Video: What is the secret to happiness?

By Jane Weaver Health editor
updated 3/19/2007 7:19:40 PM ET 2007-03-19T23:19:40

Some people are just born happier, researchers believe. But if you're the type to see the glass as half-empty, can you learn to think more positively about your life — and, as a result, be healthier and live longer?

As part of the “NBC Nightly News series” “The Pursuit of Happiness,” spoke with Dr. Donald E. Rosen,a psychiatrist and  director at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.Rosen describes the actions that help us feel more satisfied with our lives, how positive feelings can protect us from illness and why he's no fan of self-help books.

Q. What does it mean to be happy? How do scientists measure it?
A. Positive emotional style is typified by a more happy mood, feelings of liveliness and calmness. But it gets very hard to specify if my scale of 1 to 10 is like your scale. How happy are you on a scale of 1 to 10? It’s relative to you. The measures are inherently subjective.

When it comes to measuring happiness, what [many] researchers find is that a sense of engagement with others — whether love or friendships or social community involvement — as well as a sense of influence at work, a sense of meaning in life, such as using one’s personal strengths toward a larger end, and living in a safe neighborhood are more important than the experience of pleasure or income.

What we study is whether the positive emotional style is more akin to a personality trait as opposed to being in a state of happiness at any one moment. [Happiness] is associated with — although distinct from — feeling optimistic, purposeful, resilient or having a sense of vigor.

If happiness is more than the difference between doing good and feeling good, and if it’s more a way of being than a way of feeling at any one moment, that suggests that retail therapy might not be as effective as feeling a part of a community or contributing to it.

Q. What is really meant by a positive emotional style and how does it affect our health?
A. We’ve known for a long time that stress has adverse effects on an adult. People with highly stressed lives have increased incidences of heart disease, stroke, chronic illness, autoimmune illnesses and cancer. What's exciting is that having a positive emotional tone does more than mitigate the negative effects of stress. We know that they resist infections better and that when they do get sick they get less sick. 

There's a Detroit study of nuns that started in the 1930s. In the nuns' diaries, researchers looked at references to positive words and number of different types of positive words. Those nuns who had most references to positive feelings and positive words lived nine years longer than nuns with more negative thoughts.

Part of having a positive emotional style is a feeling of calmness. Research shows that happier people have a lower resting pulse at work, as well as at leisure.

Q. How does having positive outlook make us less vulnerable to illnesses?
Research suggests that it has far-reaching effectson longevity and overall health. It’s not just true that people who are physically well report that they are happier, but the reverse is also true — that people who are happier are also physically healthier and live longer. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that people who reported a high degree of happiness were more resistant to the flu and some other viruses. The happiest people, the people with the highest scores, actually became ill less frequently. Those that did become symptomatic had less severe symptoms and were symptomatic for briefer periods of time.

Something in our physiology that allows us to

Image: Dr. Donald Rosen
"Science is beginning to more precisely measure, understand and construct mechanisms for attaining a frame of mind that potentially can have as significant an impact on health as diet, exercise or not smoking," says psychiatrist Dr. Donald Rosen.
have a more positive outlook makes us more resistant to infection or disease. The specifics of those kinds of mechanism we don’t know anything about [yet] because there are so many steps that cascade into an effective immune response. If one of those is given a boost, it could boost the overall immune response rather robustly.

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It's ultimately measurable, but it takes time. This is where more research is going to need to be done.

Q. What about personal achievement? Are more successful people happier?
A. The relationship between achievement and happiness yields a mixed bag. There’s a common misconception that people who are high achievers are happier. For example, actors who won an Academy Award lived on average four years longer than other nominees. Those who won two lived six years longer. But screenwriters who won an Academy Award lived three years shorter than the other nominees. Even though the Award-winning screenwriters had longer careers, they didn't live as long.

[Business management guru] Peter Drucker said for high-achieving successful executives to feel best about themselves they needed to give something to their community that was more than writing a check or getting others to write checks.

Q. Can scientists develop strategies to help people be more positive?
There is a study looking at the health effects of gratitude journals that help a person identify the events or experiences in their day that they are grateful for and write them down. If you do it in a systemized way, it prevents the [good feelings] from being thrown out from the gestalt of the day.

Q. So that would train people to think about the positive things that have happened to them instead of fixating on the negative?
A. Right. One of the things that religions share is reflection — whether they call it prayer or meditation. They focus on being internally more attuned and to be grateful and appreciative for what you do have and remorseful about the things you wish you wouldn’t have done.

Another researcher is looking at exercises in altruism or kindness that are reflective of a person’s individual values. There are people who feel quite invigorated when they do altruistic things, but they need a nudge or some support or encouragement.

To paraphrase Gandhi, happiness is when what you think, you say and what you do are consistent with each other and are consistent with your values. Science is beginning to more precisely measure, understand and construct mechanisms for attaining a frame of mind that potentially can have as significant an impact on health as diet, exercise or not smoking.

Q. What are scientists hoping to find from the research on emotional states?
A. What we’re hoping to find is that health and lifestyle is not only tending to one’s ... emotional well-being, [but] also tending to one’s physiologic well-being. It’s more than reducing stress. It’s tending to what is important to your life — not what’s important to life — but what’s important to you.

Some of these self-help books will tell you what to do, but they fall flat because they’re not for everybody. For example, jogging or gardening aren’t for everyone.

The things that people choose to do that are reflective of their values — that’s what is healthy for them. That’s what helps them be healthier, live longer and feel more contented. That’s the “wow” of this.

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