A Recipe for a Happy Life
Ordinary ingredients can create the extraordinary.
Posted Sep 06, 2019
If you could ask every human being on Earth one question—what is the recipe for a happy life?—you would likely end up with an encyclopedia of vibrant ingredients. Some of them would sound familiar, like health, purpose, or love. Others—like owning an alpaca farm and mastering jazz—would be more idiosyncratic.
After reviewing thousands of studies that explored the science behind a joyful life, psychologist Dacher Keltner arrived at a formula. It’s a formula that’s deceptively simple, yet reliable enough to deliver a solid, research-based foundation, and versatile enough to welcome most creative whims. It's a bit like a fail-proof recipe for a basic cake that lets you fill it and top it with whatever flavor you desire—from berries to chocolate to cream, and everything in between.
Most of us will find the ingredients of this recipe quite accessible. Maybe we even have them around on our shelves, right now. We know the joy of splashing in summer rain; we have someone to hold our hand in laughter and in pain. As for stress-busting tools, we have plenty of those, too, stored in some old box, somewhere out-of-sight.
Is it possible, then, that most of us are leading happy and meaningful lives without being aware of it?
Let’s consider these seemingly ordinary ingredients anew. After all, as Socrates may or may not have said, things are always worth examining, especially if they make the molecules of a good life.
According to research (and common sense), a happy life brims with positive emotions. Luckily, from bliss to peace there is plenty to choose from. While we might have our favorites, Keltner highlights the value of three particular positive emotions: compassion, gratitude, and awe.
Compassion, Keltner explains, is engrained in our instincts and carved into the story of humankind. Centuries after Charles Darwin wrote about the evolutionary advantage of sympathy and the survival of the kindest, modern brain scans have shed light on the neurobiology of compassion, while studies have explored its link to health and well-being. Teachings of compassion are embodied as a key virtue in religions and philosophies from around the world. “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion,” advises the Dalai Lama. “If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
When it comes to gratitude, a wealth of research has established its favorable effects on our well-being. Being grateful fosters better relationships, greater happiness and resilience, and improved physical health. Gratitude can also decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. According to Robert Emmons, one of the leading gratitude scholars, by being thankful, we affirm the existence of goodness in our lives, and, importantly, realize that the wellspring of this goodness stems from someone or something other than ourselves.
Why awe? “It’s a weird emotion,” says Keltner of one of his favorite emotions. “It’s connected to morality, meaning, and identity. Awe is when you watch your child being born or when you hike in the Alps. Awe is a mystery.”
When is the last time you experienced the mystery of awe? In nature? At a concert? In the company of someone generous and inspiring? As we move through our days, our gaze rummaging the ground where our feet are about to land, awe stops us in our tracks. We lift our eyes to the horizon, and then, further up to the boundless blue of the sky. And we take it in, all at once. Awe, it seems, helps us to zoom away from our daily bite-sized fare, and to glimpse life in its entirety—with textures, smells, tastes, and colors all swirling into one magnificent whole.
What is it about these three self-transcendent emotions that have been hailed by thinkers from different times and places as being vital for our happiness? “These emotions give us meaning, bond us to others, and occur when the self quiets,” explains Keltner. Also, by activating the vagus nerve and reward circuitry of our brains, they kindle a feel-good effect on our neurophysiology.
It’s easy to imagine how happiness would thrive around good friends, loving partners, and devoted colleagues. But it may not be as realistic to be permanent inhabitants in these optimal circumstances. To nurture our social connections, Keltner underlines the significance of cooperation, touch, and forgiveness.
“Make the first move: Cooperate,” says Keltner. There are many different ways to do this. Hold the door for the person behind you. Help someone in need. Express appreciation. The link between pro-sociality and well-being has been explored by countless studies in psychology. Create a space around you that’s kind, inclusive, and altruistic and watch your relations bloom.
Touch, which Keltner calls “the first language of compassion,” can have astonishing effects on our physical and psychological health. Touch can lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health. It can activate the reward centers of the brain and release oxytocin. It can build relationships, signal safety, and trust. Through touch therapies, premature babies have increased their weight gain and patients with dementia have reduced anxiety. Ultimately, touch is “an unbelievable mechanism of social well-being,” says Keltner, for its ability to communicate emotions, heal, and as Michelangelo observed, “give life.”
Forgiveness is another key constituent of connection. Perhaps, as Keltner notes, it is one of the most difficult ones. Betrayal hurts. And while science has established the benefits of forgiveness on our physical health (e.g., improved cardiovascular recovery from stress, lower cholesterol levels, better sleep), forgiving can also reward us psychologically (e.g., reduced anxiety and pain). Another poignant benefit of forgiveness comes in the form of freedom. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,” wrote Nelson Mandela, “I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”
What to do if the recipe of happiness calls for less of what we have in abundance? While each of us may rely on our favorite stress management rituals, Keltner invites us to consider the merits of mindfulness, narrative, and play.
Mindfulness—nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness—has garnered plenty of attention lately. The research findings are promising. Mindfulness is associated with higher life satisfaction, self-esteem, and optimism. Practicing mindfulness meditation can lead to increased self-compassion and well-being. Mindfulness-based interventions can lessen anxiety, depression, and rumination. In short, being attuned to the here and now can be abundantly beneficial for our psychological health and become a valuable mechanism for coping with stress.
To weather difficult moments, Keltner suggests harnessing the potential of narrative. “Don’t be afraid of stories,” he says. Listen to others and share your stories, too. What are the emotional themes of your life’s defining narratives? What can you learn from others’ trials and victories? Moreover, draw upon the therapeutic effects of putting emotions into words (affect labeling). Thanks to increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, verbalizing our feelings can dampen the reactivity of the amygdala and help us manage negative emotional experiences. “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind,” wrote novelist Rudyard Kipling. Use them wisely, for your own good and for the good of others.
As for a final way to quiet the clamor of daily stress, Keltner reminds us of good old cheer. “Play gets a bad reputation these days. Make sure to find time for fun. Goof around. Create nicknames for each other. Build contexts when you are doing silly things. Laugh.” Laughter, after all, is not only good medicine for your body and mind, it is also, as comedian Victor Borge noted, “the shortest distance between two people.”
Despite the sense that a happy life requires exceptional circumstances, Keltner’s formula (along with decades of psychological research) paints a different picture. You can, indeed, use the most ordinary ingredients to build the most extraordinary of creations. Harvest good moments. Nurture your connections. Spread goodwill.
And when you bake your cake, it won’t hurt to share it. After all, happiness, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, is “a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting some on yourself.”
Dacher Keltner is the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (2009), The Compassionate Instinct (2010), and The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence (2016). This interview was conducted at the ISRE conference in July, 2019, Amsterdam.
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