Get Happy, and You'll Live Longer
Health: The clear view on how to sweat, smile, and style your way to a better body
Ever envy those Pollyanna types who skip around with a smile on their faces? While some people may be born with sunny dispositions, happiness isn't necessarily based on genes or luck. Psychologists now believe it's a learned skill, almost like knitting. In fact, Harvard's how-to-be-happy course, with more than 850 enrollees, has become the university's most popular class. Its first lesson? Embrace your failures and frustrations. "When you give yourself permission to be human," says course instructor and psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, "you are more likely to open yourself up to positive emotions."
And better health. Nearly a dozen studies show that happier people live longer. They're also less likely to suffer heart attacks, strokes, and pain from conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. Plus, Carnegie Mellon researchers last month found that people who express positive emotions come down with fewer colds and flus after being exposed to the viruses than those who express negative emotions like anger, sadness, or stress.
Set point. While moods can change day to day-even hour to hour-psychologists used to believe that life satisfaction levels remained stable over time, always returning to a "set point" after a traumatic or happy event. A recent study from the University of Illinois, though, suggests that this set point can shift over the years. What's more, there are ways to push the needle on the gauge toward happy. In fact, experts-who refer to themselves as positive psychologists-have found that such simple acts as being grateful for what you have can help improve your outlook. "We need to look for happiness in the right places," Ben-Shahar says.
Those places don't include Tiffany's or a BMW dealership. The joy in acquiring objects of desire dissipates quickly. "Like french vanilla ice cream, material things are great at the first taste, but then after a while they lose their flavor," says happiness researcher Martin Seligman, who started a positive psychology master's program at the University of Pennsylvania. Through his studies, he identified specific steps that can help increase happiness over the long haul.
Go for real goals. It's better to think of happiness in terms of leading a meaningful life. "It's about being in the flow, completely absorbed by your work, the pursuit of your goals, the people you love, and your leisure activities," says Seligman.
Make a gratitude visit. Deliver a thank-you note to someone who's been especially kind or helpful but never properly appreciated. When you feel thankful, you get pleasure from remembering a positive life event. Plus, you'll strengthen a relationship that may bring you future happiness.
Focus on the good things. You probably spend more time each day thinking about what went wrong rather than what went right. Jot down three things that went well each day and explain why. "This will help you feel more grateful for what you have and more hopeful about the future," says Seligman.
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.