Friday, January 21, 2011


From the Wilmington News Journal, 18 Nov 11:

Ever walk away from a conversation with someone you care about feeling a strange, vague unhappiness about the discussion you had Perhaps feeling like you wanted to connect on a deeper level but ended up discussing the recent Eagles game or what you ate for breakfast?

There appears to be a sound scientific explanation regarding your momentary sense of unhappiness. In fact, your overall level of perceived happiness could be influenced by the amount of time you spend shooting the breeze or if you have no one to talk with regularly about the deep subjects of life. One way to increase your level of happiness is to spend more time in conversation with substantive meaning rather than superficial chatter.

Matthias Mehl, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Arizona, studied 79 college subjects and made intermittent recordings of their talks throughout the day for four days. He then divided the topic of the talks into small talk ("How's the weather?") or substantive talk ("What do you think the meaning of life is?"). Then, he compared the type of talks to tests of the subjects' personalities and sense of well-being. He reported that higher levels of well-being correlated with increased amounts of time spent talking with others and with deeper conversations rather than small talk.

If you are someone who does not have the knack for regular deep, meaningful conversations, do not despair. There are other factors you can work with that also appear to influence how happy you are or can be. In the book "The How of Happiness," author Sonja Lyubomirsky points out that external events or influences on our happiness account for a mere 10 percent of our happiness level. Self-reported happiness also appears to be influenced in part by genetics. Surprisingly, a large portion of our experience of sense of happiness has to do with internal viewpoints and commitment to what Lyubomirsky coined "intentional activities," such as developing an optimistic attitude, behaving in compassionate ways and choosing meaningful personal goals.

So what else can you do to enhance your happiness and sense of well-being? Scientists are studying what contributes to the feeling we call happiness. One team at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany reported that a person's relative happiness appears capable of change over a lifetime. The researchers followed 150,000 subjects over a 25-year period and discovered many correlations that contributed to shifts in reported happiness: your partner's personality; prioritizing family over career goals; attending church (the positive impact of this behavior could be related to spiritual and religious views or to the social support gained by attending church); matching actual work hours to ideal work hours (working too much or too little in comparison to your ideal can cause distress); exercise, regardless of body weight; and how often you keep the company of others (social support fights off all kinds of ills).

You also could follow tips from Dr. Tal Ben Shahar's famous class on happiness at Harvard. He published a book with six simple ideas based on research:

1. Embrace all the emotions that flow through your day as part of your experience and allow yourself to be human. Blocking how you feel or pretending you do not feel the way you do will likely contribute to frustration and sadness.

2. Happiness resides at the overlap point between enjoyment and meaning. If you spend the majority of your waking hours doing things that are unpleasurable and lack significance, you will end up miserable. Conversely, filling your days with both significant and enjoyable moments strung together will likely result in an enhanced sense of well-being.

3. Happiness does not depend on what we achieve or earn but rather how we interpret external events.

4. Simplify your life.

5. Pay attention to the mind-body connection. How we feel influences how we function, and how we take care of our physical being directly affects our psychological being.

6. Recognize, express gratitude.

Next time you are inclined to have a superficial exchange and you already feel blue, do yourself a favor -- deepen the conversation. And keep in mind your happiness is something you can take steps to increase. Not only can you feel more cheerful, but you may even contribute to feelings of happiness in others.


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