Why does happiness feel good? What’s the purpose of our so called ‘positive’ emotions? Do happier people really live longer than other people? In this blog, I’ll explore all these questions and talk about the recent research of Barbara Fredrickson, the director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Michigan. (Cool title, right? It has ten words! Only one of them is seven syllables!)
Fredrickson recently wrote an article about her research in American Scientist titled, “The Value of Positive Emotions.” That’s where I’ll be getting my quotes from. In that piece, she talks about how scientists have mostly focused on the so-called ‘negative’ emotions: fear, anger, and disgust. She gives a couple reasons for this. First, there are clearly defined facial expressions for each of the negative emotions. (In contrast, there’s really only one facial expression for the positive emotions: a smile. J ) Second, negative emotions have evolved for a clear biological reason. In short, they keep you alive. (Either by marshaling additional energy stores or quickly teaching you not to eat those little red berries.) Third, that’s where the money is. Fredrickson doesn’t explicitly mention this, but there is a lot more funding in the world for studying negative emotions than there is for studying positive ones. This makes some semblance of sense: you would rather cure a disease, like cancer, than spend that same amount of money on entertainment, like a multi-billion dollar sports complex. Wait.
Jokes aside, there is an unfortunate funding discrepancy between negative and positive emotions (which are described as happiness, serenity, love, and hope). It might just be human nature to prefer alleviating harm to promoting well-being. Or, scientists might secretly love watching people suffer. Regardless, it’s important question to consider.
Later in her piece, Fredrickson talks about her proposed framework to study positive emotions. She calls it the Broaden and Build Theory. Her basic idea is this: when people are happy, their mindsets broaden, and “their thinking becomes more creative, integrative, flexible and open to information (2).” This sounds eerily similar to the functionality of the Dreamer network I’ve talked about elsewhere on this blog. Basically, when people are happy, they’re more relaxed (it’s shocking, I know). When people are more relaxed, their Dreamer network is generally more active. This could lead to more creative, integrative, and flexible thinking (and hugs; relaxed people give more hugs).
I can support this theory with anecdotal evidence from my own life. Generally, more stressed people tend to focus more on the day-to-day hardships and details of life. More relaxed people tend to focus more on the bigger picture and may ask themselves “will any of this matter in five years?” (Which was my dad’s approach to parenting. If one of my actions wouldn’t matter in five years, he didn’t worry about it.) Likely, these types of thinking have an inverse relationship as well. When people think more big-picture, they tend not to get stressed about little things, thus making them less stressed. And, when people only focus on small things that have gone wrong, they tend to get stressed about those things, making them more stressed.
Fredrickson also talked in her article about a single study that was done on a group of nuns. Basically, scientists studied the journals the nuns had written sixty years earlier (all the nuns were dead by this point), and figured out how long it had taken all the nuns to die. On average, nuns who wrote happier things in their journals lived ten years longer. (Life lesson: write happy things in a journal; it’ll make you live longer.)
Clearly, there were a lot of problems with this study.
Maybe the happier nuns had more to live for than the other nuns, which made them write happier things. Maybe the nuns lived longer, so they wrote happier things. Maybe Death is a sour-puss and doesn’t like hanging out with happy people. Maybe all the unhappy nuns were friends. When one of them died, the rest became more unhappy, had less to live for, and died sooner. Maybe all the happy nuns were friends and they were all peer pressured into living longer. Maybe all then nuns were playing an elaborate practical joke and just wrote happy things because they knew that scientists would someday read it and draw conclusions from it. Maybe it’s late. Maybe I should go to bed soon.
Anyway, there is real scientific evidence that says that happier people live longer. (Or, at least, I’ve been told it enough times by teachers that it must be true. No, there actually is evidence. Google it. The internet never lies. No, it’s actually a thing. Believe me. I know exactly what I’m talking about.)
ANYWAY, here’s the take-away message from this rather bizarre blog post: stressed people tend to get bogged down in the mundane details of life. Don’t let that happen to you. See the big picture. Laugh at silly jokes. Laugh at bad jokes. Laugh in general. Be happy and surround yourself with happy people. If that doesn’t work, write happy things in your journal. It’s not complicated, people. That’s all you need to be happy: a journal, a pen, and a quiet spot to write. Science has proved it.