Are we wired up to be cheerful, or are some of us destined to languish in abject misery? Dorothy Wade reports on the new science of feeling good
Behind the neoclassical facade of the Royal Institution, in London's Mayfair, the latest in a 200-year series of lectures was taking place in a hushed amphitheatre this summer. Standing on the shoulders of scientific giants such as Faraday and Dewar were three academics debating "Happiness, the science behind your smile".
Purists might imagine the founding geniuses of the Royal Institution turning in their graves. What does science have to tell us about such a frivolous subject? And how do you define happiness, let alone study it? But happiness has finally burst out of the academic closet. Several weighty volumes on the subject have been published this year. And on the same night as the RI event, the economist Lord Layard and the psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud were debating the Politics of Happiness at the London School of Economics just a mile away.
Perversely, happiness has a negative image in our culture. Influenced by a sceptical European philosophical outlook, we think of happiness as a trivial pursuit for the Oprah generation, a Shangri-La perpetuated by self-help gurus. Isn't it selfish to try to increase our happiness, while much of the world faces suffering and premature death?
Great writers from Freud — "the intention that man should be happy is not included in the plan of Creation" — to Philip Larkin — "man hands on misery to man" — have painted happiness as an elusive butterfly. But ordinary people believe they are happier than average (an obvious impossibility) and that they'll be even happier in 10 years' time. If true, it would be good news because research shows that happier people are healthier, more successful, harder-working, caring and more socially engaged. Misery makes people self-obsessed and inactive.
These are the conclusions of a burgeoning happiness industry that has published 3,000 papers, set up a Journal of Happiness Studies and created a World Database of Happiness in the last few years.
Can scientists tell us what happiness is?
Economists accept that if people describe themselves as happy, then they are happy. However, psychologists differentiate between levels of happiness. The most immediate type involves a feeling; pleasure or joy. But sometimes happiness is a judgment that life is satisfying, and does not imply an emotional state.
Public surveys measure what makes us happy. Marriage does, pets do, but children don't seem to (despite what we think). Youth and old age are the happiest times. Money does not add much to happiness; in Britain, incomes have trebled since 1950, but happiness has not increased at all. The happiness of lottery winners returns to former levels within a year. People disabled in an accident are likely to become almost as happy again. For happiness levels are probably genetic: identical twins are usually equally bubbly or grumpy.
One thing makes a striking difference. When two American psychologists studied hundreds of students and focused on the top 10% "very happy" people, they found they spent the least time alone and the most time socialising. Psychologists know that increasing the number of social contacts a miserable person has is the best way of cheering them up. When Jean-Paul Sartre wrote "hell is other people", the arch-pessimist of existentialist angst was wrong.
America has pursued the chimera of happiness vigorously, not least through the insatiable consumption of self-help literature such as Climb Your Stairway to Heaven: 9 Tips for Daily Happiness! So it is no surprise that it's an American who is making happiness a subject of scientific study. At first glance, Martin Seligman's bestselling book Authentic Happiness, with its sunshine-yellow title on a sky-blue cover, blends with other manuals on the pop-psychology shelves. But America's latest guru of feeling good is not a stage hypnotist, an evangelical preacher or even a business visionary. Seligman is an eminent professor of psychology with a string of degrees. One of the chief architects of the prevailing model of depression, his work has helped to found modern "cognitive" therapies.
The man who's trying to do for happiness what Newton did for gravity has found it a scarce commodity in life. Seligman describes himself as a "walking nimbus cloud" who spent 50 years "enduring mostly wet weather in my soul". Feeling out of place as a chubby 13-year-old Jewish kid at a wealthy college, he hit on the role of therapist as a route to the hearts of unattainable girls. "What a brilliant stroke! I'll bet no other guy ever listened to them ruminate about their insecurities, nightmares and bleakest fantasies."
As a psychology graduate working in animal- behaviour labs, Seligman discovered "learned helplessness" and became a big name. Dogs who experience electric shocks that they cannot avoid by their actions simply give up trying. They will passively endure later shocks that they could easily escape. Seligman went on to apply this to humans, with "learned helplessness" as a model for depression. People who feel battered by unsolvable problems learn to be helpless; they become passive, slower to learn, anxious and sad. This idea revolutionised behavioural psychology and therapy by suggesting the need to challenge depressed people's beliefs and thought patterns, not just their behaviour.
Now Seligman is famous again, this time for creating the field of positive psychology. In 1997 the professor was seeking a theme for his presidency of the American Psychological Association. The idea came while gardening with his daughter Nikki. She was throwing weeds around and he was shouting. She reminded him that she used to be a whiner but had stopped on her fifth birthday. "And if I can stop whining, you can stop being a grouch."
Seligman describes this as an "epiphany". He vowed to change his own outlook, but more importantly recognised a strength — social intelligence — in his daughter that could be nurtured to help her withstand the vicissitudes of life. Looking back on "learned helplessness", he reflected that one in three subjects — rats, dogs or people — never became "helpless", no matter how many shocks or problems beset them.
"What is it about some people that imparts buffering strength, making them invulnerable to helplessness?" Seligman asked himself — and now he's made it his mission to find out.
Since its origins in a Leipzig laboratory 130 years ago, psychology has had little to say about goodness and contentment. Mostly psychologists have concerned themselves with weakness and misery. There are libraries full of theories about why we get sad, worried, and angry. It hasn't been respectable science to study what happens when lives go well. Positive experiences, such as joy, kindness, altruism and heroism, have mainly been ignored. For every 100 psychology papers dealing with anxiety or depression, only one concerns a positive trait.
A few pioneers in experimental psychology bucked the trend. Professor Alice Isen of Cornell University and colleagues have demonstrated how positive emotions make people think faster and more creatively. Showing how easy it is to give people an intellectual boost, Isen divided doctors making a tricky diagnosis into three groups: one received candy, one read humanistic statements about medicine, one was a control group. The doctors who had candy displayed the most creative thinking and worked more efficiently.
Inspired by Isen and others, Seligman got stuck in. He wanted to revolutionise psychology, but his weapon would be tough science. Clinical psychology was the science of how to get from minus five to zero. This would be the science of getting from zero to plus five. Seligman wanted experiments, he wanted statistics, he wanted proof.
He raised millions of dollars of research money and funded 50 research groups involving 150 scientists across the world. Four positive psychology centres opened, decorated in cheerful colours and furnished with sofas and baby-sitters. There were get-togethers on Mexican beaches where psychologists would snorkel and eat fajitas, then form "pods" to discuss subjects such as wonder and awe. A thousand therapists were coached in the new science.
Their holy grail is the classification of strengths and virtues. After a solemn consultation of great works such as the samurai code, the Bhagavad-Gita and the writings of Confucius, Aristotle and Aquinas, Seligman's happiness scouts discovered six core virtues recognised in all cultures: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. They have subdivided these into 24 strengths, including humour and honesty.
But critics are demanding answers to big questions. What is the point of defining levels of happiness and classifying the virtues? Aren't these concepts vague and impossible to pin down? Can you justify spending funds to research positive states when there are problems such as famine, flood and epidemic depression to be solved?
Seligman knows his work can be belittled alongside trite notions such as "the power of positive thinking". His plan to stop the new science floating "on the waves of self- improvement fashions" is to make sure it is anchored to positive philosophy above, and to positive biology below. And this takes us back to our evolutionary past.
Homo sapiens evolved during the Pleistocene era (1.8 m to 10,000 years ago), a time of hardship and turmoil. It was the Ice Age, and our ancestors endured long freezes as glaciers formed, then ferocious floods as the ice masses melted. We shared the planet with terrifying creatures such as mammoths, elephant-sized ground sloths and sabre-toothed cats.
But by the end of the Pleistocene, all these animals were extinct. Humans, on the other hand, had evolved large brains and used their intelligence to make fire and sophisticated tools, to develop talk and social rituals.
Survival in a time of adversity forged our brains into a persistent mould. Professor Seligman says: "Because our brain evolved during a time of ice, flood and famine, we have a catastrophic brain. The way the brain works is looking for what's wrong. The problem is, that worked in the Pleistocene era. It favoured you, but it doesn't work in the modern world."
Although most people rate themselves as happy, there is a wealth of evidence to show that negative thinking is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Experiments show that we remember failures more vividly than successes. We dwell on what went badly, not what went well. When life runs smoothly, we're on autopilot — we're only in a state of true consciousness when we notice the stone in our shoe.
Of the six universal emotions, four — anger, fear, disgust and sadness — are negative and only one, joy, is positive. (The sixth, surprise, is neutral.) According to the psychologist Daniel Nettle, author of Happiness, and one of the Royal Institution lecturers, the negative emotions each tell us "something bad has happened" and suggest a different course of action. Fear tells us danger is near, so run away. Anger prompts us to deter aggressors. Sadness warns us to be cautious and save energy, while disgust urges us to avoid contamination.
Joy, according to Nettle, simply tells us, "something good has happened, don't change anything". The evolutionary role of pleasure was to encourage activity that was good for survival, such as eating and having sex. But unlike negative emotions, which are often persistent, joy tends to be short-lived. We soon get sick of cream cakes or blasé about our pay rise.
What is it about the structure of the brain that underlies our bias towards negative thinking? And is there a biology of joy? At Iowa University, neuroscientists studied what happens when people are shown pleasant and unpleasant pictures. When subjects see landscapes or dolphins playing, part of the frontal lobe of the brain becomes active. But when they are shown unpleasant images — a bird covered in oil, or a dead soldier with part of his face missing — the response comes from more primitive parts of the brain.
The ability to feel negative emotions derives from an ancient danger-recognition system formed early in the brain's evolution. The pre-frontal cortex, which registers happiness, is the part used for higher thinking, an area that evolved later in human history.
Professor Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin has scanned brains in different emotional states. When he wired up a Buddhist monk entering a state of bliss through meditation, he found electrical activity shooting up the frontal lobe of the monk's brain on the left side. Observing toddlers at play, he picked some who were exuberant and uninhibited, behaviour linked to higher levels of positive emotion, and others who were quiet and shy. Tested later, the inhibited toddlers showed greater activity on the brain's right side; activation of the lively toddlers' brains was on the left. Happiness and sadness are lopsided.
Modern humans, stuck with an ancient brain, are like rats on a wheel. We can't stop running, because we're always looking over our shoulders and comparing our achievements with our neighbours'. At 20, we think we'd be happy with a house and a car. But if we get them, we start dreaming of a second home in Italy and a turbo-charged four-wheel-drive.
This is called the "hedonic treadmill" by happiness scholars. It causes us to rapidly and inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted. The more possessions and accomplishments we have, the more we need to boost our level of happiness. It makes sense that the brain of a species that has dominated others would evolve to strive to be best.
Our difficulty, according to Daniel Nettle, is that the brain systems for liking and wanting are separate. Wanting involves two ancient regions — the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens — that communicate using the chemical dopamine to form the brain's reward system. They are involved in anticipating the pleasure of eating and in addiction to drugs. A rat will press a bar repeatedly, ignoring sexually available partners, to receive electrical stimulation of the "wanting" parts of the brain. But having received brain stimulation, the rat eats more but shows no sign of enjoying the food it craved. In humans, a drug like nicotine produces much craving but little pleasure.
At the Royal Institution, Nettle explained how brain chemistry foils our pursuit of happiness in the modern world: "The things that you desire are not the things that you end up liking. The mechanisms of desire are insatiable. There are things that we really like and tire of less quickly — having good friends, the beauty of the natural world, spirituality. But our economic system plays into the psychology of wanting, and the psychology of liking gets drowned out."
Liking involves different brain chemicals from wanting. Real pleasure is associated with opioids. They are released in the rat brain by sweet tastes. When they are blocked in humans, food tastes less delicious. They also dampen down pain so that pleasure is unadulterated.
Happiness is neither desire nor pleasure alone. It involves a third chemical pathway. Serotonin constantly shifts the balance between negative and positive emotions. It can reduce worry, fear, panic and sleeplessness and increase sociability, co-operation, and happy feelings. Drugs based
on serotonin, such as ecstasy, produce a relaxed sense of wellbeing rather than the dopamine pattern of euphoria and craving.
In essence, what the biology lesson tells us is that negative emotions are fundamental to the human condition, and it's no wonder they are difficult to eradicate. At the same time, by a trick of nature, our brains are designed to crave but never really achieve lasting happiness.
Psychologists such as Seligman are convinced you can train yourself to be happier. His teams are developing new positive interventions (treatments) to counteract the brain's nagging insistence on seeking out bad news. The treatments work by boosting positive emotion about the past, by teaching people to savour the present, and by increasing the amount of engagement and meaning in their lives.
Since the days of Freud, the emphasis in consulting rooms has been on talk about negative effects of the past and how they damage people in the present. Seligman names this approach "victimology" and says research shows it to be worthless: "It is difficult to find even small effects of childhood events on adult personality, and there is no evidence at all of large effects."
The tragic legacy of Freud is that many are "unduly embittered about their past, and unduly passive about their future", says Seligman. His colleague Aaron Beck developed cognitive therapy after becoming disillusioned with his Freudian training in the 1950s. Beck found that as depressed patients talked "cathartically" about past wounds and losses, some people began to unravel. Occasionally this led to suicide attempts, some of which were fatal. There was very little evidence that psychoanalysis worked.
Cognitive therapy places less emphasis on the past. It works by challenging a person's thinking about the present and setting goals for the future. Another newcomer, brief solution-focused therapy, discourages talk about "problems" and helps clients identify strengths and resources to make positive changes in their lives.
The focus of most psychotherapy is on decreasing negative emotion. The aim of Seligman's therapy is to increase positive emotion (positive and negative emotions are not polar opposites and can co-exist: women have more of both than men). From the time of Buddha to the self-improvement industry of today, more than 100 "interventions" have been tried in the attempt to build happiness. Forty of these are being tested in randomised placebo-controlled trials by Seligman and his colleagues.
In one internet study, two interventions increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for at least six months. One exercise involves writing down three things that went well and why, every day for a week. The other is about identifying your signature strengths and using one of them in a new and different way every day for a week. A third technique involves writing a long letter to someone you're grateful to but have never properly thanked, and visiting them to read it out in person.
Seligman and his graduate students weep tears of joy when they do this exercise, but most Brits would probably rather be miserable than do it. So it's a relief to hear that it doesn't work particularly well. It has strong, but only brief, effects.
Seligman speculates that doing more exercises for longer would bring greater benefits. Hundreds of thousands of people have registered with his website www.reflectivehappiness.com — where, for $10 a month, they are given a happiness programme including instruction in a package of positive exercises.
Sylvia Perkins, a 73-year-old retired librarian from south Michigan tried the "Savour a Beautiful Day" task. Her husband died of lung cancer four years ago, and after a recent mild stroke she moved into an assisted living community. "The move has been very difficult for me and I've been trying to fight off the feeling that I've just come here to die. When I heard about this exercise, I decided to give it a try, because it seemed like a hopeful thing to do."
She spent her "beautiful" day going through photos and mementoes and making scrapbooks for each of her children. She also wrote them letters about her most precious memories of them and stuck them in the albums. "This exercise helped me feel reconnected to my children. I have felt more hopeful about my situation. I realise that my health prognosis is really quite good and I am confident that I will have many more years to share with my family."
Positive psychology has a schmaltzy American feel that might not translate well into a British setting. Dr Nick Baylis of Cambridge University is working with colleagues to "tweak" positive psychology for "British ears". He calls his research the "study of wellbeing" rather than the science of happiness. As a forensic psychologist, he worked with young offenders at Feltham and decided that studying what went wrong in damaged lives was not productive. "I had looked at broken lives. Now I wanted to look at lives that go well."
He founded the charity Trailblazers to give young offenders positive role models. In his Young Lives research project, he interviewed hundreds of accomplished people from Kate Adie to Jamie Oliver about their strategies for making the most of life. Their advice and ideas can be found in www.YoungLivesUK.com and in the book Wonderful Lives.
When Baylis went to Cambridge as Britain's first lecturer in positive psychology, he was treated as a "neo-Nazi", he says. The study of happiness was a "taboo subject". He sent an e-mail to colleagues who might have an interest in wellbeing, and received a reply from only one, Professor Felicia Huppert. She studies the secrets of a happy, productive old age, and theirs is now a fruitful collaboration. The British approach to wellbeing also emphasises good physical health and diet, proper sleep, relaxation and exercise, and spending time in the natural environment.
Given its famously bad health and diet, Glasgow is a city in need of positive medicine. It's become a live laboratory for the new science. Last month, Professor Seligman paid his second visit to Glasgow's Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, to spread the happiness gospel to Scottish teachers, coaches and businessmen as part of the Vanguard programme, backed by the Scottish Executive. The sceptical Scots seem to welcome Seligman's empirical approach.
Dr Carol Craig, who runs the centre, is passionate about curing Scotland's epidemic of pessimism and low self-esteem. She points to many indicators of malaise: the Scottish suicide rate is double the English one, and antidepressant prescribing is 40% higher. A new UN report says that Scotland is the most violent country in the developed world. Scottish children are among the least confident anywhere, according to the World Health Organization.
Craig believes that the dark, forbidding nature of Calvinist religion is responsible for the dour Scottish psyche. "We're a culture that encourages feelings of lack of self-worth. We're a culture that goes out of its way to make sure people don't feel good about themselves," says Craig.
From a young age, Scots are taught humility, modesty and conformity. Scottish humour often pokes fun at those who "get above their station". Craig speculates that the high rate of emigration from Scotland has denuded the country of optimists and left too many pessimists behind. Could any of this be linked to the fact that men in one part of Glasgow, Shettleston, have a life expectancy of 64? (Scottish men, on average, live to 73.) And that west Scotland is the unhealthiest region in Europe, with high rates of heart disease, cancer and strokes? Has anyone found a causal link between happiness and health?
Nuns may hold the answer. Nuns make a great natural experiment, because they lead the same routine lives with similar diets and activities. None have married or had children. Yet there is huge variation in their health and longevity. In 1932, 180 novices in Milwaukee wrote short sketches of their lives. One wrote: "God started my life off well by bestowing upon me grace of inestimable value. The past year has been a very happy one." She lived to 98 in wonderful health.
Another wrote a joyless and neutral sketch, ending: "With God's grace, I intend to do my best for our Order." She died after a stroke at the age of 59. Researchers who quantified positive feeling in all 180 sketches discovered that nearly all (90%) of the happiest quarter were still alive at 85. But of the least cheerful quarter, only a third survived to that age.
Another piece of the jigsaw fitted this year when a team from University College London tested the happiness levels of 216 middle-aged civil servants in a study of risk factors for coronary heart disease. People who had the most happy moments per day had the lowest rates of cortisol, a hormone that can be harmful if produced excessively, and of the chemical plasma fibrinogen, a predictor of heart disease. The happiest men (but not women) also had the lowest heart rates.
Angela Clow, professor of psychophysiology at Westminster University, is a world authority on the biochemistry of stress. "There is clear evidence that stress makes you susceptible to illness, but I wanted to turn this around and discover how happiness makes you healthier. There's not a lot of happiness research in the UK, because if you do it, people think you're trivial," says Clow.
In one experiment, she and colleagues blindfolded participants and wafted smells of chocolate, water and rotten meat under their noses. Then they measured levels of secretory IgA, an antibody that protects the body against invading cells, in their saliva. Chocolate sent the antibody levels soaring up; rotten meat brought them down. Clow found that pleasant music also boosted the immune system, as did stimulating the left side of the brain with magnetism.
Comparing patients in a day-surgery waiting room with music and art on the walls against one with no music and plain white walls, Clow found that the art and music patients had lower heart-rates, blood pressure and cortisol, and needed less sedation before their surgery.
"But why should happiness have such an effect on the immune system?" asks Clow. She speculates that there is an evolutionary mechanism. Our happiest ancestors were bold creatures who socialised and ventured out to explore. This brought them into contact with infection, so they needed higher levels of antibodies in a stronger immune system.
But repeated stress weakens us. The stress response temporarily increases the level of cortisol, a vital hormone that regulates the whole immune system. This is a healthy response, designed to produce fight or flight only in cases of real danger. Unfortunately, the daily hassles of modern life induce repeated stress in some of us, subjecting our bodies to frequent pulses of cortisol. This unbalances the immune system and makes us ill.
Laughter and humour are also being studied for their effects on health. Research methods include using a tickle machine, and probing with electrodes to find the funny parts of the brain. Laughter, like stress, increases blood pressure and heart rate and changes breathing. But unlike stress, it reduces levels of chemicals circulating in the body. In one study, people's cortisol and adrenaline were reduced after watching a favourite comedy video for 60 minutes.
It's difficult to resist the logic of the happiness doctors. Stay in your Eeyore-ish bubble of existentialist angst and have a life that's short, sickly, friendless and self-obsessed. Or find a way to get happy, and long life, good health, job satisfaction and social success will be yours. You'd better start writing that gratitude letter now.