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What Science Can Teach Us About Happiness

By Kelly Chapman, M.A., Owner of Meredith Whole Living Center

Is it possible to incorporate evidence-based practices in our lives that not only increase our baseline level of happiness, but also increase our chances of bouncing back stronger from adversity? According to the work of happiness researcher and psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, research has shown that not only is this possible, but there are specific components to a happier life that we can begin fostering in our own lives today. While there is no method that eliminates pain and suffering from the human experience, the field of happiness research offers insights and tools that can incrementally move us toward a happier baseline experience, and create the conditions of what is referred to in the field as antifragility, or the ability of a system to go beyond resilience and experience growth after difficult experiences.

One of several key insights of this work is that, contrary to popular belief, success itself is not a driver of a happier life. This is not to say the two are unrelated, but after studying the results of how clear indicators of success and failure affect those who experience them, it turns out that those instances affect our lives in more fleeting ways. However, raising baseline happiness turns out to have an incredible effect on success. Not only do happier individuals experience better outcomes in professional spaces, but they also experience higher rates of success in all of their pursuits, including community activities and relationships. While that may seem somewhat obvious, the implications over a lifetime of minding the components of a happier life have incredible implications, not only for the richness of our years, but in overall health and longevity as well.

Another key insight from the research is that pursuing happiness directly and for its own sake has the opposite effect. Rather, focusing on the components that, together, create the foundation of a happy life is a far more successful strategy. So how do researchers in the field of Happiness Studies define happiness? And what are its components? A working definition referred to is “whole person wellbeing”, and its components form the acronym SPIRE. SPIRE breaks down to Spiritual well-being, which includes finding meaning and purpose, and experiencing mindfulness in our lives; Physical well-being, which includes all of the ways we nourish our physical body to enhance our mind-body connection, such as exercise, rest and a healthy diet; Intellectual well-being, which speaks to how much curiosity and growth we foster for our minds; Relational well-being, which is enhanced through meaningful connections and time spent with those we care about; and finally Emotional well-being, which is influenced by how well we’re able to work through difficult emotions and foster more pleasurable ones, such as gratitude.

Without offering quick fixes or unrealistic expectations for set-and-forget outcomes, this work is still immensely exciting, because it offers us a clear roadmap for how we can build up each component of a happier life in a way that, over time, leads to a healthier, more connected, meaningful, successful and interesting life on the whole. Additionally, when difficult experiences and emotions arise, which they will, we’re more likely to experience growth as a result of them. I hope you join me over the next months, as I share in greater detail how we can incorporate the elements of SPIRE into our everyday lives.

This article is part of an ongoing series of distilling evidence-based approaches to increasing happiness based on the work of Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD in his book Happier No Matter What: Cultivating Hope, Resilience & Purpose in Hard Times.


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