Positive Psychology: The Theory and Science – Part I
Positive Psychology diagram showing how A positive reinforces B positivePhoto Credit: Jurgen Appalo

This past Father’s Day, at a McDonald’s drive through in southern Indiana, something unexpected happened. A woman noticed a father with his two children in the car behind her and told the employee working at the drive through that she wanted to pay for his meal. This father, in turn, volunteered to cover the meals of two other customers. From there, the pattern continued—customers kept paying for the person behind them until the end of the night when the store closed. In total, over 150 customers participated in the “pay it forward” chain.

In a lot of ways, this might seem surprising. Why would people go out of their way to help complete strangers, when they know they won’t receive anything in return? From a self-serving standpoint, it would make the most logical sense for customers to accept the free meal and then go on with their day without helping the person behind them—but this isn’t what happened. So why did customers continue the “pay it forward” chain?

For many years, psychologists weren’t as focused on answering questions like this. Instead of talking about why people do good things, it was more common for psychologists to study negative emotions and to investigate the darker side of human behavior. However, in recent years, psychologists have made an effort to change this, realizing that topics such as gratitude, happiness, and altruism are especially important for understanding the human condition. In the next series of posts, I’ll review research in this newer field of positive psychology. I’ll discuss why positive emotions are important, how traits such as optimism and generosity can benefit us, and how positive psychology can help us to be resilient in times of stress. In today’s post, I’ll start with positive emotions: what they are, how they affect our behavior, and how we can increase the happiness in our daily lives.

How Do Researchers Measure Happiness?

How exactly do researchers studying positive psychology measure whether someone is happy? Although this is a complex question, researchers have developed several main ways of measuring happiness and well-being in their research studies:

  • Subjective well-being: One common way of measuring happiness is arguably the most straightforward—simply asking people how they feel their lives are going. For example, in one survey widely used by researchers, participants are asked how much they agree or disagree with statements such as, “In most ways my life is close to my ideal.”
  • Positive emotions: Another way that researchers measure happiness is by looking at the amount of positive emotion that people experience. While everyone—even the happiest people—still experience negative events, some researchers have claimed that having at least a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions (that is, positive feelings occur three times as often as negative ones) is key to well-being. In other words, the key to happiness isn’t about eliminating negative emotions entirely—but rather having them be outnumbered by more positive experiences.
  • Two forms of well-being: Finally, psychologists sometimes make the distinction between hedonic well-being and eudaimonic well-being. Hedonic well-being refers to feeling happy in the moment (imagine eating a chocolate cake or watching a favorite movie), while eudaimonic well-being refers to feeling that one’s life is meaningful (imagine that good feeling you might get from volunteering, supporting an important cause, or helping a friend or family member). The two forms of well-being can sometimes diverge: for example, people working for political causes they care about may find their job meaningful, but working long hours could reduce hedonic well-being. However, fortunately, researchers have found that the two forms of well-being are correlated with each other: that is, many of the things that make our lives happier also make them more meaningful.

What Are the Benefits of Positive Emotions?

Researchers studying positive emotions have found that they aren’t merely pleasant states—instead, experiencing positive emotions actually has a wide variety of benefits for individuals.

  • Increased creativity. The psychologist Alice Isen has found that positive emotions enable people to think in more creative ways. For example, when people are made to experience positive emotions in the research lab, they’re more likely to come up with a creative way of solving a problem and tend to make more unusual word associations. Barbara Fredrickson, an influential positive psychologist, has put forward the theory that positive emotions broaden and build: in other words, they broaden our way of thinking (by allowing us to think more creatively) and they help us build resources (because we may be able to find new resources through this creative thinking).
  • Better physical health. Positive emotions aren’t just good for our mental well-being—they can also impact our physical health as well. Researchers studying positive emotion have found that people who experience positive emotions may actually have longer lifespans. In one study testing this, researchers looked at the diaries that nuns had written when they were in their twenties. They found that, sixty years later, the nuns who had used more positive emotion words were actually more likely to live longer. Research has also found that some positive emotions are related to a lower risk of developing heart disease and that cultivating positive emotions can be helpful for individuals coping with medical diagnoses such as HIV. In other words, positive emotions aren’t just a pleasant experience—they may also help us live longer and healthier lives.

What Makes Us Happy?

Many of us sometimes think that having a higher income will make us happier—but does the data support this? Researchers studying this have found that income does impact happiness, but the link isn’t as strong as you might expect. Living in poverty or worrying about money can definitely negatively affect happiness, but once we have enough money to live comfortably, accumulating more wealth has diminishing returns for happiness. Researchers have also found that countries with a more equal distribution of wealth tend to have happier citizens. In other words, money can affect our happiness under some circumstances, but it’s not always as important as we might think it is.

However, in research on happiness, one factor seems to consistently be the most important in determining our happiness: our relationships with others. For example, researchers have found that people who have several close friends tend to be happier and healthier. Recently, Harvard psychiatrist Robert Waldinger shared the results of a long-running study on human development, in which over 700 participants were surveyed for 75 years. Waldinger found that having good relationships was the best predictor of health and happiness over the course of his study: “The people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.” His conclusion? “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

How Can We Become Happier?

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you of the importance of positive emotions, you might be wondering what you can do to cultivate positive emotions. Fortunately, researchers have found that there are numerous strategies that we can use to increase happiness. Although many of us tend to think that happiness depends on external factors, there are strategies that we can all use to work on increasing positive emotions—regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in. As psychologist and happiness expert Sonja Lyubomirsky writes, people can become happier when two conditions are met: first, when they are motivated to try to become happier, and second, when they are given effective strategies for boosting happiness.

Today, I’ll share two key strategies for increasing happiness: helping others and practicing gratitude. Why these two strategies? These two things can be especially effective because they help us build social ties, which are a key component of happiness.

In summary, research shows that positive emotions aren’t just pleasant states—they can actually make us more creative and healthier, for example. What makes us happiest? Researchers have found that the thing we might think would make us happy—material wealth—isn’t nearly as important as the relationships we build with others. And if we want to become happier, one of the best ways that we can do this is by doing things that strengthen our ties to others, such as taking time to help others and reminding ourselves of the people in our lives we are most grateful for.

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about the science of hope and optimism—how looking at the bright side of things can make us happier and healthier.

Additional Reading:

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper received her PhD in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she conducted research on positive psychology and gratitude. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include gratitude, positive emotions, close relationships, and health. When she’s not writing about psychology, Elizabeth can often be found exploring the Bay Area and spending time with her dog, Luna.


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