A Shift in Perspective

Discovering Happiness


It’s happening again, the thing we all know and dread. There is nothing we can do about it; we just have to get through it. You know what I’m talking about — the long, dreary last days of winter dripping into the unpredictable spring meld, eventually leading to summer.

After the excitement of the holidays, many of us begin to look at the clock each evening. We note the exact minute of sunset and watch the slow tally of lengthening days. The addition of those extra minutes of daylight contributes inordinately to our sense of well-being.

I am a clock watcher myself, counting on daylight to lift my mood, and I celebrate the moment sunset takes place past 5 p.m. I am also a reader and began to notice articles, whole books and podcasts dedicated to the subject of happiness. I recently took a sampling of what is being published about happiness, and why. Evidently happiness does not depend on the hours of sunrise and sunset.

I found that there have been longitudinal studies going on for as long as 80 years researching happiness, like the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The happiest places on Earth — the Nordic countries, inherently cold and dark — study happiness. There are many websites dedicated to sharing knowledge about happiness. One called Tracking Happiness has an ongoing log of happiness studies called “464 Happiness Studies: the Most Interesting Data from Trusted Studies.”

Why are people so interested in this subject? What do they want to know? While humans are hardwired for negativity — a vital part of our evolution and survival — it is still possible to change our brains and adapt new thoughts, moving our outlook to a more positive one. Discovering what makes us happy, and how we define happiness, improves mental health and well-being in our daily lives.

On a national or global scale, understanding happiness can help develop policies and environments that improve the lives of every citizen. For example, understanding that happy humans need companionship, green space and common spaces with others, as well as space for privacy, helps planners develop living spaces that enhance well-being. Studies have shown that people who are happy are more productive, creative and engaged, and have a higher tolerance for pain.

My mood improved just by reading through this material. Much of what I discovered was not that difficult to put into practice, and I found it hopeful.

Some of the findings confirm what we have been told since we were kids. “Helping others, friend or stranger, leads to happiness.” Or, “Experiences bring more happiness than material items.” Other findings were a surprise, like “Creativity on one day predicts happiness on the next day.” The old adage about money not buying happiness is only true if you have enough of it; for others, financial security is an important contributor to happiness.

I learned that savoring the moment leads to greater rates of positive emotion and reduced incidents of depression. I also learned that younger people are more likely to associate happiness with excitement while older people are more likely to associate happiness with peacefulness. People in the studies associated love with happiness, and happier individuals tend to be healthier and live longer lives.

The field of happiness research is expansive, and information is easy to find. There are many ways to improve your happiness quotient. I have enjoyed author Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project for the last five years, which includes a diary with a daily inspirational happiness quote. Thankfully (an attitude of gratitude increases happiness by 10%) counting the minutes of sunlight is not the only way to find happiness.

Vicki Biggs is a longtime social worker. She lives in Home.