Building Personal Resilience  |  Self-Care

The Science of Happiness

BY KHOO TECK PUAT HOSPITAL THRIVE

21 January 2021  |   8 min read

Happiness in life can be achieved through living in a way that promotes emotional well-being. Happiness is derived from within oneself and not from the outside.

Research shows that happiness can be achieved when we invest in these ways of living:

  • Experiencing positive moments and developing a sense of gratitude;
  • Investing in a meaningful career or finding meaning in our work;
  • Developing meaningful relationships with family and friends;
  • Contributing to the community and volunteering for a cause we believe in;
  • Having financial security;
  • Finding time to do a hobby which engages our mind;
  • Investing time and effort to maintain good physical and mental health.

Some people are just born less happy than others. Is that true?

It is believed that about 25% to 50% of a person’s personality is genetically determined and stable over time. Scientists have also followed a single group of people over many years. They conclude that the basic temperament of a person is stable over time. For example, people who are anxious or pessimistic when young tend to be the same when they are old. People who are cheerful and extroverted in their youth are more or less the same when they are older. The values of a person may change with life’s circumstance and through learning. For example, they may be kinder and more generous at a certain phase in life compared to others. However, their basic personality remains the same. Some people are born more pessimistic than others while others are naturally optimistic. Regardless of the personality that one is born with, they can learn how to enhance their happiness.

Does happiness change with age and does it differ between men and women?

Research involving over 400,000 people show that people are happiest in their early adulthood and when they are older than 50. After 50 years old, the level of happiness becomes increasing higher as one grows older and more mature. Happiness continues to increase until illness occurs. In the 30s and 40s, the drive to succeed, the competitiveness and the need to establish yourself in your career can diminish happiness. There is also the need to balance career, personal time and family time. After 50 years old, people are more accepting of oneself and they are more contented.

I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be and that’s not unusual.
No it isn’t strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same
After changes we are more or less the same

-Paul Simon, The Boxer

In general, women are slightly happier than men as they have more social support from friends and family. Men tend to be solitary and have fewer close friends.

Does money make you happy?

For those who are trying to make ends meet, making more money generally adds to a person’s happiness. However, once a person has enough to provide adequately for the family and oneself, studies show that more money does not lead to much more happiness. For those who are financially secure, studies show that a balanced life of maintaining relationships, being engaged in a hobby and volunteering add to more happiness than more paid work. If more money comes at a cost of more stress and responsibility in a job that a person is not passionate about, it will not add to one’s happiness.

Does owning more, having more and achieving more make you happier?

People are happier giving than receiving. Many companies encourage us to buy things to be happy. They suggest to us that we will be happy if we own their product. Studies show that the happy feeling after shopping lasts for hours to a few days. When you reflect on how much happiness you gained from your last purchase, you would agree it lasted for a short time. Much desire occurs prior to the purchase but the good feeling diminishes after a while. True and lasting happiness comes from within a person’s mind. It is achieved by loving others, accepting love, contributing to your family and community, purposeful work, having good relationships and having enough to be financially secure.

Is it better to be married or single?

People in a stable, nurturing relationship are happier than those who are single or widowed. While in a relationship, betrayal can be one of the nastiest emotions encountered. Time and effort spent building strong relationships with partners, spouses, family and friends will go a long way to add to one’s happiness.

What are happy feelings?

Happy feelings are more than just joy and peace. The feelings of contentment, gratitude and wonder can add great happiness to your life. Make it a daily habit to seek out funny, amazing stories or read articles of the kind and inspirational acts of people. The more we fill our minds with positive and happy feelings, the happier we will become.

What is the human psychology of attention?

Humans focus more on bad news than good news. We tend to focus on the bad things that have happened to us rather than the good things. It is said if you offend a person, it takes 7-10 good things to make up for 1 bad thing done to that person. Newspapers report on accidents, disasters and bad things that happen to people rather than the good things that occur every day. Therefore, we need to retrain our minds to focus on the many good things in our lives. This can be done through a daily effort to remember 3 good things that happened that day. It can be something that was marvelous such as winning a lottery to simple things like good weather and also appreciating simple things like being alive. By training our minds to look to good things and appreciating that more good things happen than bad things, we will naturally grow happier.

How do we generate good feelings?

Good feelings can be generated easily and feelings of happiness, contentment and wonder can be found on the internet. Websites like www.dailygood.org have many stories of people who do kind acts which impact the community. Youtube.com is an internet service that has many videos on funny things. Cultivating gratitude is a good way of feeling satisfied. Gratitude can be cultivated by spending a short time each day to think about 3 good things that happened that day. One can also reflect upon those who have helped us. For everyone who succeeds in life, they stand on the shoulders of giants who helped them in one way or another. One must not forget the source of our success and achievement.

Good feelings can also be generated when we give generously to others. Volunteering in a cause you believe in will add heaps to your happiness. Giving to others in gifts, actions, time or service will generate good feelings. Giving should be selfless and done with no expectation of a return from others. This will lead to abundant happiness.

Flow occurs when you are engaged deeply in your activity and you experience great enjoyment and purpose. Time seems to pass easily. The best way to experience flow is to do a hobby that you really enjoy. For example, a good baker will feel engaged while he makes incredible pastries. The more one experiences a state of flow, the happier he will be. By finding time to enjoy your hobby, you are more likely to find yourself in a state of flow and happier.

Can happiness be transmitted from one person to another?

Humans are social creatures and we have empathy neurons in our brains that allow us to feel what others feel. Smiling even when there is nothing funny can make on happier. By smiling more, other people smile back and everyone is happier. If you can help your situation, it is better to hang around happy and positive people. In a similar way, studies have also shown that low mood can be transmitted between people and affects the morale of the whole group. If you want a happy environment, be the change that makes others happy.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

– Gandhi

This is republished with permission from Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) THRIVE.

It is part of Achieving Happiness in Singapore, a toolkit by the Ministry of Health and Agency for

Integrated Care under the THRIVE-ASCAT Community Mental Health Programme.