Just like Santa Clause, happiness brings gifts with it too – and you don’t have to be good all year to get them! In the last three articles, I’ve discussed a paper arguing that happiness leads to success, through a better career, better relationships and better health. This works in part through behaviour – positive moods promote positive behaviours – ones that are friendly to success. The evidence suggests six broad categories of behaviour that result from happiness. Here they are:
1) Positive Perceptions of Self and Others
Happy people are optimists, who tend to have higher self-esteem. They think well of themselves and the different areas of their life; family life, romantic life, education, leisure, and so on. This positive attitude spills over onto other people too – happy people tend to like other people more.
So what comes first, happiness or high self-esteem? You’d think it was self-esteem, but in fact it’s a little of both. Self-esteem does bring happiness, but being satisfied with your life also brings self-esteem and confidence.
2) Sociability and Activity
Happy people tend to be more extraverted – more outgoing, active and energetic. Positive emotion is described my some researchers as the ‘glue’ that holds the different aspects of extraversion together. Happiness is associated with more formal and informal social activity, including voluntary activities, time with friends, learning new skills and taking classes, and even being more informed about politics. Happier people seem to be more informed and interested in learning new things.
If people are induced into a positive mood (they usually do this with uplifting videos), they are more likely to start conversations with a ‘stranger’ (who was actually a confederate, working undercover for the researchers). So there you go, if you want to be more social, cheer up. It works.
All those new skills and contacts would certainly be useful in trying to become successful, plus people with a larger social network tend to be luckier, too.
3) Likability and Cooperation
Are cheerful, upbeat people fun to be around, or just plain annoying for being so cheerful? The former is actually true – happy people are liked more than unhappy people. They are also perceived more favourable by people – they are seen as more intelligent, competent, friendly, assertive, less selfish and more moral. People in happy moods are also more approachable and inviting to others.
My favourite variation on a classic saying goes like this: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know – and how much they like you.” Success involves other people, being likeable and well thought of can only be beneficial.
4) Prosocial Behaviour
A great deal of research now supports the idea that happy people are more generous and charitable. They just have a greater interest in helping other people. This goes hand-in-hand with the authors’ original idea that happiness indicates conditions of abundance, so to speak (see the first post in this serious, second paragraph down).
Why is prosocial behaviour helpful to success? It makes people more likeable, strengthens social bonds and networks, and brings future profits through the principle of reciprocity (you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours!).
5) Physical Well-Being and Coping
Positive moods are associated with healthy behaviour both long and short-term – happy individuals are less likely to take drugs and eat unhealthy food in the future, and recent positive moods are associated with less cigarette and alcohol use, as well as better quality sleep and more exercise. One study exposed participants to the cold virus, and people who generally have a more positive emotional style were less likely to develop a cold from it.
Another interesting finding, is that happy moods help you resist temptation when you’re trying to quit something (eg, smoking, junk food). If you’ve ‘given in’, then before you continue your indulgence, do something to bring your mood up. Watch an uplifting film, a sitcom you like, count your blessings or do some other self-help technique.
According to researchers, this replenishes the deflated ego, giving you more will power. Just don’t use a pick-me-up that reminds you of the thing you’re trying to abstain from! (eg if you’re quitting junk food and you normally eat in front of the TV, don’t watch TV to boost your mood).
Happiness also seems to have a direct effect on health. Although there is little evidence at present, concepts related to happiness like humour and optimism have been shown to increase immune system efficiency. One study found higher antibody activity on days with more positive moods than negative moods.
A happy disposition also leads to better coping during life’s difficult times, probably through the increased optimism and hope that tends to come with happiness.
6) Creativity and Problem Solving
The studies that exist on happiness and creativity suggest that the two tend to come together in people. There is a need for more research in this area, but is seems that it is moment-to-moment happiness that is beneficial to creativity, rather than happiness as a trait. In other words, if you take a person who is usually in a bad mood and cheer him up, he should be more creative while his mood is good – even though his disposition might be as grumpy as the dwarf of the same name.
Of course, you can always bring up the ‘troubled artist’ stereotype to challenge these findings – and in some studies, people in sad moods are more creative than people in a neutral mood – but it’s the cheerful ones that usually show the most creativity. But it’s a valid challenge to the idea, and the apparent conflict might just be due to different definitions of creativity.
The reason that happiness is good for creativity may be that it broadens your perception and thinking somewhat. This is in opposition to ‘negative’ emotions, which narrow your potential thoughts and actions down as a survival instinct, eg. fear makes you escape or hide, anger makes you retaliate against a transgressor, and so on.
When it comes to complex problem solving, however, the findings are quite mixed. In some mental tasks, negative moods are more effective, in others, positive ones are. The difference seems to be because good moods increase a person’s reliance on heuristics (heuristics = rules of thumb, stereotypes, or mental shortcuts) – rather than slowing down and thinking the task through carefully and analytically. So positive emotions are perhaps better when there is existing knowledge and heuristics that can be applied to a task.
Why would good moods increase your use of heuristics? Perhaps because if things are going well for you, it makes sense to use heuristics you’ve already used, because these are probably what got you the success in the first place.
But don’t start listening to your Radiohead albums before you do your evening Sudoku puzzle, thinking that the intense depression will help you out. If you’re in a positive mood you can still access your analytical side; you just have to do it deliberately.
The point of these four posts was to hopefully give you perspective on happiness that you might not have taken before. In summary:
- It’s an action signal just like other emotions
- The actions it signals are ones that help you move towards goals
- Therefore, good moods are not solely a result of a consequence of success (although they certainly are that), they are part of the cause of success.
Remember – ‘happiness’, in the paper I got this information from, is defined by frequent positive emotions and infrequent (but not absent) negative emotions – a slightly different definition than I’ve used previously.
Even though ‘negative’ emotions are not that pleasant to experience, it’s easy to imagine that they serve a useful purpose, that when you’re scared it’s to keep you safe, to keep you from doing things that your mind associates with danger. If you didn’t have fear, you’d get into a lot of trouble.
Likewise, happiness has a purpose too. It’s not just there so that you can feel good! It’s a signal, information about your circumstances. You’re progressing well towards your goals, you have resources, allies and security. Because of this, happiness nudges your behaviour in a certain direction. Unlike fear, though, the direction is towards goals, not away from them.
Your mind then opens up a few mental resources for you; makes you more interested in goals, more creative, and gives you a positive outlook on any negative things that might be going on, so that they don’t interfere with your advancement.
Happiness is not a guarantee to success, of course, but the point is that it plays a measurable role. It’s one piece of the puzzle. If you’re suitably convinced of this, you’ll probably want to read How to be Happier, to find tested ways of increasing your happiness.
This series was based on the below paper published in Psychological Bulletin by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King and Ed Deiner – three big names in positive psychology. It was a huge effort, they analysed 225 studies with over 275,000 participants in total! All three researchers have books out so if you like the stuff in these articles, stick their names into Amazon and see if there’s something you like!
Apart from the side-splitting humour, all the points in this article came from this reference. If you’re looking for the original studies, get the pdf of the above reference and do a Ctrl+F (or Apple+F) to search for the finding you’re looking for. Then find the study in their reference list.
(1) Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Deiner, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 131/6, 803–855