The Science of Happiness

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Christine Carter studies the mystery of human happiness — from what makes us smile to which muscles we use when we do it sincerely. Carter is the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley.


So are you in a reflective mood, on this last day of '07, thinking about your successes, your failures. Maybe looking for a resolution to bring more happiness to your life. Easier said than done, and the last counts for a lot of people. Wouldn't it be great to take a happy pill? And I don't mean Zoloft or Paxil.

Well there is some science to uplifting your spirits. And studying this subject is the business of Christine Carter. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology, and is the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley.

Hi, Christine.

Dr. CHRISTINE CARTER (Sociologist; Executive Director, Greater Good Science Center, University of California Berkeley): Hello.

STEWART: So the study of happiness is part of what is called the positive psychology movement. Please explain it what the positive psychology movement is?

Dr. CARTER: Sure. Well, you know, psychologists have traditionally really focused on why people are so dysfunctional. They study - they have traditionally studied depression, anxiety, why people get psychotic illnesses, rather than really, what makes a thriving child's thrive.

Let me - the happy people are optimistic. So the Greater Good Science Center is where UC Berkeley's answer to this depressing history of psychology. We're really an inner disciplinary research center that does two things, I think pretty well. We investigate the roots of what make people good and happy and emotionally intelligent, and then we translate that research in all academic research from other universities for the general public, so that people can really use this information.

STEWART: Now, how do you measure happiness in your studies? And just so we have a baseline definition. Science, you always start with the baseline. What is the definition of happiness?

Dr. CARTER: Well, you know, there are a lot - there are, of course, a lot of different definitions. And happiness can measured in a lot of different ways. So there's kind of two questions there. I like to think about what makes up a happy life? And I think that that is a helpful way to they think about any these sort of discussions.


Dr. CARTER: So it's not really just about what makes you feel happy in the present or joyful or cheerful in the present, but it's - we only - what makes up a happy life is one that is really full of positive emotions. So what we're really doing here is looking at all different kinds of positive emotions, so not just about the present but also maybe about other people like love and compassion or about the past. That would be a positive emotional path, the gratitude and appreciation.

STEWART: Now this is interesting. You said gratitude because you can feel grateful but not necessarily happy.

Dr. CARTER: Right.

STEWART: How do you translate your gratefulness - you know, I'm grateful I have a home, I'm grateful that I have food on my table, but you might not be feeling about things.

Dr. CARTER: Right, right. Well, it's interesting because gratitude really is a positive emotion. And the more - the research shows that the more you practice gratitude and the happier you actually will be. And that the changes for you will be laughing. So if you start - but it's an interesting thing because right now, today, you could be kind of an unappreciative cynic, and if you were to begin practicing gratitude more seriously, the research shows that you would, in fact, increase your - probably would increase your level of happiness.

And we know this. This is - it's interesting the way they do this research, they just pick people at random. They don't - we're going to saying that people who are already appreciative and grateful are happier. We're saying, okay, there's a lot of things that you can do to practice gratitude more often.

So, for example, you can keep a gratitude journal, and at the end of the end of the day, write down a few things that you feel grateful, for or you can write a gratitude letter to somebody that you feel grateful for, obviously, and go and deliver it in person and read it out loud to them and tell why you feel thankful.

These are practices that can get you in the habit of feeling more grateful and will likely lead to long-term changes in your level of happiness if you keep doing them.

STEWART: Do you have any opinion about the benefits of mood-altering drugs in terms of promoting happiness in your life?

Dr. CARTER: Well, you know, I'm actually - I'm sociologist, so I'm not - I don't study drugs. I do know that they have an effect.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Dr. CARTER: I don't really have an opinion. I think that what my focus has really been is on what things that people can do besides drugs that regular people or all people, whether or not you're already depressed or whether you're sort of that neutral or you're already happy, things you can do that will make you happier in the future.

STEWART: All right. We've talked about gratitude. What's something else?

Dr. CARTER: Well, you know, as a sociologist, I think that what we know from 50 years of happiness research is really the power of our friends and our social connections.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Dr. CARTER: So that shot is that social connections are really so closely related to well-being and personal happiness that, honestly, I think you can practically be equated. So, really, if you're thinking about how to spend your time in the New Year, I'd say try to remember that human happiness is best predicted but the quantity and quality of our relationships with other people.

STEWART: I'm curious if genetics are important versus environment. Can one outweigh the other?

Dr. CARTER: Oh, for sure. I mean, I think genetics are very important, and we have more and more good studies that show how genetics play a part in our happiness. Certainly, anybody with children knows that some children are just born with really cheerful dispositions and others just…

STEWART: Just aren't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. CARTER: …tend to be a little bit more grouchy. We think, you know, the best research we have right now, I think, shows that genetics account for about half.


Dr. CARTER: Of what we're looking at. But that, you know, if that - there's a lot of room in there.

STEWART: That's 50 percent room to take control on your own.

Dr. CARTER: Yes, I think there is. And a lot of that is not - it's not just especially for adults, it's not just individual choices and that - well actually for adults it is a lot of individual choices, things that you're doing that other 50 percent. But, you know, your environment plays into a lot of things too, and that - what I should have done is especially for children.

STEWART: Absolutely.

Dr. CARTER: And then there's a lot about your life that's already decided.

STEWART: Christine Carter is executive director of the Greater Good Science at the University of California Berkeley.

Happy New Year to you.

Dr. CARTER: Happy New Year to you as well.

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