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Happiness. Practically everyone wants it. Pharrell Williams wrote a hit song about it. Pursuing happiness is a right embedded in the Declaration of Independence. Several countries have ministers of happiness, and Bhutan invented the “Gross National Happiness” measure.

There are happiness movements, cafes, social networks, websites, and scholarly journals. Happiness even has its own holiday; the United Nations declared March 20, 2013 the first annual International Day of Happiness and has issued three “World Happiness Reports.” And for several decades, science has attempted to define and measure happiness.

Happiness under a microscope
Defining happiness is a challenge: some people calculate it from the time of their birth and view it across their whole life, while others gauge it in the current moment. During scientific studies, researchers have to trust their subjects to evaluate their happiness honestly; when asked if they are happy, sometimes people report being happier than they really are.

Measuring happiness is tricky, too, because there is no blood test or DNA analysis for it, although researchers have been able to “see” happiness through MRI. Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University detected happiness patterns in the brains of 10 actors who self-induced various emotions while in an MRI scanner. Kyoto University researchers found that happier people had more gray matter in their “precuneus,” located near the upper back of the brain in the parietal lobe.

Dr. Happiness weighs in
In science research, happiness is broadly referred to as “subjective well being” (SWB), an umbrella term coined by Ed Diener, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (Emeritus) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a pioneer in happiness studies. SWB is how people evaluate their own lives and happiness in terms of life satisfaction, self-esteem, level of fulfillment in their relationships and jobs, and their experience of positive and negative feelings.

“The key is that the person himself/herself is making the evaluation of life – not experts, philosophers, or others,” says Dr. Diener, who is a founding editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies. “Thus, the person herself or himself is the expert here: Is my life going well, according to the standards that I choose to use?”

Friends keep us happy and healthy
Dr. Diener (who is also known as “Dr. Happiness”) and his colleagues have concluded that happiness comes not from money, fame or good looks (although they might contribute), but rather from high-quality social relationships – a finding supported by a 75-year study of Harvard students and boys from disadvantaged families in Boston. The Harvard Grant Study has followed 742 men since 1939, asking every two years about their quality of life. Robert Waldinger, Ph.D., a Harvard psychiatrist and current director of the study, discusses the work in his popular TED Talk “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness.” Most notably, the study has determined that good relationships keep people happy and healthy.

“People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community are happier, are physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected,” explains Dr. Waldinger. Conversely, the study finds that people who are more isolated than they want to be report being less happy, their health declines earlier in mid life, their brain function declines sooner, and they live shorter lives. “Good close relationships,” he says, “seem to buffer us from the slings and arrows of growing old.”

Global Happiness
The United Nations World Happiness Report ranks happiness in the 2016 Happiness Report Update in 156 countries according to six personal, economic and political factors, using data from the World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO), along with survey results from the annual Gallup World Poll. The six factors are: GDP per capita (good economies tend to have more financially stable citizens); healthy life expectancy; social support (having someone to count on in times of trouble); freedom to make life choices; generosity (based on recent charitable donations); and freedom from government and business corruption.

Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Canada consistently rank among the happiest countries. The United States ranks 13th happiest, while Togo, Syria and Burundi trail as the least happiest. Countries with more equal distributions of well-being report higher life evaluations, according to the report, and such information could help develop policies to improve the levels and distribution of well-being worldwide.

Working at happiness
A variety of happiness questionnaires are posted online, including the Oxford Happiness Inventory, the Subjective Happiness Scale, the Satisfaction with Life Scale, and the Panas Scale. Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., also suggests a number of “happiness activities” in her book “The How of Happiness.” They include expressing gratitude, living in the present, practicing acts of kindness, learning to forgive and savoring life’s joys, to name a few.

“Happiness takes work,” says Dr. Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “Anything worthwhile to attain in life takes a lot of effort and commitment. A lot of the activities that foster happiness and well-being can become habitual over time, so once they become habitual the effort decreases.”

Meg Evans

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...