Promoting Happiness

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Volume 15, Number 11

The pursuit of happiness can legitimately be considered a health behavior, given the extensive research demonstrating that happiness is associated with better health and an extended healthy life expectancy (number of years expected to live in a healthy state). There is also research evidence for steps a person can take to promote happiness. Following are four such strategies, three of which were summarized by Nicole Owings-Fonner of the American Psychological Association in a 2018 research update.

            Research published in 2018 in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that persons who volunteer in some capacity report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction than do non-volunteers. Noteworthy from this research is that volunteering to help socially vulnerable groups was more strongly associated with happiness than was other types of volunteering, particularly for persons considered having “higher” incomes. However, when persons with “lower” incomes volunteered for socially vulnerable groups, there was no evident benefit on happiness.

            “Flow” experiences are activities in which a person becomes completely absorbed, to the extent that one tends to lose awareness of the passage of time — it’s as if the person becomes one with the activity. Such activities typically involve a balance between challenge and skills, the task is intrinsically rewarding, and the environment is conducive to having complete concentration on the task. Two studies published in a 2017 article in the Journal of Positive Psychology concluded that “flow” activities contribute more to long-term happiness than do passive leisure activities. However, passive leisure activities are easier to undertake and tend to be more enjoyable in the moment. The take-home point appears to be that the additional effort required to engage in “flow” activities is worth it for long-term happiness, even though it is easier to frequently engage in passive activities than can bring temporary enjoyment.

            Many people experience time pressure or “time stress.” Research reported in a 2017 article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that spending money to buy time (for example, paying someone to do chores to eliminate time spent on such chores) was associated with a reduction in the negative effects of time stress. Of course, this option requires having some discretionary funds. Compared to spending money on a strictly material purchase, spending money on a purchase that in some way was time-saving resulted in an increase in positive affect and a decrease in negative affect. Finding ways to free up time can help promote well-being. Given the results of the earlier research mentioned, spending found time in either volunteer or “flow” activities may augment this well-being.

            Drs. Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli recently published a book titled, Compassionomics, a term coined to depict the scientific study of compassion. Compassion is defined as an emotional response to the pain or suffering of another person that also involves a desire to help. The book reviews and describes extensive evidence that the expression of compassion by health professionals leads to better patient outcomes and lower healthcare costs. Importantly, he also finds that the expression of compassion by physicians leads to less burnout, and greater happiness and fulfillment. The benefits of expressing compassion aren’t reserved for physicians; expressing compassion to others is a win-win for both the giver and receiver.


Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.

… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor, Director of Research, and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.




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