Embrace Joy Chapter 2

What Is Joy?

Doctors don't test you for happiness, Some don't even ask about your emotional life. But there is mounting scientific evidence that an entire array of positive emotions and outlook have dramatic health effects--boosting our immunity, cutting our risk of cardiovascular disease and more. Joy encompasses celebratory emotions and a positive outlook on life. When we are happy, when we are optimistic, when our actions are motivated by compassion or love, our health and longevity can improve.



The field of happiness research is expanding as scientists learn more about positive emotions' impact on our health and enjoyment of life. Different experts have their own terminology for what constitutes happiness, but three components tend to be part of most descriptions: experiencing pleasure, getting what we want, and being meaningfully connected to others. READ MORE

Psychologists long believed that each person has a happiness “set point,” a degree of satisfaction and enjoyment of life that is his or her baseline level of emotion. The theory: Life events can temporarily alter that level of emotion, but after you adjust to a huge setback or a joyful development, your happiness level returns to about the same place that it was initially. But more evidence is showing that we can alter our happiness baseline by learning better ways of coping with life's challenges and maximizing its pleasures. Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, of the University of California, Riverside, has shown that the simple acts of counting our blessings or consciously stating the positive aspects of a stressful situation help keep our mood elevated. In one of her study, the people who took these simple steps—expressing gratitude and optimism—had higher levels of happiness and less depression than those in a control group. This effect remained clear 6 and 9 months after the study begin.

Researchers' terminology for happiness is “subjective well-being.” It points up an aspect of happiness research to keep in mind: Most of the information is reported by people in studies, assessing their own mood. This method has its shortcomings, scientifically speaking. But as technology enables us to see what's happening in the brain's limbic system, where emotions are regulated, researchers are able to gather more objective information about happiness. LESS



Generally expecting good things to happen rather than bad things seems to come naturally to some people. Psychologists measure optimism with questionnaires, focusing on hypothetical situations and outcomes. In a nutshell, optimists tend to see positive events as the result of living in a world where good things happen, and believe that their actions can overcome bad circumstances. Pessimists are more likely to describe such events in terms of their “luck” or “timing,” and think negative outcomes are likely. They are also more likely to consider negative events their own fault, and feel helpless to change that. Martin Seligman, a lead researcher in the field of positive psychology and author of the book Learned Optimism, constructed one such tool to measure optimism. (You can try an adapted version here: www.stanford.edu) READ MORE

Evidence shows that most of us have a tendency toward optimism. In a 2007 survey, 10% of Americans reported that they plan to live to be 100 years old. (Only .02% live that long.) Similarly, few people expect their marriage to end in divorce or expect to contract a terminal illness, even though statistics show that such things will happen to many people. Our optimism may be a survival mechanism that keeps us moving forward, instead of falling into a pessimistic depression. However, some amount of pessimism gives us a more realistic view of life, and may keep us from taking unwise risks. LESS



Our relationships are the linchpin of a joyful existence. All of the friends and family members we feel connected to, and even the people they are connected too, affect our well-being and happiness. A study by Harvard University that lasted more than 30 years examined the relationships and well-being of more than 12,000 people. Its findings: Any person in that network had a 15% greater chance of being happy if someone they were directly connected to was happy. Less expected, but very interesting: If your happy friend has her own happy friend—even if it's someone you don't know—that increases her chance of being happy by 15% and your chances of being happy by 10%. Keeping in touch with our friends and family, and being open to meeting new friends, is consistently associated with higher levels of reported happiness.

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