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Home > Research Articles > Pursuit of Happiness May Be the Secret to Well-being

Tulsa World

Saturday, July 06, 2002

Pursuit of Happiness May Be the Secret to Well-being Tulsa World - July 05, 2002

A new breed of psychologist is focusing attention on happiness in studies aimed at understanding some of the key motivators of life.

They're asking if looking at the glass as half full can have an impact on well-being.

One researcher on a quest for the answer is Sonja Lyubomirsky. A self-described optimist drawn to unraveling the mysteries of happiness, she is a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside. And she wants to understand what factors separate those who say their lives are happy and those who don't -- factors beyond the life's ups and downs.

"We all know sour, glum people," said Lyubomirsky, who set up lab experiments to examine the nature of people's emotional psyches.

Volunteers from the university filled out personality inventories and were given anagrams to unscramble. Half the volunteers were told that other test takers had higher scores.

They then were asked to complete a section from the Graduate Record Exams, tests administered to students considering graduate study.

And those who had scored low on the personality test's so- called "happiness scales" did not do as well. "Unhappy people read slower and their performance was impaired," Lyubomirsky said.

The study suggests that happiness may have more implications than simply feeling good.

"Happy people have more positive events in their lives. They make good things happen," she said. "They have better social relationships, more friends, more energy." She says her studies have found that they are healthier and more generous, too.

But what exactly constitutes happiness? Theories abound, but some of the latest research holds that genetics is responsible for about half of a person's propensity towards good cheer, with 10 percent more due to life events and life circumstances. Her current research aims to identify the remaining 40 percent.

Lyubomirsky is now conducting a "commit random acts of kindness study," with 75 college students as volunteers. Half will go about their lives as usual, doing nothing out of the ordinary. The others are being instructed to carry out an act of kindness once a day for five days, or five acts in one day. Strangers must be the recipients of some of the gestures. Researchers will then assess whether such ongoing acts of kindness make the volunteers happier, and whether effects were greater when the overture involved strangers rather than friends or family.

Lyubomirsky said she believes that her work is revealing secrets of a life well lived.

"People who are unhappy are self-absorbed," she said. "It's all about them. They think that if they really understand themselves, life will be happier.

"But it doesn't seem to work that way. Life appears to be easier for happy people."

She recently received an award from the Templeton Foundation, a nonprofit group that seeks to find the scientific underpinnings for spiritual subjects. The $100,000 award is given to support psychologists who study the more positive attributes of humanity such as optimism, happiness and motivation.

Kennon Sheldon is also a recipient of this year's Templeton prize. He's interested in how the pursuit of a goal can affect a person's well-being. "The whys of goals are meaningful to me," said Sheldon, a psychologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. "People who say that extrinsic goals, like money, are important score lower on measures of psychological well-being."

He said having goals that are more intrinsic -- for instance, the desire to be a better person -- are more valuable to such well- being.

(C) 2002 Tulsa World. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved