How can we be happier? How can happiness contribute to our success and health? Over the past century, researchers in the fields of psychology and sociology have tried to answer these fundamental questions in order to improve our well-being. But it was only in 2011 that the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that recognized happiness as a “fundamental human goal” and called for “a more equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes the happiness and well-being of all peoples.” March 20 was then established as the annual International Day of Happiness.
Despite the UN’s good intentions, many people around the globe are far from being happy, especially those who live under autocratic rule, suffer from violence and wars, and their freedom of expression is limited. On the flip side, the citizens of countries that enjoy lasting peace, freedom and good healthcare, are the happiest. According to the 2014 Legatum Prosperity Index, Norway is the happiest country in the world, followed by Switzerland and New Zealand; the saddest country in the world is the Central African Republic (CAR).
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So, take note: These four groundbreaking Israeli studies on the links between happiness, success and health could transform the way we live.
Power is the secret to happiness
A Tel Aviv University study by Prof. Yona Kifer suggests that people who feel more powerful and in control of their actions tend to be more content in life than those who feel powerless. The study surveyed 350 participants to determine if feelings of autonomy or power are related to career, friendships and romantic relationships. The results indicated that people who felt the most powerful were 16 percent more satisfied then their less powerful counterparts. The strongest correlation to power and contentment was in the workplace, where employees in positions of power were 26 percent more satisfied with their jobs than their less powerful counterparts.
Moral of the story? When you can act autonomously, you feel more authentic and true to yourself. Having authenticity in what you are doing, and knowing your actions closely align to your beliefs and desires, incite satisfaction and contentment.
Happiness can fight breast cancer
Women who are happy and optimistic are less likely to develop breast cancer, according to a study by Ben Gurion University’s Prof. Ronit Peled. Peled and a team of researchers interviewed 622 women between the ages of 25 and 45 — 255 of whom had breast cancer. The scientists asked the women about their life experiences and evaluated their levels of happiness, optimism, anxiety, and depression prior to diagnosis.
The results showed a clear link between outlook and risk of breast cancer, with optimists being 25 percent less likely to have developed the disease. Conversely, women who suffered two or more traumatic events had a 62 percent greater risk. Peled urges further research into these findings: “The mechanism in which the central nervous, hormonal and immune systems interact and how behavior and external events modulate these three systems is not fully understood,” she said in a statement. “The relationship between happiness and health should be examined in future studies and relevant preventative initiatives should be developed.”
Whatever makes you happy: Schadenfreude develops in early childhood
They say there is no joy like the joy at another’s misfortune, but at what age do we already know how to feel and express it? What was once thought of as a sophisticated emotion, “schadenfreude,” or feeling pleasure at another’s pain or misfortune, is apparently prevalent in children as young as two years old. Prof. Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory of The University of Haifa led a social experiment to test the development of more sophisticated emotions in young people, including different forms of happiness.
After being divided into 35 groups comprised of a mother, her child, and a friend of the child, each group was subjected to two situations. The first was an “equal” situation, in which the mother encouraged the children to play together, ignored them for two minutes, and then began to read a book aloud to herself for two minutes. After those two minutes, the mother was told to take a glass of water that was on the table and pour it by “accident” on the book. In the second, “unequal” situation, after the first two minutes, the mother took the child that wasn’t hers on her lap and began reading the book aloud to him or her. Here, too, after two minutes, the mother spilled the cup of water on the book.
The researchers found that when the unequal situation was brought to an end, the mother’s own child showed visible signs of happiness, as expressed by jumping up and down, clapping his hands, or rolling on the floor. By contrast, when the water was spilled while the mother was reading the book to herself, there were no similar reactions. According to the researchers, the misfortune that made the children happy was the fact that their peer had stopped hearing the story, which strengthens the theory that schadenfreude is a social development that is a reaction to inequality.
The key to well-being: Having a sense of meaning
In recent years, several positive psychology studies have been conducted, looking into the what makes us happy – and happier. Established by the renowned Dr. Tal Ban-Shahar at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel, the much-hyped positive psychology movement focuses on how to improve quality of life and optimal individual functioning, in order to create personal and social change. Whereas traditional psychology typically focuses on people’s social-emotional difficulties and seeks to alleviate their psychological symptoms and suffering, positive psychology goes beyond alleviation of symptoms by promoting self realization, human happiness, fulfillment and a sense of meaning.
The positive psychology approach developed by happiness guru Ben-Shahar, who taught one of the most popular courses in Harvard’s history, emphasizes optimal human functioning. It focuses on human growth, and the importance of having a sense of meaning and satisfaction in life. It is based on the belief that people naturally aspire to live meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. Or, as Ben-Shahar put it in his bestseller Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, “Happy people live secure in the knowledge that the activities that bring them enjoyment in the present will also lead to a fulfilling future.”