Nationally, Americans may seem disgruntled and divided, but within their own families and personal lives, they're generally pretty happy.
That's good news, according to a broad and growing field of research that shows the human payoff to possessing what's more than a fleeting emotion: Subjective well-being, aka happiness, can provide benefits as diverse as physical and emotional health and a boost to longevity. Better still, happiness is something people can be taught to cultivate and policymakers can employ with strategic planning, offering the promise of greater life satisfaction for individuals, families and even nations and regions of the world.
"We are showing that happiness has an influence on health — maybe not quite as big as not smoking, but it's pretty big and it's bigger than eating your vegetables," says Edward F. Diener, a professor, psychologist and researcher so well-known and respected for his "subjective well-being" studies — he even coined the term — that his nickname is "Dr. Happiness."
Diener is lead author on a study of a big chunk of the happiness research so far, reviewing 20 previous literature reviews and more than 150 studies, with the findings published in the July 2017 issue of Applied Psychology. "It's a very strong showing that happiness is probably good for health," he says. In fact, happiness is "good in general. Happy workers, for example, are more productive, more satisfied with their jobs, steal less from their workplace and help other workers more."
Researchers worldwide have been looking at the role of religion, work, income, education, mental illness, physical disability, inequality, corruption, marriage, love, the social capital provided by tight-knit and trusting communities, and more in how individuals and nations fare in terms of happiness.
Their findings showed more than just what happiness adds to life. It turns out there's a hint of a recipe to grow happiness.
Diener has found a lot to smile about in his happiness research — and purpose, too. "Dr. Happiness" was not a nickname bestowed frivolously. He teaches psychology at two universities: the University of Utah and the University of Virgina. He's an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois. Besides that, he's a senior scientist for the Gallup Organization, former president of three scientific societies and edited three scientific journals. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
He also wrote the book "Happiness" — and a few others, too. When the United Arab Emirates created a think tank initiative to persuade governments that boosting personal happiness would also improve country-level happiness and well-being, Diener, 71, was tapped to help. He leads the Global Happiness Council's subcommittee on personal happiness, working alongside other eminent happiness experts.
Not bad for a field of research that was disparaged when he started looking into it more than three decades ago. Back then, happiness was just an emotion, not a rich field to explore, Diener says, chuckling at the fact some vociferous critics and skeptics now study happiness, too.
What Diener has learned through his and others' research has helped shape his family life, he says. When he was 20, he married his wife, Carol. When he was 22, they welcomed identical twin daughters, then later a son. All three have grown up to be psychologists themselves, the girls teaching at universities, too. Ed and Carol Diener also adopted two foster children. Carol, meanwhile, earned degrees in forensic psychology and law, and launched her career working mostly with abused and neglected children and juvenile delinquents.
As a dad, Diener applied a specific approach learned from his studies: He emphasized what his kids did right. Instead of nagging them to clean up or do homework, he praised them when they did it without being told. Pretty soon, they were doing what they should without prompting and he continued to focus on positives.
The approach and the results made the whole family happy.
As a scientist, Diener first studied personal happiness. As he learned more, he saw great potential for happiness on a broader scale, benefitting way more people. His focus over the years has grown to look at all the ways that subjective well-being matters and how it can be used to improve lives.
Well-being research from around the globe shows the importance of cultivating happiness on many different levels. It also offers some context to view how people live in different situations, from economic hard times to periods of political division.
Right now, "people think the country is doing very badly, but feel like they're OK," Diener says. "My life is happy. The country is unhappy." Of course, he adds, it's not really true. "If you look objectively, the country is doing very well." He says U.S. murder rates have dropped and despite dire warnings about impending financial doom, the stock market has been going "up, up, up."
The view that the sky is falling but one's roof is sound is nothing new — and it's not limited to ideas about happiness, either. The 2016 American Family Survey for the Deseret News and BYU found that while many people think families and marriages struggle, they are satisfied with their own.
"One of the positive findings in reference to the national picture is that it takes pretty bad conditions to really affect people's individual lives," Diener says. People worry about issues — say global warming or illegal immigration — but that concern "is almost independent of whether they think they're leading a satisfying, happy life."
It's a surprising fact, he adds, shown in the recent study, too, that happier people are the most apt to tackle an issue that worries them. Depressed people aren't activists. They don't exercise, eat right or take care of themselves. Angry people seldom address issues in effective ways. So action falls to people who are happier. And yes, when something bad happens, their life satisfaction suffers a jolt, but it's not debilitating or usually very long-term, Diener says.
People are drawn to negative news, but science indicates people are generally "biologically prepared to be mildly happy," he says. Depression is marked by lack of positive emotions and a tendency to withdraw; that's not how humans as a species behave, Diener says.
"We have goals. Even if we have enough money, we still work for our goals. We want meaning in life. And we find that all over the world," he says. "It's not that they are hilariously happy, but nations tend to be slightly above neutral in positive effect unless things are really terrible."
Some factors do lower life satisfaction, though, including severe disability, unemployment, poverty, depression, loneliness, corruption and inequality. Inequality can lead to instability for nations, too, Diener says.
He notes poverty loses some of its sting where there's good social capital. He cites the example of a neighborhood where household income hovers around $25,000 a year but the people are very religious, trust each other and feel like a true community. They ranked high in positivity.
Different countries are starting to use happiness research to shape public policy. In England, for instance, the biggest cause of suffering is mental illness, so officials granted an extra billion pounds to mental health funding in 2016 to boost services and reduce waiting lists.
People often talk about what makes them happy. Flipping that and figuring out how happiness changes lives is perhaps more important. Among other things, happiness research reveals:
Temperament has some lasting impact on happiness. Identical twins separated at birth are more similar in their happiness than fraternal twins raised together.
Most people probably have a happiness range that has a genetic basis, but it's possible to increase happiness within that range. About a quarter of people can move their happiness baseline quite a bit. Three-fourths have a pretty stable range but can get to the happier side of that range.
That's something Salt Lake life coach Jeannette Maw has done and encourages others to do. "I believe we have the ability to experience more happiness in life. It comes from making the conscious choice and engaging the habits and actions that regularly, consistently improve life."
Every happy person researchers found had supportive social relationships, Diener says. And they tend to support others, too. Happy people build instead of tearing down.
Having meaning and purpose — being connected to something bigger than yourself — is key to well-being. Diener finds meaning conducting research. Retirees may find it volunteering. Children may find it in being kind to those who are bullied.
Climbing out of poverty, people experience a "steep" increase in their happiness and it continues to grow for a while, but levels off. Somewhere above $80,000 to $100,000, there's no additional happiness benefit. And studies show wealthy people often experience a decrease in happiness.
"Everyone enjoys money and the things it can buy, but income only makes you happy to a point," says Dr. Fran Walfish, a Los Angeles psychotherapist and author of several books, including "The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child." "To target deeper joy, one must reap happiness or good feeling from a human-to-human interactive experience. The deepest pleasures are derived from giving, appreciation and gratitude."
"Happiness is both social and personal," says the 2017 World Happiness Report, part of the U.N. High Level Meeting on Well-being and Happiness, based on Gallup World Poll data. Among the "main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance" — traits that can be taught and supported.
On the report's scale of 1 to 10, Syrians, Burundians and Central Africans rated their happiness and well-being the lowest, around 3, compared with around 7.5 for those at the top, including Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland. Americans were 6.993.
Harris Poll's most recent Happiness Index found three-fourths of American respondents are optimistic about the future and 80 percent are "generally happy with their life right now." Women are happier on average than men. People with college degrees are happier than those without them. Folks in the South are happier compared to other regions. Married folks are happier than unmarried. Diener adds a caveat: Those married folks also were happier before they got married, so it's possible marriage appeals more to happier people.
The Happiness Index found older Americans, those 55 and older, are happier than younger Americans.
Religious folks are happier than non believers.
Mental illness devastates happiness.
Physical environment matters. "We know air pollution lowers well-being to some degree," says Diener.
Places with higher inequality are less happy. "But ideology buffers it to some degree," says Diener. "If you think it's fair and that your kids could become wealthy, inequality doesn't hurt as much as if you are, say, a liberal European and think inequality's terrible. Then it seems to lower your well-being even more."
Even when agreement exists that things should be fair, though, political ideologies are often at war on how to accomplish it, he notes.
There are happiness factors that can't be controlled, like where you're born or who raised you, says Diener. But others you can influence, including relationships and positivity. It's similar to genetic components to health: You can increase your chance of good or decrease your chance of bad.
"Enjoying your work, being grateful and having positive relationships" are time-tested, proven ways to improve happiness, says Diener.
Maw takes that approach to what feels like a spate of national bad temper: On social media, she focuses on things she likes about even those with whom she disagrees. If nothing else, you can admire someone's willingness to express an opinion, however odious, she says.
You need to be nice to yourself, too. Maw likes the story of author Jack Canfield, who said nice things to himself in the mirror for 40 days to overcome self-doubt. Maw adopted a shorter version and "over time, I have noticed a dramatic improvement in the way I talk to and about myself, even in hard times. I'm happier." The feelings one feeds grow stronger, she says, whether anger or joy.
Walfish says being grateful boosts happiness. So does cherishing independence, setting aside the quest for perfection and being supportive and motivating instead of critical. She treats people as if they are good. "Most people are good. Those who are not will reveal themselves in time and you can weed out the ones who are not worthy of friendship."
The experts say schools and families can teach children skills that build happiness, such as sticking up for others. It's possible to coach kids to be grateful and to express both gratitude and positivity to others. That, in turn, increases the child's happiness, Diener says.
Diener notes parents would do well to help their children care about social problems — to a point. "Being a little worried about societal problems is fine. But focusing only on societal problems and not recognizing all the good things going on" is not helpful. Fighting over whether a political figure is good or bad, for example, takes away from noticing that "there are still a lot of good things in society."
In a college class Diener teaches, he assigns exercises emphasizing skills parents could use with their children, as well: a gratitude intervention, a positivity intervention, thanking people and being mindful, among others.
"The devices are amazing in how they grab young people's attention," says Diener.