycho-social-spiritual" field of study.

Indeed some of the most interesting studies involve the examination of relationships between variables from either end of this spectrum. Thus a number of well-designed and well-controlled studies have investigated the effects of variables such as kindness, positive relationships and the practice of the Buddhist-derived "living kindness meditation" on biological variables including hormonal changes, cardiovascular health and the efficiency of the immune system (Fredrickson, 2013).

Some positive psychologists have become somewhat embarrassed with the description of their field as "the science of happiness" and the 'smiley' image that this often conjures up and now prefer to use such terms as "wellbeing", "thriving" and "flourishing". However, there is no doubt that "the H word" still stimulates a good deal of public interest. Conceptual issues regarding 'happiness' have been the subject of philosophical examination since at least the time of Aristotle, and the Greek distinction between happiness as a fleeting state of 'pleasure' and happiness as something deeper, more stable and more meaningful is reflected in many contemporary definitions. Thus the leading positive psychologist Sonya Lyubomirsky defines happiness as "… the experience of joy, contentment or positive wellbeing, combined with a sense that one's life is good, meaningful and worthwhile" (Lyubomirsky, 2007).

Numerous studies have established many significant differences between happy people and those who are less happy. Thus we know that happy people tend to be more confident and more creative, that they are generally friendlier and more helpful to others, and that they are more popular than unhappy people. Such correlations, however, leave open the issue of causal relationships. Simply put, is it the case that happiness makes people kinder, or do acts of kindness increase the kind person's happiness? Similarly, does being happy make people popular or is it the case that being popular makes people happy? Experiments devised to explore the nature of the relationships between such variables have often found a causal relationship in both directions. This implies that a circular relationship may develop so that - focusing on one example - a high level of happiness may lead to greater popularity which then increases happiness still further, making that person even more popular, and so on.

The benefits of being happy extend to both mental and physical health. The fact that happy people are less emotionally distressed is almost tautological, but it is worth noting certain general phenomena which might help to further explain why happy people are less likely to be depressed or anxious. It is established that happy people are more confident than unhappy people as well as being more optimistic and having greater cognitive flexibility. In addition, they typically have more social engagement and greater resilience. Numerous recent studies have also provided substantial new evidence for the strong impact of psychological wellbeing on physical health. There is particularly strong evidence for a relationship between immunocompetence and emotional wellbeing and for relationships between cardiovascular health and a range of psychological variables including optimism, a sense of mastery over one's life, a sense of purpose, and general positive emotion (Davidson, Mostofsky and Whang, 2010). With all of that evidence it's hardly surprising that happy people live longer, and there are now extremely robust large-scale studies and meta-analyses which clearly demonstrate such a link (e.g. Chida and Steptoe, 2008).

So happiness doesn't just feel good, it can also do you a power of good and from this it follows that making yourself happier would be a very worthwhile project. But can this be done? Can you make yourself happier? The answer is in the affirmative - yes, you can raise your level of happiness to a significant degree. To understand the full potential (as well as the limitations) of such self-development we need to appreciate the factors that contribute to the variation in people's levels of happiness. The evidence suggest that fully 50% of the variance in happiness levels reflects genetic factors. Only 10% of the variance is accounted for by such circumstances as health, wealth, employment and accommodation factors (although most people probably try to raise their level of happiness by trying to improve such aspects of their life). The remaining 40% of the variance is explained by people's actions and outlook - what they do and how they see things (Lyubomirsky, 2007). This suggests that the most effective way of increasing happiness is to modify your activities and lifestyle and to work towards developing a more positive outlook.

You cannot directly make yourself happier (so just telling somebody - or yourself - to "cheer up" won't work) but you may be aware of various things that you can do to lift your mood. In fact, if you are well tuned into your emotions and are skilled in managing your feelings, this indicates that you have high Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Unlike cognitive intelligence (IQ), EQ is changeable and can be substantially increased. People can be helped to become more aware of their emotions and they can learn ways of better managing their emotions. So you can indeed learn skills to help you become more optimistic, more resilient and happier.

A number of authors have reviewed the evidence regarding factors that contribute to increased happiness and have used the results of their analysis to devise a recommended formula or "recipe for happiness". The New Economics Foundation, for example, came up with a "5 a day" formula suggesting that in order to boost your happiness level, each day you should i) be active ii) give and volunteer iii) keep learning iv) take notice and live in the present, and v) connect with others. Martin Seligman, the psychologist who launched Positive Psychology in 2000 when he was president of the American Psychological Association, unveiled his own "PERMA" formula in his book "Flourish" (Seligman, 2011). The acronym "PERMA" stands for Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. Various strategies for enhancing these factors have been devised and tested with both clinical and non-clinical populations, and many of these have been shown to be effective. So there are certainly useful skills to be learned in this area and in workshops over the past two years I have been helping people to develop skills to increase their own happiness and the happiness of people they work with (including school students, employees and people with psychological problems). Particularly effective are certain ways of increasing positivity of outlook. It may come as something of a surprise that we can learn to be more optimistic, but this is certainly the case. We can also learn to be more kind-hearted, more compassionate and more resilient, and all of these skills can contribute to our becoming happier. As well as learning to see the glass as half full we can "put more into the glass" - i.e. we can change aspects of our lifestyle so that our life becomes richer, more meaningful and more fulfilling (Frude, 2014).

Right from its inception, the applied nature of positive psychology was emphasized and since that time important applications for positive psychology have been found in psychotherapy, education, sport, physical health, economics, coaching, business and politics. Famously, positive psychology is the most heavily subscribed course in the history of Harvard University. This reflects both the fact that several leading Harvard academics are positive psychologists, making it a strong component of the Harvard psychology degree, and the fact that recognition of the key relevance of positive psychology to business organizations means that a high proportion of students from the famous Harvard Business School also attend. Most of the leading U.S. companies now employ positive psychologists who focus on such issues as employee engagement, positive team working and positive leadership. In his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow", Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the Nobel prize for economics in 2002, wrote "Business is more about emotions than most business people care to admit … Economists are becoming increasingly interested in the question of how happiness affects business performance" (Kahneman, 2011). One aspect of this is the fact that increasing your own happiness will increase the morale of your work team and this in turn is likely to increase team productivity and creativity (Lewis, 2011).

In the educational context, positive psychology emphasises the need to focus on students' strengths rather than weaknesses and it has led to the development of strategies for promoting a positive and supportive climate in schools. Teachers' happiness and positive outlook are particularly important because these aspects make a great emotional impact on children and this is then transmitted to parents and the local community. This brings us back to the phenomenon of emotional contagion and the reason why enhancing your own happiness is not a selfish enterprise. The contagion of happiness has been well demonstrated by Nikolas Christakis, who is both a Harvard professor of medicine and also a professor of sociology. From an initial interest in contagious diseases his team became interested in social and emotional contagion. They showed that an increase in one person's happiness level affects not only the people with whom s/he interacts directly, but also the people with whom these people interact and then people with whom these people interact. Thus emotional contagion works "to three degrees". The strapline for Christakis and Fowler's bestselling book "Connected" (Christakis and Fowler, 2009) is "How your friends' friends' friends affect everything you feel, think and do". These researchers suggest that a substantial increase in one person's happiness level will typically benefit around 1000 other people.

Enhancing your happiness is likely to increase your kindness, your generosity and your compassion, bringing widespread benefits to other people. Imagine the strength of such effects if you happen to be a carer or a health professional. Your increased happiness is likely to make you pleasant company, you are more likely to join in social events and you are more likely to contribute to your community. Furthermore, you will be able to use any happiness skills that you develop to teach other people how to increase their own happiness. Your happiness is a great gift to your partner and also to your children. Working on your own happiness can be seen as an act of kindness because of the resulting benefits likely to be gained by other people. This aspect of the 'economics' of happiness is particularly interesting. Happiness is a not a zero-sum game. The more happiness you take for yourself, the more there is for other people. This is not a new idea - the Buddha said it many centuries ago … "Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness does not decrease by being shared".

Professor Neil Frude is a consultant clinical psychologist Research Director of the South Wales training course in clinical psychology and an Honorary Professor in both Cardiff University and the University of South Wales. Neil is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and he recently received the 2014 Practitioner Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society.  As co-founder of "The Happiness Consultancy" (http://www.thehappinessconsultancy.co.uk/) he consults widely on positive psychology issues across clinical, educational and organizational contexts.

Chida, Yoishi and Steptoe, Andrew (2008). Positive psychological well-being and mortality: a quantitative review of prospective observational studies. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, 741-56.
Christakis, Nickolas and Fowler, James (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How they Shape our Lives. New York: Little, Brown.
Davidson, Karina, Mostofsky, Elizabeth and Whang, William (2010). Don't worry, be happy: positive affect and reduced 10-year incident coronary heart disease: the Canadian Nova Scotia Health Survey. European Heart Journal, 31, 1065-70.
Fredrickson, Barbara (2013). Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection. New York: Hudson Street Press.
Frude, Neil (2014). Positive Therapy. In: R. Nelson-Jones: Handbook of Counselling and Therapy. London: Sage.
Lewis, Sarah (2011). Positive Psychology at Work: How Positive Leadership and Appreciative Inquiry Create Inspiring Organizations. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Lyubomirsky, Sonja (2007). The How of Happiness: A Practical Guide to Getting the Life You Want. Sphere.
Lewis, Sarah (2011). Positive Psychology at Work: How Positive Leadership and Appreciative Inquiry Create Inspiring Organizations. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Seligman, Martin (2011). Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing. London: Nicholas Brealey.
Seligman, Martin and Csikszentmihalyi, Mikhail (2000). Positive Psychology: An Introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.

This article originally appeared in News & Views September 2015.


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