Katherine Nelson-Coffey, Ph.D.

Living Life Well

Happiness Is Not Set in Stone

The science behind increasing happiness

Posted Aug 15, 2016

What do you want out of life? When asked this question, most people include health and happiness at the top of their lists. This begs the question: How can people be happy and healthy? Although most of us know—or think we know—how to be happy and healthy, we often find ourselves off track.  

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These questions are at the heart of my research and will also be at the heart of my blog. My goal is to discuss scientific evidence regarding human health and happiness and to challenge you to think about the ways that it intersects with your daily life. I am deeply interested in understanding how people can juggle the many important (and often stressful!) aspects of their lives to be happy, healthy, and successful.  For example, how does being a parent influence people’s lives in ways that are important for their well-being? What changes can people make in their day-to-day lives to improve their happiness? How can people juggle work and family life? These are just a few of the questions I hope to answer in my blog.

I am an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South, where I conduct research on happiness and teach courses in health psychology, personality psychology, and positive psychology.    

Your happiness is not set in stone.

It’s true—happiness can change. Happiness is not reserved for those who were blessed with the best genetic code, an easy life, or a good upbringing. I find this message in and of itself to be uplifting—regardless of how happiness changes, just knowing that if you currently feel like you’re not as happy as you could be, there is hope.

The best evidence we have that happiness can change comes from psychological experiments in which one group of participants are assigned to practice a strategy to improve their happiness (such as gratitude, kindness, or optimism) and the others are assigned to practice a neutral activity that would not improve their happiness. This design is the gold standard in psychological research—people are randomly assigned to one of these two conditions, meaning that the only thing that makes someone assigned to the happiness activity different from someone assigned to the neutral activity is the activity itself. Any differences in happiness after performing the activity are due to the activity itself (and not their genetic code, their easy life, their good upbringing, or any other number of things that might be related to their happiness).

Time and time again, these studies have shown that when people practice these happiness activities over the course of several weeks, they become happier.

This is one of the most important evidence-based suggestions about happiness. What was once believed to be the result of a genetic predisposition, a blessing from a religious being, or just plain good luck, is now under your control.

So, what are these strategies I mentioned? How can you improve your happiness? More on that soon. In the mean time, feel free to let me know what questions you have about health or happiness in the comments section. 

References

Bolier, L., Haverman, M., Westerhof, G. J., Riper, H., Smit, F., & Bohlmeijer, E. (2013). Positive psychology interventions: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies. BMC Public Health, 13, 119-138.

Lyubomirsky, S., & Layous, K. (2013). How do simple positive activities increase well-being? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 57-62.

Nelson, S. K., Kurtz, J., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2015). What psychological science knows about achieving happiness. In S. J. Lynn, W. O’Donohue, & S. Lilienfeld (Eds.), Health, happiness, and well-being: Better living through psychological science (pp. 250-271). New York: Sage.

Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirksy, S. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 65, 467-487.

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