Sherif Arafa Dr. Diener, what are you working on now? What are the newest developments in research on happiness?
Ed Diener Let me talk about three things: the benefits of happiness, policies that governments can take that contribute to well-being, and actions that people can take that raise well-being.
Benefits of happiness.
For decades we studied what makes people happy, and also created measures of happiness and tested the validity of these measures. More recently we have been asking whether happiness is a good thing. Could it be that happiness is self-indulgent and frivolous compared to work and family and religion?
We find the opposite: we find over and over that happy people are the ones who function more effectively and also help society more.
First, it is important not to confuse happiness with simply having fun, for example by going to parties, playing sports, and participating in leisure activities. The deep and long-lasting sources of happiness contribute to what we call sustainable happiness, which is lasting, not just momentary. What are the effects of sustainable happiness? Are they desirable, or do they lead people to be lazy, uncaring about world problems, and unaware of the important things in life?
Looking at outcomes, we find that sustainable happiness leads to:
- Better health and longevity: Happy people live longer and experience better health
- Superior work performance, especially organizational citizenship
- More supportive social relationships, for example, being less likely to get divorced
- Better citizenship and more prosocial behaviors, for example, being more likely to help others, volunteer, or donate money to charity
- Better mental health and resilience when confronted by stressful events, for example, being less likely to suffer from mental health problems such as depression, and more likely to bounce back after something bad happens
The benefits of sustainable happiness are broad and important. They cannot be ignored. TO REPEAT: happy people do not just feel better, but they function better in achieving the things we value. They help society. They help those around them to also lead high-quality lives. Happy people are not uncaring selfish people. They have the energy and desire to work on societal problems as much as or more than others.Policies for well-being
More and more nations are starting to assess the well-being of citizens, for example by measuring life satisfaction and meaning in life. These measures can tell us who in a society is suffering versus flourishing and what factors are producing boosts versus detriments to happiness.
For example, in the United Kingdom, several billion extra pounds have now been allotted by the government to the treatment of mental illness. Why? Because mental illness was found to be a major, if not THE major, source of suffering in the UK. Furthermore, it was found that less was spent on treating mental illness than on other major diseases. So lots of suffering, but greatly underfunded. This led parliament to change funding priorities.We know that some environmental factors such as air pollution can lower well-being, and other environmental factors such as parks and green space can raise it. Governments currently rely on various societal indicators such as income and unemployment, educational achievement, and health measures. We now know that indicators of psychosocial well-being can add valuable information that helps leaders make more astute policies and program decisions.
Interventions to raise well-being
Positive psychologists have development many interventions to improve people’s happiness. These treatments are aimed not just at removing feeling miserable, for example by removing depression, but also at taking average people higher in well-being.
We have put the best of these interventions together in a package we call ENHANCE. ENHANCE aims to teach people skills and ways of thinking that will make them happier.
One set of lessons in ENHANCE helps people think about their values, their strengths, and their goals, and make certain these are aligned. ENHANCE teaches people to be more positive in social interactions, for example, by expressing gratitude and praise more often. Yet other ENHANCE lessons help people deal with stress and negative feelings.
We have run tightly controlled studies on ENHANCE now. The course takes about 10 weeks to complete, with lessons practiced by people in their everyday lives. They read a lesson and then go out and practice what they have learned, so that a positive habit develops. We find that ENHANCE raises people’s life satisfaction and enjoyment of life.
We also find that ENHANCE may have some physical health effects, even though it is aimed at psychosocial well-being. For example, after ENHANCE, people appear to have fewer sick days and have lower blood pressure. They also function better cognitively in terms of thinking and attention. Thus, not only can the well-being interventions make people feel better, but they may also help them function more effectively.
Kushlev, K., Heintzelman, S, J., Lutes, L. D., Wirtz D., Oishi S., Diener E. (2017). ENHANCE: Design and rationale of a randomized controlled trial for promoting enduring happiness & well-being. Contemporary Clinical Trials, 52: 62-74. doi: 10.1016/j.cct.2016.11.003. Meet the ENHANCE team.
Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.
Diener, E., Lucas, R., Schimmack, U., & Helliwell, J. (2009). Well-Being for Public Policy (Positive Psychology). New York: Oxford University Press.
Photo of Ed Diener used with permission.
Volunteer in library Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash
Central Park Photo by Trent Szmolnik on Unsplash
Central Park Walkway Photo by Alua Magzumova on Unsplash
Positive Interactions Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash