Synopsis: Surveys show that most Americans are less than happy, and seldom experience joy. Two experts discuss how even naturally glum people can manufacture joy.
Host: Nancy Benson. Guests: Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology, University of California Riverside and author, The How of Happiness and Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy But Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, But Does; Dr. Alex Korb, postdoctoral researcher, UCLA and author, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression One Small Change at a Time
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Nancy Benson: America is known as the land of opportunity. Every year millions of people seek refuge on our shores. But would they be so anxious to get here if they knew that most Americans are less than happy? It’s true. According to a recent survey, most Americans are unhappy.
Dr. Sonja Lyubmirsky: It was actually kind of surprising. We found that most Americans, 93% wanted to find more ways to experience more joy, but only two out of five stated that they were experiencing enough joy in their lives. So it was a little surprising because previous research had shown that most people are pretty happy. But this survey suggested that there is what you might call a joy deficit in our culture.
Benson: That’s Dr. Sonja Lyubmirsky, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of two books, The How of Happiness and Myths Of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, But Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, But Does.
Lyubmirsky: Joy is basically an intense burst of happiness that comes from small bursts of delight fulfillment that people feel. Happiness is a much broader term, more long term. Almost half of Americans on any average day don’t experience any joy, so that was surprising. I think it suggests that there are a lot of opportunities that we have in our everyday lives to experience joy and happiness, but we’re so busy; we’re multitasking, we have all these different devices, we’re trying to balance work, and kids and parents and complicated lives that we’re hurrying through life, so we’re overlooking little small ways that we could experience joy. I don’t think it’s that difficult.
Benson: Lyubmirsky says that if we could increase the frequency of those bursts of joy throughout the day, we’d actually maintain a level of happiness.
Lyubmirsky: The survey showed something like 83% of Americans knew this, that it was the small everyday bursts of joy that were more important than the big things. Research bears this out that we think, “Oh, I’ll be happy, I’ll be joyful when that big thing in my life happens. I win the lottery. I move to that city I’ve always wanted to live. I get that promotion. I have a baby.” Those things do make us happy and joyful, but that joy dissipates over time. The secret to happiness is to find those times in your day for those little things, those little bursts of positive emotion. Those add up to make you a happier person. It turns out that when we have a lot of those moments of joy you will be more creative, you’ll be healthier, your immune system will be bolstered, your relationships will be stronger. So it’s not just about feeling good, it’s also about getting those good things that joy can bring.
Korb: In gratitude, when we focus on the positive aspects of our lives it actually increases the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. That increased production of serotonin actually occurs in an important part of the brain called the anterior cingulate, which sits at the intersection between our thinking rational brain and our emotional brains. So gratitude actually helps strengthen the balance of communication between those two systems.
Benson: That’s Dr. Alex Korb, a neuroscientist at UCLA, and author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neural Science to Reverse the Course of Depression One Small Change at a Time.
Korb: Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that’s most closely associated with will power and motivation and mood. The serotonin system is out of whack, as you’d say, in depression. That’s why it’s the most commonly targeted system with antidepressant medication. If you could increase your own production of serotonin in the first place that can have some similar effects.
Benson: It is possible to “do it yourself” with some simple life changes that strengthen the serotonin system naturally.
Korb: Sunlight absorbs through the skin, is actually a necessary part of producing vitamin D, which is part of the pathway in the production of serotonin. So simply going outside, getting a little sun in the middle of the day can help. Remembering positive memories or focusing on the positive aspects of your life can actually help increase serotonin production in this region called the anterior cingulate. Getting exercise. Exercise is a huge way and very simple to enact.
Benson: Korb says you don’t have to go to the gym four times a week. Just getting up off the couch or away from the computer screen and taking a walk around the block is enough to activate serotonin. But Korb says there’s more to happiness than naturally increasing our serotonin levels.
Korb: I always used to think that happiness was related to thinking more positive thoughts, but there are a lot of aspects of brain chemistry and communication that is nothing to do with our thinking, it’s more to do with our actions and our interactions with the world.
Lyubmirsky: Sharing those moments is much more powerful. The survey showed that people understand that, that sharing moments of joy is more intense than keeping it to yourself. So whatever you can do with other people in your life, whether it’s friends or family or co-workers, share the moment, reminisce about that favorite vacation you had with someone, not keep it to yourself. Happy people focus on relationships, spending quality time with their partners, expressing admiration, expressing gratitude, to truly listening, so if you’re an unhappy person, spending quality time with people in your life, trying to strengthen your relationships is going to make you happier.
Benson: But what if you’re a “Debbie Downer” type of person just by nature? How much can you change your outlook on life?
Lyubmirsky: There’s a genetic component, about 50% of individuals differences in happiness are explained by genetics, but 50% is a lot less than 100%, so research suggests that if we try to adapt some of these strategies favoring doing acts of kindness for others, expressing gratitude, counting our blessings, we can move our baseline happiness. We probably can’t go from a one to a ten, because there’s a range. But maybe we can go from a one to a five, or from a three to a seven. There are some limitations, but with hard work, and you really do have to put the effort into it, so it’s not like, oh there’s some secret strategy. There’s no magic to it. We have to put the effort into it. Some of it is easy, like savoring positive things in your life, sharing with others is really not that difficult, it’s easy to add to our everyday life. If we’re willing to practice those strategies on a regular basis we can become happier.
Benson: One of the ironies of the holiday season is that it’s all about joy, yet so many of us feel nothing but stress and sadness. So, maybe there are no roses to smell this time of year, but as you’re rushing out to your car laden with packages, you might take a moment to notice a gorgeous sunset blazing over the parking lot. Pause and breathe. Then, as you ease into traffic, maybe you can share that moment with a fellow traveler; let them merge into traffic ahead of you. It just might give you another burst of joy and a feeling of happiness that lingers.
You can learn more about our guests Dr. Sonja Lyubmirsky and her books, The How Of Happiness, and, Myths Of Happiness and Dr. Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral by visiting our web site at radio health journal dot net.
Our writer/producer this week is Polly Hansen. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Nick Hofstra. I’m Nancy Benson.