Focusing on happiness is a good way to improve your health.  Scientific evidence suggests that positive emotions can lead to a longer and healthier life.

But fleeting positive emotions aren’t going to get you there.  You need to lower your stress levels over a period of years, practice both a positive outlook and relaxation techniques to reduce your long-term risk of health problems.

In an early phase of positive psychology research, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan examined three pathways to happiness.

Because people tend not to know where happiness lies, they derail their chances of finding it by looking for it in all the wrong places.  So let’s begin by examining some myths about finding that elusive state of happiness.

Money and material things  The link between money and happiness has been studied for 30 years by Richard Easterlin.  After analyzing data from his research, he concluded the people in poor countries are happier when their basic necessities are taken care of.  But any money beyond that doesn’t increase the level of happiness.

Easterlin’s research was challenged by two psychologists who analyzed data from Gallup polls all over the world.  They concluded that people in wealthier countries are happier in general.  Easterlin points out that the competing study may be flawed by cultural bias because persons from different parts of the world may answer questions about wealth and happiness differently.

Youth  Being young and good looking doesn’t contribute to happiness.  In a study published in 2006 in the Journal of Economic Psychology, Easterlin discovered the minimal contribution youth made to happiness and that adults tend to grow steadily happier as they pass through middle age.

Happiness levels slowly declined after that as health and other problems of aging emerge.

Children  Though children can be a great joy, their care is demanding to the extent of increasing stress and creating both financial and marital pressures.

Mothers ranking their happiness said they found more happiness in eating, exercising, shopping, napping or watching TV than in being with their children.  Several studies show that marital satisfaction declines after the first child is born and doesn’t rise until the last child leaves home.

Still, studies show that being married, having more friends and having sexual intercourse more often are moderately to strongly linked to happiness.

My Take on the wrong places:  Mistaking money and material things for happiness explains why Americans are so easily led by advertisements that suggest if we use a certain detergent to clean our washing machines, we’ll be happier and more respected.

And why we replace cell phone after cell phone that granted us neither lasting pleasure nor lasting prestige with a new cell phone we hope will—until we see someone with a newer, shinier, smaller model.

If we ever started to take our happiness seriously, manufacturers would have to start taking their products seriously and realize that a phone is supposed to facilitate communication and an automobile is supposed to facilitate transportation.

They’re only “stuff” in the George Carlin sense of the word and are inherently incapable of propping up a flagging ego or distracting others from a growing bald spot.

Coming up:  Part II, Finding Happiness

from Harvard Medical School  Press Release April 17, 2012

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