Happiness researchers find no secret formula

By Emily Sokolik

For Sejal Patel, freshman in LAS, true happiness can be summed up in one word.

“Chocolate,” she said, without missing a beat.

While this decadent treat certainly excites the taste buds, finding happiness is more complex than devouring a Hershey’s bar.

Philosophers have contemplated the idea of happiness since ancient times.

Aristotle said happiness is leading a life of virtue. Epicurus believed happiness to be the highest ideal and achieved only through hard work.

The path to a happy life seems vague, but psychologists have recently begun the journey to scientifically study happiness.

Ed Diener, a professor of psychology at the University, is part of the growing movement known as positive psychology, a field that emphasizes the positive attributes of people rather than the negative.

Diener’s research has led him to determine the qualities of happy people.

Happy people, he said, tend to have a higher quality of life. Those who positively evaluate their well-being tend to be more creative, earn more money, are better able to cope with difficult situations and have stronger immune systems, he said.

Diener said that those who are wealthy, physically attractive, religious or well-educated are only slightly happier on average.

Diener and Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, recently studied the happiest 10 percent of college students.

“In our study, the happiest people always had two things – good mental health and good social relationships,” Diener said.

While a predisposition to happiness is partly determined by genetics, individuals can also be responsible for their own happiness.

Diener said that people may be able to make themselves happier, but no secret formula exists to achieve happiness.

“There is no magic elixir,” he said.

It is important, however, to develop intimate, loving relationships with family and friends and become involved in enjoyable and valuable activities, Diener said.

“Finally, we need to control how we look at the world,” he said. “We need to train ourselves not to make a big deal of trivial little hassles, to learn to focus on the process of working toward our goals and to think about our blessings.”

Julie K. Norem, professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, is critical of the positive psychology movement.

“Stability in traits is considerable,” she said. “I am generally skeptical of recipes for happiness.”

Norem said she has found that anxious individuals can be helped by a technique called defensive pessimism. These individuals do not benefit from thinking positively or optimistically, she said.

“Those who use the strategy respond to their feelings of anxiety and being out of control by setting low expectations about what will happen … ” she said.

Although the key to happiness is debated, people rate it as an extremely important factor in their lives, Diener said. In fact, college students around the world rated happiness as very important or extremely important in the 41 nations surveyed, Diener said.

Diener added that most people rate themselves as at least slightly happy even though the happiest people sometimes become unhappy, he pointed out.

When this happens, maybe the best medicine is simply a box of chocolates.