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Science Discovers the Secret to Happiness

Yesterday I finally did the laundry after procrastinating for a long time, so this morning I woke up to clean clothes to choose from, and I can’t tell you how happy that made me. Simple pleasures.

We’re all always chasing after happiness, but I’ve noticed that as I get older, my idea of it is getting simpler and simpler. A good night’s sleep, clean clothes, a long springtime walk with the dog.

Then I wonder, is happiness really that simple?

Or as we get older, does it start to seem out of reach, so we settle for peace and comfort?

I went back to the ancient Greeks to find out what they thought – they usually had something interesting to say. Turns out the Greeks had five different ideas of what brings happiness, but I found their ideas unsatisfying. Mostly they thought you’re happy as long as you’re not suffering and not burdened with concerns.

Socrates thought you had to be poor to be happy (nothing to worry about), but Aristotle thought you had to be rich (nothing to worry about).

The Epicureans said pleasure is just the absence of suffering, so all you have to do is avoid things that feel painful. But the Stoics said that isn’t even possible, so you should zen out and just not let painful things bother you.

The Hedonists went all out, apparently, and advised people to enjoy themselves and not be concerned about anything else. Which only works, I think, if you have a very enlightened perspective on what enjoyment is. I’m not sure I would ever have clean clothes.

The trouble is, pleasure isn’t the same thing as happiness. At all. Pleasure’s a honey trap – it lures you in and then rewards you with a shot of dopamine, and meanwhile you’ve missed the train to a life that would be rewarding and enjoyable in deeper, sustainable ways.

It’s long been known that practicing gratitude can improve your mood, and I’ve heard of people for whom gratitude has worked almost miracles. A practice of gratitude helps you focus on what’s good in your life and helps you feel more connected and secure. You start to realize the world isn’t so bad and you’re not really alone in it.

But gratitude, by itself, doesn’t tell you how to make choices in life – so you’ll have more to be grateful for.

The Declaration of Independence enshrines the pursuit of happiness right up there with life and liberty. The Founding Fathers obviously considered happiness, or at least the pursuit of it, indispensable. But they didn’t give much in the way of hints as to how to do that or what happiness is – because liberty. We all get to choose.

Only liberty, aka freedom, isn’t the end-all. Yes, freedom means you get to choose. But if you never actually make a choice, that freedom goes to waste. You end up doing nothing, or just waving the flag, and I seriously doubt that’s what the Fathers had in mind.

So, what should we do to be happy? It has to be more than finishing chores on a regular basis. There’s got to be more to life than clean jeans.

Fortunately, modern science has jumped in. In the past few decades, researchers have really gotten on board to study happiness, partly because it’s been shown to improve business performance. There’s even a degree program at the University of Pennsylvania. And there’s a whole peer-reviewed journal devoted to the subject – the Journal of Happiness Studies. Which apparently enjoys a high degree of prestige and is not as silly as it might sound.

The psychologist Daniel Pink has been studying regret, which you could say is the opposite of happiness – it’s the feeling you’re left with when you miss that train. After asking thousands of people what they regret in their lives, Dr. Pink concluded happiness comes from making sure you live according to four principles: integrity, boldness, connection, and security.

That is, 1) do what you think is right, 2) be brave and willing to take risks, 3) value your family, friends, and community, and 4) do your best to have a foundation of physical and economic resources. Then you’ll avoid regret, which in turn suggests you’ll be happy.

One study in particular has proved to be a gold mine of carefully validated insights into happiness. Back in the late 1930s, researchers at Harvard University started studying Harvard graduates’ lives. The scientists followed 724 grads, periodically asking them questions about their work, health, and home life. John F. Kennedy was one of them.

That study has now been going on for more than 80 years and has been expanded to include participants other than rich white men – including the original participants’ children.

When you read the results with regard to happiness, the researchers always sound a bit startled. Because their findings don’t point to wealth or power, or anything like that. Over and over, they find happiness flows from one single thing: relationships.

The Harvard study shows clearly that happiness comes from having harmonious social relationships – family, friends, and community. Lack of relationships and having conflictual relationships not only destroy happiness, they damage your health, reduce your longevity, and actually harm brain function.

Put the other way, having good relationships in your life almost guarantees you’ll be happy – and it also boosts your health, helps you live longer, and helps keep your brain in good working order.

The main investigator in the Harvard study put it this way: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

Somehow, I’m not surprised. It seems like it’s always true that the best things in life tend to go together: Chocolate and strawberries. Jeans and t-shirts. Love and happiness.

So, having learned this, my advice to you is: do your laundry. But also find someone who’ll tell you how good you smell.


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