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What Makes Us Happy?

Science offers surprising new answers

Last fall, Professor Adam Anderson began arriving at his office much earlier than usual, at an hour when the psychology department on the St. George campus was deserted. He didn’t turn on his computer or even flick on the lights. Each morning, he just shut the door, sat down and closed his eyes. He could have used the time to get a head start on the work piled on his desk, but instead he took half an hour to concentrate on nothing at all.

Anderson, an expert on how the brain produces positive and negative emotions, began his daily ritual because he was studying the mental health benefits of meditation and wanted to test them firsthand. He is one of a growing number of researchers at U of T who are investigating the biological, psychological and circumstantial causes of happiness.

Historically, psychology has probed the dark corners of the human mind. Psychologists have focused on ways to cure, or at least curb, mental illness. It’s only in the past 10 years that researchers have been trying to identify the factors that contribute to happiness and a satisfying life – a study that has come to be known as “positive psychology.”


Anderson’s early-morning meditation sessions didn’t induce Zen-like bliss: a construction project was going full tilt outside his office window. “It wasn’t like an idyllic setting with a babbling brook,” he says with a laugh. “I heard jackhammers and saws. So I just said, ‘I’m going to find peacefulness in the din.'”

While practising mindfulness, people learn how to find calm in a difficult world. Being mindful means paying attention to moment-by-moment experiences. It means observing physical sensations and the mind’s thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative, without suppressing them or letting oneself be engulfed by them. A mindfulness response to anger would be “This is anger, and it will pass” rather than “I am really angry.”

Students of mindfulness begin by focusing on their breathing. Inevitably, the mind wanders. The challenge, says Anderson, is to keep bringing your attention back to your breath as a means of anchoring yourself in the present moment. Mindfulness instructors suggest meditating for 20 to 45 minutes every day. These sessions are the foundation of the whole practice, but the objective is to be mindful throughout all of life.

“Rather than labelling your daily experiences as good or bad,” says Anderson, “you just experience them for what they are.” When you wake up in the morning feeling down, for example, you monitor the dark thoughts and any related bodily symptoms such as heaviness or tension while getting on with your day. You simply note the sadness. You don’t ruminate on how you could possibly feel like this when the sun is out, who is to blame, whether it’s ruining your life and so on. “Mindfulness is a childlike sensibility. It’s more sensory,” he says. It’s what Buddhists call the “beginner’s mind.”

People who master this skill are less prone to get upset when unpleasant feelings arise. Everyday mindfulness has helped Anderson, a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience who came to U of T from Stanford University in 2003, handle the pressures of being a new professor. “When I’m working on something, I feel guilty because I know it’s taking me away from working on something else. But I’m able to have those thoughts now without the anxious feelings that would normally accompany them,” he says. “I feel more composed.” Meditation, he adds, is like fitness for the brain. “It’s like training any other muscle in your body. You’re developing your brain to cope better with the world.”

New research has found that mindfulness can help people who suffer from depression. Professor Zindel Segal, the Morgan Firestone Chair in Psychotherapy at U of T and Mount Sinai Hospital, combines the principles of mindfulness with cognitive behavioural therapy, a form of psychotherapy that helps people see the connection between their thoughts and feelings. In people who have been depressed before, even mild sadness can trigger an excessive amount of negative thinking, which can, in turn, cause a recurrence of full-blown depression.

Professor Segal has discovered that mindfulness can keep people out of that harmful loop by teaching them to be aware of temporary unhappiness without being swallowed up by it. They learn that sad feelings are a part of life and usually transient, provided they don’t dwell on them. In a study published in 2000 involving individuals who had recovered from several bouts of depression, Segal found that those who completed mindfulness-based cognitive therapy relapsed in the following year only half as often as those who did not receive the therapy. A subsequent study in the U.K. replicated these findings, and researchers concluded that mindfulness therapy is most effective in preventing the recurrence of depression in patients who have had three or more previous episodes.

Why does mindfulness meditation work? Neuroscientists from several North American universities have been studying Buddhist monks – the acknowledged world champions of meditation – to see how their brains differ from the average person’s. Segal and other researchers at U of T, meanwhile, are using advanced medical imaging to examine how mindfulness and psychotherapy affect the brains of ordinary people struggling with depression.

Along with Dr. Helen Mayberg, who is now at Emory University in Atlanta, but is still an adjunct professor of psychiatry at U of T, Segal led a groundbreaking study in 2002 that compared the brains of people who had recovered from depression using cognitive behavioural therapy with those who had used a popular antidepressant. The patients who got well with the drug showed changes in the lower, more primal, part of the brain known as the limbic system, while those who received therapy demonstrated changes in the upper areas of the brain connected with higher thought. Both areas are implicated in depression. The hopeful message from this research, says Segal, is that there are different routes to mental health. Drugs are not the only solution; we can also feel better by altering how we think.

Segal, who is also head of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, will test this theory further later this year. He and Anderson are collaborating on a research project to investigate how the brains of people who have recovered from depression respond to sad stimuli – clips from movies such as Terms of Endearment, for example – before and after mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Segal expects the mindfulness training to enable the group to watch the clips without becoming sad themselves. “You can change the chemical environment of your brain with drugs,” says Segal, “and you can do it with mindfulness, and by learning how to pay attention in the midst of upsetting emotions.”

Evidence of the healing power of mental training is exciting for everyone interested in happiness, says Anderson, and not just for those who want to prevent depression. “This empowers us as individuals to understand and regulate our own emotions,” says Anderson. “That’s part of what’s exciting about it – we’re looking at untapped human potential.”


As promising as mindfulness meditation is, our happiness is not entirely within our control. Genetics plays a part, too. In 1996, University of Minnesota researcher David Lykken released the results of a study in which he had examined the role of genes in determining one’s satisfaction with life. Lykken collected data on about 4,000 sets of twins born in Minnesota between 1936 and 1955, compared the results from identical and fraternal twins, and came to the conclusion that about half of one’s happiness is determined genetically. The other half depends on life circumstances and what Lykken calls “life’s slings and arrows.”

Our inborn temperament explains the general stability of our well-being over time. A famous 1978 study by researchers from Northwestern University in Chicago found that lottery winners reported feelings of intense joy following their win, while paraplegic and quadriplegic accident victims experienced despair. Within a few months, though, people in each group reported feeling about the same as they had prior to the life-changing event, leading experts to conclude that we all have a happiness set point. Our mood rises and falls, and serious mental illness can shift us lower, but over the long term our average happiness hovers around the same spot. “Someone who has a cheerful disposition today is probably going to be cheerful 10 years from now,” says Professor Ulrich Schimmack, who spent two years working in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign lab of Edward Diener – a pioneer in the study of happiness and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Happiness Studies – before joining the psychology department at the University of Toronto at Mississauga.

In almost any situation, Schimmack says, our personality strongly influences our happiness. We all know someone who is wealthy, good-looking and successful yet also downright glum. “If we feel bummed out or that our life is meaningless, it’s hard for us to ignore those feelings and say, ‘Hey, my life is great,’ even if in most ways it is.”

Schimmack’s research has refined scientists’ understanding of the link between specific personality traits and well-being. A study published last year illustrated that, of all the traits, a predisposition to sadness – the tendency to have a lot of blue days – has the strongest negative impact on life satisfaction. Cheerfulness has the greatest positive effect. Shocking? No, but it’s the first time these intuitive truths have been proven scientifically. Schimmack also found that, contrary to what we might expect, sociability plays only a minor role in increasing our sense of fulfilment, and anxiety doesn’t diminish it. “A lack of meaning is more detrimental to life satisfaction than stress and worries,” he says.

Since we can’t trade in our gloomy genes, this may all sound grim. Yet in the realm of happiness, personality is not destiny. We have the capacity to enhance our well-being by striving for things that will make our lives more satisfying, says Schimmack. The problem is that we generally don’t know what will make us happy or unhappy. Joy is rarely as intense or as long-lasting as we imagine it will be, and the same is true for despair. This leads us to make poor choices in our quest to be happy. So Schimmack’s ultimate goal is to identify, through scientific testing, the personal and social factors that truly do contribute to our sense of well-being.

What do people say when they’re asked what makes them happy? Family and friends tend to rank high, as do religion, career and health. But studies have yielded conflicting results, particularly about how much marriage and faith contribute to happiness. Although a 2000 study by Diener of more than 59,000 people in 42 countries concluded that there is a positive correlation between marriage and life satisfaction across cultures, more recent studies have challenged this idea. In 2003, Richard Lucas of Michigan State University published research showing that people report being happier only at the beginning of a marriage; after five years they tend to return to their previous level of happiness. As for religion, studies have demonstrated a link between religiosity and happiness, though researchers say the social-support and community aspects of attending religious services are probably more important than belief in a higher being.

In an experiment involving mostly female university students, Schimmack showed that feeling satisfied in areas of our lives that we personally value can strongly contribute to happiness. “Progress toward a goal in a life domain that you care about is more important than the goal itself,” says Schimmack, adding that unattainable ambitions can lead to discontent. Setting career goals that don’t match up with your talents and abilities, for example, is a sure way to unhappiness.

Researchers know that people also look to the balance of pleasant and unpleasant experiences over their lifetime when they judge their life satisfaction. But traumatic events don’t have to derail our quest for happiness, says Professor Kate McLean, also in UTM’s psychology department. She studies how people make sense of their suffering by creating their own life stories, and has found that the way we tell the tale of an upsetting experience, whether it’s a divorce or a failed exam, influences our quality of life. “The more people acknowledge the negativity of the event and find some sort of resolution,” she says, “the better off they are in terms of well-being.” Rather than glossing over something and repressing it, we should find meaning in it, integrate it into our identity and move on.

When it comes to pleasant experiences, and particularly the pleasant physical experiences in our lives, many people would agree that activities such as playing sports, dancing, eating good food and having sex bring them happiness. But according to Schimmack’s research, physical fulfilment doesn’t have a lasting influence on our sense of well-being, though it can definitely brighten our day.

The same is true of money. Although wealth gives us the opportunity to pursue these pleasant physical experiences more often, it’s not the key to happiness that many expect. On survey after survey, rich people report being happier than poor people, but the difference for those who can afford life’s necessities is negligible. In other words, the extremely affluent are generally no happier than the modestly well off. “It’s possible that people don’t evaluate their total life satisfaction based on their income or material possessions,” says Schimmack, “though they clearly enjoy their new cars and boats on a day-to-day basis.” Perhaps the saying should be changed to “Money can’t buy long-term happiness.”

There is a twist, though. The happiness we derive from our own wealth depends on the wealth of those around us. A Harvard University study showed that most people would be happier to receive $50,000 if everyone else got $25,000, than to get $100,000 if everyone else got $200,000. It seems we are willing to settle for less, as long as we’re faring better than those around us. Studies have also shown that we quickly grow accustomed to any increase in wealth. Scientists call it the hedonic treadmill: before long we’re wondering when the next increase is coming and looking around to see who’s doing better. Since there will always be someone one rung up the ladder, it can be a vicious, misery-making cycle.

As a society, we are about as happy as we were 30 years ago, but we’re certainly becoming more preoccupied with happiness – witness the flourishing of the self-help industry. In general, says Schimmack, societies that do not have to worry about poverty worry about happiness. “Once you don’t have basic needs to fulfil, people move from survival values to what’s called well-being values. Those values are ‘I want to feel good all the time,’ ‘I want to have fun’ and ‘I don’t want to do the things that aren’t fun anymore.’ We’ve become more hedonistic in our choices and in the way we evaluate what is good and bad in our lives.”

This may explain why the majority of researchers exploring the science of happiness are from Western nations. While they are no doubt fuelled by scientific curiosity, they may also be energized by society’s passionate interest in their findings. “People are always asking, ‘Am I happy?’ ” says Schimmack. “It seems to be on everyone’s mind.”

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  1. One Response to “ What Makes Us Happy? ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Dr. Anderson's "surprising new answers" regarding the use of meditation as a path toward happiness would be no surprise to the millions of Buddhists who have been practising these techniques for the last 2,500 years. This is just another demonstration of the arrogance of Western scientists who believe that if they do not know about it, it is of no value or does not exist.

    Dr. Robert Lencki
    BASc 1980
    Guelph, Ontario