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This new year, resolve to be happy

January 4, 2010 |  1:53 pm

Instead of planning to lose weight, find a better job, be a better person (typical New Year’s resolutions, according to a recent Marist poll) why not use 2010 to focus on what’s really important – your own happiness?

Dropping a few pounds and getting a raise might seem like means to that end. And happiness itself might sound like a nebulous, unachievable goal. But happiness might be worth pursuing in its own right – and, according to recent research, could be a much more measurable and tangible goal than previously thought.

Want a primer on that special feeling? A three-part PBS series, "This Emotional Life," tonight will look at why we feel what we feel, through a scientific lens and through the wisdom of such celebrities as Larry David, "Seinfeld" co-creator: "I don't think it's that much of a mystery. If you don't have a job that you like, and you're not having sex, you're just not gonna be happy."

Show host Daniel Gilbert, who sat down with NPR today for an interview, said the larger point on relationships and happiness rings true. "If you're not involved in a relationship," the Harvard psychologist said, "then indeed we see that people who aren't in romantic relationships are less happy than those who are."

Perhaps happiness is contagious, too. In an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that the feeling created by absence of relationships -- loneliness -- spreads like a disease:

Results indicated that loneliness occurs in clusters, extends up to three degrees of separation, is disproportionately represented at the periphery of social networks, and spreads through a contagious process.  

Another reason to pursue happiness and avoid loneliness this year – scientists say it’s just as important on the New Year’s resolution list as quitting smoking or losing weight. As Health reporter Melissa Healy blogged last month, loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking and obesity. 

One double-take worthy theory presented in the PBS show: That, controlling for health problems, older people are generally happier than younger people. Counterintuitive as that notion might seem, it’s been gaining strength in recent years. Health reporter Shari Roan found some logical explanations for the theory in a 2007 story:

[M]ost scientists now think that experience and the mere passage of time gradually motivate people to approach life differently. The blazing-to-freezing range of emotions experienced by the young blends into something more lukewarm by later life, numerous studies show. Older people are less likely to be caught up in their emotions and more likely to focus on the positive, ignoring the negative.

In a special to The Times, Marnell Jameson explores how scientists are starting to quantify and measure happiness -- and what their conclusions are. She starts with a quick quiz: 

True or false:

___ I would be happier if I made more money, found the perfect mate, lost 10 pounds or moved to a new house.
___ Happiness is genetic. You can't change how happy you are any more than you can change how tall you are.
___ Success brings happiness.
Answers: False, false and false. 

Want to find out why? Read Jameson's story, and check out the first part of “This Emotional Life” tonight, airing at 9 p.m. on KCET.   

-- Amina Khan

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