When Looking for Happiness, Take the Long View

The positive effects of happiness go well beyond simply feeling good. Researchers have repeatedly shown happiness to increase success, financial gain, mental health and even longevity. And through painstaking experimental work, they've narrowed down the direction of the causal arrow.

The research shows that it's not that having health and wealth make one happier, but happiness that must come first.

Unfortunately, it will take years for most people to reach their peak of life enjoyment as happiness ratings, on any number of dimensions, tend to increase with age.

Indeed, one of the few undisputed--or less disputed--benefits of aging is greater overall life enjoyment, that more positive evaluation of everyday existence. This phenomenon of increasingly focusing on "happy" information is known as the positivity effect. But why does it happen?

A recent study in Emotion suggests that older people lose the negative valence bias of their more youthful counterparts. That is, rather than simply gaining a positive outlook, they look less at potentially negative inputs, and when they do take in negative information, they see it in a more positive light.

This processing change is physiological as well as mental: the study used neurophysiological indicators to map the presence of negativity bias in an emotional memory task, and showed that the positivity effect could be observed in brain and body chemistry as well as behavior. So, when older subjects did not exhibit negativity bias during recall, the relevant neurophysiological measures were substantially correlated with behavior, suggesting that actual internal changes accompanied the external absence of negativity.

So can we beat the aging machine and engage the positivity effect as early as possible? The results of a recent collaboration of leading happiness researchers has one suggestion: focus on in-the-moment positive emotions, not "general" life evaluation.

According to the study, positive everyday thoughts increase ego resilience, which in turn leads to increased overall life satisfaction. The findings are based on the "broaden-and-build" theory: happiness leads to thoughts that are more creative than those needed for immediate survival, and that over time, become important resources themselves. These resources in turn improve life quality. It's a cycle: positive emotions make for greater resilience, which in turn increases positive emotions. The key it seems is to think happy thoughts often and regularly in response to the mundane. The general picture matters far less.

When Big Think interviewed Sam Harris, he agreed, suggesting that happiness was an intrinsic awareness in the present moment, focused attention on immediate experience that is not contingent on the next good thing that is going to happen.

Leading happiness researcher Dan Gilbert, however, would likely urge caution in over-applying this advice. The future is important, and forecasting for it, thinking about general well-being, is part of how we become happier in the present.

As with everything, the happiest people are likely those that have struck the right balance. But it's not easy to put negativity in perspective when things go wrong. Sometimes it takes a near-death experience to appreciate the small things that go right on a day to day basis.  Short of that, the best we can do is try.

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