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How to be happy? according to science

How to be happy? according to science

Being happy, according to science, is possible. There is more and more evidence of this. Despite being a relatively young field of study, numerous research has been published that suggests that human beings have the capacity to achieve happiness, even in difficult circumstances.

In fact, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic we can feel very far from the concept of well-being. However, even in the most complicated situations in life we ​​can find moments in which we celebrate our existence and feel closer to the idea of ​​being happy.

What exactly is happiness?

Happiness is an abstract concept that many researchers have been studying for decades. Each of them has given their own definition and we can find dozens of them.

Some are focused on the experience of positive emotions and states, and others are more focused on the equivalence of happiness to the absence of fear or adversity.

A very interesting vision is the one proposed by engineer Mo Gawdat. This former Google worker experienced a particularly difficult situation: his son died in an appendicitis operation due to medical negligence.

As a result of his own suffering, Gawdat established a mathematical formula that explained our unhappiness. According to his approach, happiness was equivalent to the events of our lives minus the expectations of how they should be.

This means that we suffer when we reject what happens because we think it should be another way. For example, in the current situation of confinement, people who refuse to comply with the ordered measures suffer much more than those who accept what is happening.

And the same thing happens for any other difficult situation in life: not accepting that our partner has left us, a dismissal, an illness or the death of a loved one, turn the pain of the event into excessive suffering. Something that, without a doubt, distances us from the concept of being happy according to science.

Effects derived from being happy according to science

According to Barbara Fredrickson's Expansion and Construction Theory (1998, 2001), experiencing positive emotions makes it easier to have more flexible behaviors and helps to have a broader repertoire of behaviors. Thus, we are more capable of adapting better to the environment and functioning better in different areas of life.

Some effects derived from experiencing positive affective states are the following:

  • Our thoughts are more creative.
  • We are more tolerant with ourselves and with others.
  • Our responses are more adaptive.
  • We counteract negative emotions better.
  • We are more altruistic.
  • We tolerate physical pain better.

Positive emotions have a great stress-buffering effect (Fredrickson, Mancuso, Branigan and Tugade, 2000), as various laboratory studies have shown, for example, on cardiovascular reactivity (Fredrickson and Levenson, 1998).

Furthermore, science has found that positive and negative emotions are not exclusive, but are relatively independent (Avia and Vázquez, 1998). Thus, we can feel negative emotions in situations that appear to be positive, and conversely, experience positive emotions in especially difficult moments such as anxious or traumatic situations.

How to be happy according to science?

Although throughout life we ​​experience complicated situations, human beings can do a lot to distance ourselves from suffering. Here we describe some proposals to be happier according to science:

Experience gratitude

Being grateful for everything positive that happens to us is a highly recommended practice in our daily lives, and especially key the worse the situation we experience.

The research carried out shows a direct relationship between gratitude and prosocial behaviors, positive emotions, satisfaction with life, optimism, hope, vitality and subjective perception of happiness (McCullough, Emmons and Tsang, 2002).

Furthermore, being grateful is associated with a lower risk of developing psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety or substance abuse (Bono and McCullough, 2006).

Therefore, in times of crisis and significant difficulties, incorporating gratitude into our lives can mark a significant improvement in our emotional state.

Experience gratitude

Being grateful is associated with a lower risk of depression, anxiety, substance use and other psychological disorders.

Enhance our sense of humor

Numerous psychological benefits are attributed to the sense of humor, such as sensations and states of joy, well-being and satisfaction, stress reduction and prevention of depression.

It also has important physical effects such as increasing pain tolerance and improving the immune and cardiovascular systems. Furthermore, on a social level, it improves our communication with others and helps community harmony.

Therefore, it is important to incorporate moments of distraction thanks to humor. Recovering our favorite series, re-watching that movie that we can't stop laughing at, listening to a funny podcast or reading a chapter of a book that makes us smile can be of great help. ⠀

Listen to music

The Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a music therapy study conducted in Austin in 1996. The stimulation of music increases the release of endorphins and decreases the need for medications.

Endorphins act on our central nervous system, motivating us and giving us energy, which helps us to be happier and more optimistic.

Thus, we can create a playlist with our favorite upbeat songs to listen to while doing physical activity or cleaning tasks, for example. Without a doubt, a daily dose of happy music will make us feel better.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness means being present in the here and now. By focusing our attention on each activity we do, it is much easier for us to stop listening to our negative thoughts that often bombard our heads.

To practice mindfulness we don't need to be any Zen master. We just have to concentrate as much as possible on what we are doing. Let's take an example:

If we are cooking a food, the idea is to focus on the action we are performing: observe it, notice its texture with our fingertips, the smell it gives off, the sound it generates when touching it or how its consistency changes when cooking it.

The practice of mindfulness can be applied to almost any daily activity and is an interesting tool to reduce anxiety according to multiple studies.

Increase pleasurable activities

Without the neural mechanisms of the motivation and reward system, our species would have died of starvation and would not have perpetuated itself. If something gives us pleasure, it is very likely that we will want to repeat it again.

Thus, we can practice many pleasant activities that will bring us happiness: taking a hot bath if we are cold or a refreshing shower if it is hot, learning something new, singing, writing, painting or dancing would be some examples.

Activities that are positive for us activate a circuit of neurons that produce a sensation of pleasure and reduce our stress level significantly. Therefore, in difficult times it is important to dedicate some time of the day to carry out some of these actions.

Being happy according to science: increasing pleasure

Increasing the practice of activities that we find pleasurable also increases our sense of well-being and happiness.

Plan activities

As Eduardo Punset commented in his book The Journey to Happiness, the expectations of a highly desired situation far exceed the happiness of the event itself. That is to say, happiness is hidden in the waiting room of happiness.

This is due to what scientists call the reward circuit. This circuit, which alerts the sources of pleasure and happiness, is activated especially during the search and not so much during the act itself, contrary to what one would expect. Dopamine is activated by the simple expectation of pleasure, even if it does not materialize.

In this way, thinking about eating our favorite ice cream, getting the job of our dreams, planning an idyllic vacation or imagining a conversation with someone we like will often bring us greater satisfaction than the act itself.

Being happy according to science: what should we remember?

Generating positive moods in complex situations is not an easy task. However, if we follow the actions described, we can get closer to a significant feeling of well-being.

We must remember that the most negative emotions have a function and their reason for being. They would not exist if they had not been adaptive to us throughout evolution. The important thing is to learn to listen to what they want to convey to us in order to understand them, move past them and, finally, leave them behind.

However, sometimes these negative emotional states do not disappear so easily. Even if we apply all the behaviors described in this article and many others that we know, such as practicing physical activity, reading or talking with a good friend, the discomfort persists.

Therefore, if despite doing our best, we feel that negative emotions overcome us and we do not know how to manage our discomfort, it is important to consult with a specialist. A clinical or health psychologist specialized in this type of case will be able to help us remedy avoidable suffering.


"Because prevention is better than cure"

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