The Science Behind Happiness

I came to an immediate halt upon passing through the welcoming doors of Hub 302 on a Thursday afternoon after distractedly bumping into many of UCR’s students, faculty and staff gathered by the entrance. The parties of people were patiently waiting to be checked in by Student Wellness Partners and the Staff Wellness Program — a resource that seeks to promote a campus of healthy minds and bodies.

Expecting a groggy, post-lunch crowd, I was ardently surprised to discover a lively, chatty mass already mingling about. Many eagerly gushed over the long-awaited lecture by UCR’s own professor of psychology, Sonja Lyubomirsky, about her research on personal well-being and her book, “The How of Happiness.” It seemed that all of those seeking to enhance their daily spirits and moods at school, work and home were gradually piling in.

Rows of tables with assorted items and snacks flanked each side of the spacious room. Upon entering, the left-hand side greeted one with typical self-help pamphlets such as the “Guide to UC Living Well,” as well as the not-so-typical goods of yo-yos, wrist sweatbands and stress balls, all of which were printed with traditional smiley faces.

The right-hand side of the wall was occupied by a row of refreshments ranging from chips and salsa to coffee and various cookie options. With free goodies came lengthy lines though, which meant that I would inevitably be found lingering while I waited. After cheerfully collecting my fair share of salsa dip and chips, and claiming an extremely satisfying stress ball for myself — now named Squishy — I promptly hastened toward a seat with the other attendees.

For those of us who arrived with limited knowledge on the exceptional background of Professor Lyubomirsky, we were informed of her bachelor’s degree and PhD earned at Harvard and Stanford, respectively. Jamie Lee, from human resources, praised Lyubomirsky on how her extensive “research on the possibility of permanently increasing happiness has been honored by fellow stations in three different scientific communities.” Her book, which focuses on developing the desired lifestyle through a scientific approach, has also been translated in 23 countries — just to briefly name a few of her achievements.

Professor Lyubomirsky began her lecture by explaining the overall benefits that “happy people” receive through her different topics of research. One of which includes her cold virus study, which presents us with the acknowledgement that those who are happy are able to maintain stronger immune functions. This study consisted of healthy volunteers measuring their positive emotional style before being administered a rhinovirus through nasal drops. After being quarantined for five days and monitored for a month, results concluded that more cheerful volunteers were less likely to develop a cold and those who did recovered from it at a faster rate.

She continued to illustrate her research on happiness to us by offering another compelling study, which proved that being joyful correlates with one’s creativity and productivity. Researchers began by inducing a group of volunteers with happiness by providing them with satchels of chocolates before instructing them to complete a creativity test. These tests consisted of categories of words followed by one blank space, which required participants to provide a word for. An example Lyubomirsky provided was “club, gown, mare” to which the associating answer was “night.” Volunteers in a happier mood were more successful at completing this test than those with a neutral mood.

Through a great amount of other research programs, Lyubomirsky was able to come to the conclusion that happiness leads to advantages ranging from superior jobs and higher salaries to maintaining more friends and fulfilling marriages. How does one induce oneself with happiness though? “Implementing positive activities based on one’s own circumstances is the most optimal way,” Lyubomirsky answered.

She eventually arrived upon what many of her audience members came looking for — actions that directly lead to happier lives. Simple activities such as expressing gratitude, learning to forgive and savoring the moment are strategies to improve happiness. One might also discover a stronger sense of bliss by committing themselves to relationships and significant life goals. More physical practices include engaging in exercises and meditation. Lyubomirsky stressed that the application of these engagements vary from person to person as she explained that it is “crucial that the activity fits with (one’s) personality, goals, strengths, cultures and the source of (one’s) unhappiness.”

Those who sought to cure themselves of a negative habit of pessimism, like myself of late, definitely succeeded as the mass of Highlanders left the lecture with smiling faces stretching broadly across their cheeks. First-year psychology major Sarah Guirguis shared that she expected the event “to be less fun, but found it much more enjoyable” and was enlightened by the “many different ways in which people could become happier.”

Thus, in hopes of advocating for an increasingly positive UC campus, Professor Lyubomirsky concluded her lecture by leaving everyone with a quote from Aristotle. “Happiness depends upon ourselves.”

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