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Mind, body, soul and science: Researching happiness at SLU and Wash. U

via Flickr (Enokson)


There has always been introspection and curiosity about the bases of that fundamental human emotion, happiness. Philosophers, psychologists, religious scholars, anthropologists, and economists have all separately investigated the nature of emotional well-being and come to typically separate conclusions: maybe some people are just predisposed to happiness; maybe we can buy it; maybe smiling is the cause and effect of a good mood.

But in the end, there are no easy answers to our most pressing questions about happiness: how is it defined, why does it benefit us, and how can we get more of it?

Cue Saint Louis University’s three-year, $5.1 million initiative to study happiness, which brings researchers in philosophy, theology, and the hard sciences together in an attempt to determine the nature, causes and significance of overall well-being.

On Tuesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” researchers in philosophy, psychology, and psychiatry—including the head of SLU’s project, Professor Dan Haybron—joined the show to try and answer some of the biggest questions about our own well-being. They began by explaining some existing research on happiness.

A positive hypothesis

The first order of business in scientific research is defining your subject. But definitions of happiness are both plentiful and elusive.

In philosophy, Greek hedonists conceptualized happiness as bodily and emotional pleasure. But philosophers soon questioned whether pleasure was the same thing as happiness, or simply a corollary to it. Tim Bono, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, said that hedonistic pleasure is “the stuff that feels good in the moment, in the here and now”—but happiness is not the sum of life’s pleasures.

Bono referenced the Greek term eudaemonia, which is translated roughly to mean ‘happiness’ but refers more generally to welfare, prosperity, or—so Wikipedia says—‘human flourishing.’ Eudaemonia is certainly a different feeling from the pleasure of eating an ice cream cone or having a hearty laugh; it is a longer-term, gentler, more subtle kind of pleasure.

Bono said that it’s quite possible to live a happy life even without day-to-day pleasure, so long as one feels like he or she is fulfilling some larger goal. He cited ascetics: Mother Theresa, for example, or young parents—who live in stress and relative discomfort but nonetheless feel fulfilled, joyful and, yes, happy.

“Often in psychology we refer to happiness as being subjective well-being, with an important emphasis on the word subjective,” Bono said. The way people appraise the circumstances of their own lives is the most reliable measure of their emotional experiences.

Dan Haybron, professor of philosophy who is leading SLU’s project, took a slightly different tack. “In my own work I tend to think of happiness as what researchers call emotional well-being, roughly the opposite of anxiety and depression.” But he, too, noted that individuals’ judgment of their own ”life satisfaction” is a factor in happiness.

Measuring something so nebulous and vague may seem to make scientific research especially difficult, but Haybron and Bono said that’s not the case. Gathering data about happiness is easy if scientists buck tradition and use the term quite broadly.

“Most of the research is done [by] just asking people questions,” Bono said. Researchers break big questions down to more specific metrics, asking not ‘Are you happy?’ but questions such as: Did you feel sad during a significant proportion of the day? How many times did you laugh? On a scale from 1-10, how happy are you right now?

Because happiness is subjective anyway, Bono continued, subjects’ honest appraisals of their own mood are usually accurate. And now, there’s an additional check on the accuracy of individuals’ self-reported mood: neuroscience has identified that activation in the left side of the prefrontal cortex of the brain corresponds with feelings of happiness relative to the right side.

Tim Bono (left) of Washington University and Dan Haybron (right) of SLU.
Credit Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
Tim Bono (left) of Washington University and Dan Haybron (right) of SLU.

This science is important for more than just satisfying human curiosity about our own inner workings. Thoughts, Bono said, are a very important predictor of overall well-being. Sometimes just thinking about happiness is enough to incrementally improve mood. But also, happiness is associated with important mental and bodily health outcomes: better cognitive performance, extended longevity, increased health and higher rates of success in personal endeavors.

Body and mind (and genetics and environment)

Dr. Robert Cloninger is a professor of psychiatry and genetics at Washington University, and the director for its Center for Well-Being. He indicated that Bono and Haybron’s definitions were correct: well-being is a broader concept of happiness, and there is “a close relationship between social, emotional, and physical well-being.”

Cloninger pointed out that “we often falsely think of happiness as someone sitting in a yoga position on a beautiful mountaintop or beach.” But it’s not that simple. The whole body is connected, he said, and well-being has as much to do with living a body-healthy life as well as a subjectively good one. In that way, happiness is a question of lifestyle: intentionally working towards well-being can do a great deal to increase one’s lifelong enjoyment and engagement and day-to-day mood.

One of the most robust results from happiness research is the benefit of exercise, Bono said. Exercising on a regular basis is one of the easiest ways to increase overall well-being in both an immediate time frame and over the long-term. And with regular athletic activity often comes what Haybron called the “flow state”—in layman’s terms, the “zone”—that focused but meditative state in which an individual is wholly engaged on the task they are performing.

Another simple but wildly successful happiness ‘treatment’ is “the simple practice of gratitude,” Bono said. Studies have shown that people who take a couple of minutes to focus their attention on the good things in their lives have shown marked increases in happiness and optimism. That may not be surprising; but the regularly grateful also show reduced rates of illness and higher reported energy.

Dr. Robert Cloninger of Washington University.
Credit Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Robert Cloninger of Washington University.

There are contributors and detractors to happiness that fall out of our control. Genetic predispositions for happiness or unhappiness account for about 50% of our overall mental well-being, Bono said. And while inheritance does not mean destiny or doom, it does play a strong role in how we tend to perceive, handle, and remember life events that impact our well-being.

A person’s environment also plays a key role. Communities that value social support tend to have low rates of depression, Bono said. And while the U.S. as a whole typically self-reports as pretty happy, Haybron sees problems with the national metric. He indicated in the U.S., unhappiness may look like a negative personal quality.

“It’s sort of like asking if you’re intelligent or good-looking…nobody wants to say they’re unhappy,” Haybron said. And if you look closer, there are many indicators of unhappiness in the U.S.: loneliness, stress, depression and trouble sleeping.

Cloninger noted that the U.S. is generally a more narcissistic culture than others. And while the kind of self-direction and motivation typified and encouraged in the U.S. psyche can bode well for building individual well-being, it may also mean that Americans are highly competitive and vulnerable to failure. And that, Cloninger said, is not necessarily healthy.

The opposite of happiness is…not always bad

Happiness, despite its overwhelmingly positive relationship with bodily health, emotional strength, and cognitive ability, is not necessarily all good. We are not happy every hour, or even every day. This does not mean that un-happy moments are inherently bad, Bono said. “Our emotions reside on a continuum,” and the antithesis of happiness is not necessarily unhappiness.

Small moments of so-called negative emotion are appropriate, Haybron said. “We have all these different emotions for a reason. Sadness and anger and fear are all healthy in their place, and they all have a role.”

It’s when any emotion is blown out of balance that things get rough, Haybron said: when small stresses turn into anxiety, and when a blue moment turns into an entire month of “psychic disengagement.”

Cloninger emphasized the need to understand happiness as a multifaceted state of being, rather than a simple joyful goal. Science has shown that the body, mind and environment work together in complex and intricate ways; treating only one or the other is missing the point.

“The process of treating depression or anxiety,” he said, “is very much a matter of helping the person become aware of who they are now, and what they would like to become—by cultivating the strengths and potential that they have within themselves.”

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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