Scientists want to know what makes us happy

By Justin Maynor, News-Herald Staff Writer, March 13, 2005

Ohio, USA -- Becky Lee's husband describes her as "relentlessly happy." And anyone who has stopped in Beans coffee shop on the Chardon square is likely to understand very quickly what he means. Lee, the 53-year-old coffee shop owner, accosts customers with a cheerfulness unmatched in local customer service.

And if her coffee doesn't wake you up, her demeanor surely will. "Hi, Justin!" she belts out as I approach the counter, still laughing at the quip of another regular.

Though Lee doesn't have much time to consider the hows and whys of her joy, many psychologists, religious leaders and philosophers consider the question serious business. University of Illinois psychologist Edward Diener has been studying what makes people happy for more than 25 years. One of his more compelling findings is that the wealthiest nations aren't necessarily the happiest.

The United States, despite having a higher purchasing power, ranks behind countries like Ireland, Canada and Switzerland in the life satisfaction of its citizens. Diener says that once people's basic needs are met, an increase in income has little, if any, effect on their sense of  well-being.

This theory also has been borne out by studies of lottery winners and the super-rich members of the Forbes 400. Studies have shown that lottery winners' happiness spikes after their win, but they quickly return to their prior level of satisfaction with life.
And as illustrated by one study of the Forbes millionaires and billionaires, the richest among
us indicate only slightly higher levels of subjective well-being than the average Joe.

Masters of our own happiness?

With research challenging many of our assumptions about the road to satisfaction, the question about whether we can really change our level of happiness with any lasting effect remains.

A recent Time magazine article cited a 1996 study by University of Minnesota researcher David Lykken. After studying 4,000 sets of twins, Lykken concluded that about 50 percent of our satisfaction with life is genetically determined, and that external factors like religion, income and family account for only about 8 percent.

This conclusion seems to fly in the face of a multimillion dollar self-help and motivational media industry, which offers countless ways to cheer up. Becky Lee, when asked why she was such a happy person, quickly remembered her "little Welsh grandma" who reassured her in times of crisis.

Whether Lee's disposition today is the result of biologically inherited coping skills or well-heeded words of wisdom from her elder, Lee said she still makes an effort to keep a positive attitude.

It's the little things that make her happy; seeing customers laughing over a latte, singing along to a favorite song in the car. "I think a lot of times people who are grumpy aren't paying attention to those moments," Lee said.

"You've got to open your eyes to see those things."

Open your eyes

Opening one's eyes sounds simple enough, but it has posed enough of a challenge to human beings - even 2,500 years ago - to inspire contemplative religions to develop techniques to achieve that goal.

Dean Williams is an ordained Zen Buddhist priest, and teacher at the Euclid-based Jijuyu-ji Zen Group of Cleveland. The group meets twice a week for sitting and walking meditation - practices used by Buddhists for thousands of years.

Williams says these practices help still the mind, and open practitioners up to experience the world around them with more awareness and clarity. "The first thing people come to realize when they start meditating is how their mind works," he said. "It's a 'monkey-mind' that jumps from this, to this, to this."

It is this "monkey-mind" that Buddhists say is the source of human suffering. "It's very difficult to still the mind - it's constantly just secreting these thoughts," Williams said. "We use the meditation practice so that we can see them come up and be able to let them go. It's a great power."

Williams draws a distinction between happiness, or the temporary experience of pleasure, and joy. Joy, he said, is a more permanent state that comes from a proper relationship to the ups and downs of living.

"There's this sense of letting go, in the midst of all the pleasures and pains of our existence," he said. "That's part of being present in this very moment, which is at the heart of Buddhist practice."

Though the practice of meditation has been employed around the world for millennia, science has only recently begun to examine its effects on the brain.Studies by University of Wisconsin researcher Richard Davidson have shown that states of deep meditation, like those experienced by veteran meditators, trigger increased activity in a part of the brain thought to regulate mood and produce a sense of well-being.

This comes as no surprise to Williams, who points to the importance of proper posture and breathing in Zen practice. "These experiments simply bear out the teachings of the unity of mind and body," he said. "We would fully expect that the way we carry ourselves physically would have an effect on the way we experience things."

Beyond selfishness

Though the Buddhist perspective is non-theistic in its approach to understanding the human condition, some of the same ideas surface in the western God-based religions.
Marcy Sacchini is a Christian counselor in private practice at Zion Lutheran Church in

Like Williams, she said she believes much of the difficulty people have in life comes from a skewed perspective of reality. She said happiness in itself should not be a goal.
"Happiness is based on externals," she said. "The Christian seeks to be content and have joy,
and that comes from the inside."

Sacchini said reliance on God in both the good times and the bad can provide a sense of contentment, but happiness is another matter." The world thinks, 'I deserve to be happy.' That's not what God says. He never says it's going to be an easy road." The contented, Sacchini said, accept what they have and don't focus so much on what they want.

The pursuit of happiness

Though there are no guarantees about achieving happiness, we Americans do feel entitled to at least try - and rightly so.

The very document that created our nation informs us that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right that comes from a source beyond ourselves. But we may be no closer today to determining the best way to approach that task than we were 200, or even 2,000 years ago.

"The debate is still going," said John Hammond, assistant professor of philosophy and political science at Kent State University's Ashtabula campus.

Aristippus, follower of Socrates, lived from around 435-360 B.C. He is often credited as the first hedonist, Hammond said, and came to the conclusion that seeking simple physical pleasure should be man's top priority.

Others, like Aristotle, rejected the hedonistic view. "Aristotle thought that pleasure was too narrow of a focus for a value theory, and he thought that we should pursue the 'good life,' " Hammond said.

Aristotle's "good life" looked at happiness on a more long-term basis, with a focus on strong social relationships, self-betterment and civic responsibility. Others, like Epicurus, found themselves somewhere in the middle.

"He felt that pleasure was the greatest good, but said we should avoid the more powerful pleasures that are counterproductive," Hammond said. "He talked in terms of a life of tranquility. The idea was to pursue a life of pleasure, but more intellectual pleasures than physical ones."

Early on, Hammond said, the hedonists began to recognize problems with the pleasure-centered life. The fundamental problem with hedonism came to be known as the "hedonistic paradox," which basically states that the more one seeks pleasure, the more elusive it becomes.

Still, Hammond said, hedonistic movements have continued to resurface throughout history and adherents to the philosophy can still be found today.

The future of happiness research

Though research into what makes us happy is still a relatively new endeavor, early results seem to mirror much of what has been handed down to us from the great religious and philosophical traditions.

But happiness researchers like Edward Diener hope that looking at the issue with a scientific lens will help individuals and even entire nations move toward a more contented life. In the January 2000 issue of American Psychologist magazine, Diener proposed the creation of a national happiness index to track our progress.

"To create a better society where happiness is ubiquitous, a major scientific effort to understand quality of life is needed," Diener wrote.

"In this democratic nation where the opinions of individuals are granted respect, people's own evaluations of their lives must figure prominently in assessing the success of American society."