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Mark Holder, Ph.D.
Mark Holder, Ph.D.

6 Surprising Facts About Happiness

Not all of the research findings from the science of happiness are obvious.

Source: asife/Shutterstock

After 20 years of research in positive psychology, what have we learned? We’ve learned that our social relationships, both friendships and romances, are critical contributors to our happiness. And although there are many individual differences in what makes us happy, social relationships are about as close as we get to a universal key. In fact, it is almost impossible to find someone who is happy that does not have meaningful friendships and/or romantic relationships.

But, really, didn’t we already know this? Is the research on happiness simply an exercise in confirming the obvious? Clearly not. There are many other findings in positive psychology that are truly surprising.

Here are a select few:

1. Oscar winners are happy.

This does not seem like such a surprise, but consider this: Research shows that actors who win at the Academy Awards live longer than actors who are only nominated but do not win. Additionally, actors who win Oscars live longer than their co-stars from the movie for which they were nominated but who were not nominated themselves.

2. Imaginary friends make us happy.

It is clear that children who have quality friendships are happier than those who don’t. What is surprising is the extent to which even kids' imaginary friends contribute to their measures of happiness.

3. Happiness seekers are not so happy.

People who consciously make the search for, and attainment of, happiness a pivotal goal in their lives are actually less happy than others.

4. Marriage makes us happy (but not everywhere).

Married people consistently display higher levels of happiness than people who have never been married, and this is true in almost every country in which the effect has been studied. A surprising exception is Ireland, where married people report being less happy on average than their never-married fellow citizens.

5. Great optimism is not always so great.

Optimism is linked to many advantages, including greater happiness, better health, and higher self-esteem, as well as lower levels of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and stress. What's surprising is that when it comes to optimism, you can have too much of a good thing. Extremely optimistic people — those in the top fraction of a percent on measures of optimism — have some disadvantages. For example, they are less likely to quit smoking, more likely to have an unwanted pregnancy, and more likely to die at an early age.

6. Baseball players are happy (if they smile).

Did you ever collect baseball cards? Researchers who examined the widths of the players’ smiles in their baseball card photographs—taken when the players were young men—found that the extent of the smiles predicted how long the players lived. Major-league players with the largest smiles lived an average of seven years longer than those who did not smile at all in their baseball card photos. In other words, the span of the smile displayed in baseball photos of young men predicted the span of the player’s life decades later.

Freilandtheater Kathe und Helene/Himmelssturmer Staunen/Wiki Media Commons
Source: Freilandtheater Kathe und Helene/Himmelssturmer Staunen/Wiki Media Commons

The research literature of positive psychology is filled with examples of surprising findings, underscoring the fundamental importance of research. Exclusively relying on “common sense” to understand happiness, or to be able to thrive and flourish, is not enough. We are more likely and able to promote our well-being by being informed through the science of happiness.

About the Author
Mark Holder, Ph.D.

Mark Holder, Ph.D., leads a research team at the University of British Columbia dedicated to understanding and enhancing happiness.

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