The Science of Happiness

August 12, 2016 Carol No comments exist

Positive psychology is often referred to as the science of happiness.


The more I learn about positive psychology, the more I am convinced of its tremendous potential. Potential to transform individuals and societies. Potential to steer humanity into a new era, an era that pays homage to this statement:


Every human being, whether living now or in a future generation, should be afforded the opportunity to live a meaningful, happy, and fulfilling life.


In Simple True Happiness, we are exploring answers to the question:

“Within the framework of the simple living lifestyle, how can we best utilize the teachings of positive psychology to achieve happiness and flourishing lives?”


The Science of Happiness


A full discussion of the topic of happiness could fill volumes. In fact, the very definition of happiness is somewhat difficult to pin down:

Many scientists use happiness interchangeably with “subjective well-being,” which they measure by simply asking people to report how satisfied they feel with their own lives and how much positive and negative emotion they’re experiencing. Leading researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness more precisely as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” — Happiness Greatest Hits | Greater Good


Greater Good is one of my favorite sources for anything related to positive psychology. These links explore the nuances of happiness:

Martin Seligman, the founder of the field of positive psychology, cautions against a narrow view of “happiness.” Seligman believes that leading a good, truly happy life requires more than positive emotions. To truly maximize our “well-being”—or to “flourish” (the title of Seligman’s new book)—we need five crucial elements. Seligman summarizes them in the acronym PERMA: positive emotions, engagement (aka “flow”), relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. In other words, “Well-being cannot exist just in your own head,” Seligman writes in Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. “Well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships, and accomplishment.”

This Way to Happiness

Using the Happiness Map as a guide, we can explore some of the main teachings of the science of happiness.


Begin At Mindfulness


Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmental. — Jon Kabat-Zinn


The Happiness Map above indicates that mindfulness leads to appreciation and compassion for others. How does this work? I believe that mindfulness allows us to see others more fully. We discover their good qualities, and their struggles and pains move us. If we then take what we have learned about the other person, and give voice to our appreciation and compassion, something quite remarkable happens! Through that vocalization, we become even more mindful of this person whose merits we are celebrating.


Bodhipaksa, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, talks about the power of appreciation on a website called wildmind. “Rejoicing in merits,” or punya-anumodana, is a traditional Buddhist practice of celebrating someone’s good qualities. One of the benefits of expressing appreciation is that it allows us to see others more fully. “When we are prepared to really be mindful of another person, without self-blinding judgment, then we start to notice things about them that we were previously only dimly aware of.”


the science of happiness
The Niàn, the Chinese character for mindfulness, is a combination of two separate characters, each with its own meaning.

The top part of the character means “now” and the bottom part of the character means “heart” or “mind.” Literally, the combined character means the act of experiencing the present moment with your heart.


Jon Kabat-Zinn is a professor of medicine emeritus and founding director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program in the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is the author of many books, including the best-selling Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness and Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. He teaches mindfulness and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in various venues around the world.


One such venue is UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. In a presentation made at Greater Good Science Center, the interviewer asks Kabat-Zinn to describe the relationship between compassion and mindfulness.


Kabat-Zinn replies, “We are already compassionate. … So it’s more a question of uncovering our compassion, rather than trying to build it up. Mindfulness, the cultivation of the quality of presence, simplifies things an enormous amount, because it allows us to actually embody who we already are, as opposed to construct some alternative identity for our self. And who we really are is compassionate. … [Compassion] is a core human emotion. … A shortcut to being ‘a good meditator’ is just reminding yourself, ‘It’s already here.’ There’s nothing to get, there’s no place to go, there’s nothing to do, and there’s nothing special to attain; because what’s special is already here, and what realizing it means, is making it real. And how do we make it real? By being present. Then we trust that the knowing is itself inherently compassionate. ” The spaciousness of the real awareness is compassion.”


Kabat-Zinn quotes Einstein:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. — Albert Einsteine


The Gratitude Route to Happiness


science of happiness

In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy. — Brother David Steindl-Rast


We have seen how mindfulness allows us to see others in our lives more fully, thus giving us a fuller appreciation of them. This enhanced appreciation should manifest itself as gratitude. Gratitude makes us happy!


Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., is the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. He is a professor of psychology at the University of California, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology. He is also the author of the books Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperityand Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.


For more than a decade, Emmons has been studying the effects of gratitude on physical health, on psychological well-being, and on our relationships with others. Emmons has made many of his articles, videos, and podcasts available on UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s website. In one of the articles, he reports,” We often have people keep gratitude journals for just three weeks. And yet the results have been overwhelming. We’ve studied more than one thousand people, from ages eight to 80, and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits.”


The list of benefits is as follows:


  • Stronger immune systems
  • Less bothered by aches and pains
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Exercise more and take better care of their health
  • Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking


  • Higher levels of positive emotions
  • More alert, alive, and awake
  • More joy and pleasure
  • More optimism and happiness


  • More helpful, generous, and compassionate
  • More forgiving
  • More outgoing
  • Feel less lonely and isolated.


Emmons continues, “The social benefits are especially significant here because, after all, gratitude is a social emotion. I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”


The Kindness Route to Happiness


the science of happiness


The Happiness Map begins at the Mindfulness location. From there, we see a connection to Compassion for Others, which leads to Altruism, and finally Happiness.


When we are mindful of others, we are moved by their struggles and pains. We understand that they are simply trying to make the best of life with the gifts and talents at their disposal.


Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, shares his answer in Compassion Makes You Happy, on the Heal Your Life website. Here is an excerpt:

As a Buddhist monk, my main aim is to practice altruism, the practice of bodhicitta, with wisdom or awareness. I believe that analytical meditation is one of the key methods to transform the mind and the emotions. This has brought me inner peace and strength. Such a method also allows one to change perceptions and attitudes toward oneself, others, and immediate problems.


I feel that the foremost change would be that as one develops a sense of concern, of compassion for others, one’s mind broadens or widens. At that point, an individual’s problems and suffering appear very small.


To develop concern for others one could start by analyzing the value of negative feelings, or ill feelings, toward others. Consider what that means to you, and how you feel about yourself. Next probe the value of such a mental attitude and the value of a mind that shows concern and compassion for others.


I am suggesting that you analyze and make comparisons between these two mental attitudes. From my experience, I have found that insecurity and a lack of self-confidence brings about fears, frustration, and depression. However, if your nature changes to a selfless concern for the welfare of others, you will experience calmness, a sense of inner strength, and self-confidence.


Mindful Self-Compassion


There’s one more route to examine: Mindfulness – Compassion for Self – Care of Self – Happiness. The Dalai Lama explains why compassion for self must of necessity precede compassion for others:


For someone to develop genuine compassion towards others, first he or she must have a basis upon which to cultivate compassion, and that basis is the ability to connect to one’s own feelings and to care for one’s own welfare… Caring for others requires caring for oneself. —Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama


Kristin D. Neff, PhD, is an Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin. She was one of the first scholars to define and measure self-compassion in an academic context.  She has written numerous research articles on the psychological benefits of self-compassion, and is a co-developer of The Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program. Dr. Neff is the author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.


Neff stresses “the importance of including ourselves in the circle of compassion, of treating ourselves with the same kindness, care, and concern that we treat a good friend.”


Self-compassion has three core components:


the science of happiness


Research shows that self-compassion is very strongly related to mental well-being (less depression, less anxiety, less stress, less perfectionism). It’s equally strongly related to positive states, such as happiness and life-satisfaction. It’s linked to greater motivation, taking greater self-responsibility, making healthier lifestyle choices, and having better interpersonal relationships.


Be Happy!


“Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.” — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life


This wonderful quote seems the perfect way to conclude The Science of Happiness



One of my meditation teachers used to end each of our interviews … and say to me, ‘Remember, Sylvia, be happy.’ I actually for a long time thought it was a salutation, like ‘have a good day’ or something that you say just in a routine kind of a way, and it took me a long time to realize that it was an instruction, ‘Be happy.’ Not only that it was an instruction but that it was a wisdom transmission – that happiness was a possibility. I understand that happiness to mean, the happiness of a mind that’s alert, that’s awake to the amazing potential of being a person in a life, with a mind that’s opened, that sees everything that’s going on, and realizes what an amazing possibility this is, and with a heart that’s open, the heart that responds naturally as hearts do, in compassion, in connection with friendliness, with love, with consolation when it needs to: That that’s the happiness of life – a mind that’s awake, a heart that’s engaged.” — Sylvia Boorstein,  Stanford Keynote Speech, 2005

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