Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Beautiful People Are Apparently Happier Than the Rest of Us

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. From Painting Here.
In news that may be disheartening to most of the population, the University of Texas at Austin reports that beautiful people are generally happier than their plain-looking or ugly counterparts, no matter what their gender or culture. This information comes from a new paper entitled "'Beauty Is the Promise of Happiness?'" by Daniel Hamermesh and Jason Abrevaya.

The authors analyzed data from five surveys conducted in America, Canada, Germany, and Britain. These surveys asked more than 25,000 participants about their levels of happiness while an interviewer either rated their attractiveness in person or by photograph. The results of this analysis showed that people in the upper 15% of beauty ratings were over 10% happier than people ranked in the bottom 10%.

Hamermesh says, "Personal beauty raises happiness. The majority of beauty's effect on happiness works through its impact on economic outcomes." His previous research showed that beautiful people make more money. The economic impact of beauty may account for around half of the happiness boost shown in his current research.

The actual paper goes into much more detail, using charts and graphs over its 47 pages. You can read it for free in PDF format by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

British People Really Like Coffee and Parks

From Coffee Ratings.
Yes, according to this story from The Telegraph, Britain has just released some preliminary results of the Gross National Happiness survey, and the results show that coffee and walks in the park are among the responses to how British people define happiness. This information comes as a result of focus groups trying to define happiness before the British government begins the main survey phase of its happiness plan.

When asked how they define happiness, the people in the focus groups showed a diversity of responses, from big ideas to little details. Some of the responses included:

  • “Having access to open, green space within walking distance of my home.”
  • “Access to low-cost facilities that enrich life - e.g. libraries, parks, swimming pools.”
  • “Opportunity to laugh, ability to trust, opportunities to recharge my batteries and restore my mental health.”
Some people responded negatively, saying that what really matters is contentment, freedom, health, or money.


In case you don't know what all this is about, last year British Prime Minister David Cameron began a campaign to put wellbeing statistics alongside Britain's economic indicators. You can join an online version of the happiness focus groups by going to the Office for National Statistics website here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

You Probably Won't Reach Full Happiness Until You Are 85 Years Old

From The Telegraph.
We've long suspected that people tend to get happier as they age, but now that theory has a number:  85. The Telegraph reports on a survey of 341,000 people conducted by the American National Academy of Sciences. The results showed that most people feel less life satisfaction in their 20s and 30s, then begin an upward trend in their late 40s that peaks at 85.

Lewis Wolpert of the University College London explains the findings in his new book, You're Looking Very Well. He says that young adults are busy trying to start families and careers; paths which don't provide benefits until later in life. Andrew Steptoe, also of the University College London, adds that elderly people now enjoy much better health and opportunities than at any other time in history, making this longevity and happiness possible. A further explanation may be that people tend to use their time more selectively as they age, focusing their days on meaningful activities that bring them true joy and cutting out those that don't.

Unfortunately, the article doesn't mention some relevant details about the survey respondents, like how nursing homes affect happiness. But still, these results might make you think more positively about growing older. You can read more news about this topic by clicking on my "age" tag.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Study Shows Correlation Between Diet and Mental Disorders in Women

Mmm, depression! From Science Daily.
Today the Sydney Morning Herald reports on a new Australian study that shows eating certain foods increase the likelihood of developing depression and anxiety disorders. Lead by Deakin University research fellow Dr. Felice Jacka, the study examined around 1,000 Australian women from all stratas of society. Participants who followed the national dietary guidelines were less likely to have depression.

This correlation happened regardless of the women's socioeconomic status, education, frequency of exercise, whether they smoked or not, and even physical problems like obesity. Dr. Jacka also says, "And conversely, women who mostly ate junk and processed foods were more likely to have depression and exhibit increased psychological symptoms." The study ultimately aims to help prevent depression before it starts.

So this pretty much confirms what a lot of you probably expected anyway. Unfortunately, the news story doesn't go into much detail about how this study was carried out (by listing control groups and the like), so not much else can be inferred from it. For more on how food affects mood, remember to click on my food tag, and especially this list of good foods to eat if you want to be happy.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bhutan Starts Marketing Its Brand of Happiness

A look at the new brand. From The Independent.
Today The Independent reports that positive psychology paradise Bhutan is opening up its marketing floodgates. Having convinced many other countries that happiness is worth measuring (as evidenced by the recent spate of nations adopting Gross National Happiness measures), Bhutan now wants to convince tourists. The Tourism Council of Bhutan hopes to do this with their new branding slogan:  "Bhutan, happiness is a place."

According to the story, Bhutanese tourism started in 1974, only two years after King Jigme Singye Wangchuck started this whole Gross National Happiness thing. Tourism has grown in recent years, but Bhutan wants visitors who don't impact the environment or culture, preferring low-key visits with larger financial contributions. The government calls these visitors "high-end" tourists.

Last year, Bhutan received 40,873 of these high-end tourists, well over its goal of 35,000. By 2013, the country is hopes to receive at least 100,000 annually. They hope that this marketing campaign attracts people who respect tradition and the environment.

So if you're filthy rich but not filthy, think of Bhutan for your next vacation!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

New Mobile Phone App for Journaling Happy Thoughts

A look at the app. From
Shawn Achor.
Do you like journaling with your mobile phone, but need some help keeping things positive? Then maybe this app is for you! Business Wire reports on a free new iPhone and Android app called "I Journal" that prompts you to journal about things you are grateful for. It also lets you record voice memos and take photos relating to your daily experiences with meditation and acts of kindness.

The app comes from a partnership between positive psychologist Shawn Achor and software developer Catch.com. Shawn Achor says, "When you write down a list of three good things that happen per day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for positives, boosting your happiness. Now, instead of dusting off an old journal, I am thrilled to team up with the experts at Catch.com to bring this proven practice into the new millennium. For the next twenty-one days, record three things you’re grateful for on your mobile device in I Journal. If you try to make at least one of them work-related, you’ll be training your brain to become more skilled at letting go of daily hassles and noticing the good things about your job."

Of course, you could probably do all of those things without a new app, but having them all in one package makes it that much easier to do them regularly. I don't have an Android phone or iPhone, but this app sounds pretty interesting, and the price is certainly right!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Happiness Course in Ireland Thrives

Dr. Deirdre MacIntyre. From Independent.ie.
Today Independent.ie reports on an Irish happiness class that is receiving offers for international expansion around the world. The class was originally offered only for teachers in Maynooth, but in February of this year, it opened its doors to everyone.

Dr. Deirdre MacIntyre, who runs the course, is the director of the Institute of Child Education & Psychology Europe, Maynooth. She started the course in May 2010 because of pervasive negative attitudes, saying, "We did an online survey of about 400 teachers and parents in May 2010 and discovered that more than 75% of respondents reported that children and young people were anxious about the recession. We decided to look for an antidote to this depression, helplessness, and pessimism."

The course lasts eight weeks, during which participants learn various techniques to improve their psychological wellbeing. Dr. MacIntyre focuses on the positive psychology theory that humans need a 3:1 ratio of positivity to negativity to thrive, and a 5:1 ratio to really flourish.

Dr. MacIntyre partnered with Action for Happiness to offer many scholarships to the €99 course.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Daily Mail Reporter Tests Her Own Blood for Happiness

Suzanne Taylor doing research. From the Daily Mail.
Can a blood test determine someone's happiness? I don't know, but that's what Suzanne Taylor of the Daily Mail tried to find out. She let researchers sample her blood and examine its oxytocin levels. Oxytocin--sometimes called the "love hormone"--is released into the blood when someone touches another human being. The chemical helps create feelings of trust, security, and possibly sexual arousal in the brain, with more oxytocin creating more positive feelings.

So what actions release the most oxytocin? That's what Suzanne Taylor wanted to find out, so in a rather unscientific test, she did four different activities on four separate days and had blood tests after each one. She went on a date, spent time with her daughter, went shopping, and spent time with a female friend.

Here are the results, in descending order of the amount of oxytocin from each activity (the theory is that the higher the number, the more actual happiness she felt):

  1. Time with daughter:  115 picograms of oxytocin per mL of blood.
  2. Time with female friend:  94 picograms/mL.
  3. Shopping:  88 picograms/mL.
  4. Date:  62 picograms/mL.
So there it is. No real surprises, except maybe that shopping scored higher than actual contact with a human being (the date, even though it apparently went well). Of course these results mean very little, seeing as this is an uncontrolled test with too many variables (maybe the date scored lowest because it was the first day tested, and she wasn't used to the needle yet). Also, everyone's oxytocin levels are probably different, making these results almost meaningless for other people.

This is an interesting course of study, however, so if anyone could do a similar test with a control group and a large sample size, the results would probably be quite helpful to everyone. Of course, you would need to find a lot of test subjects willing to be pricked by needles every day, or at least find a better way to check oxytocin.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Twitter Users Tend to Stay in Groups with the Same Mood as Them

From HIMSHILP.
Sorry for the lack of an update yesterday, folks, but I actually couldn't find a new story to cover. It was all old news, except for continuing coverage of the tragic events following the tsunami in Japan, which are outside my ability to handle. For more up-to-date information on relief efforts and the disaster itself, visit Google's excellent crisis center here.

As for what's going on in the world of positive psychology, Online Social Media reports that Twitter users group themselves together by mood. This information comes from a new study published in New Scientist, probably timed to coincide with Twitter's upcoming fifth anniversary.

This Cornell University study examined around 102,000 Twitter users over six months, totaling around 129 million tweets. The researchers analyzed words in the tweets to determine users' subjective wellbeing. They found that users of happy words tend to stick with other happy tweeters, and "unhappy" tweeters stay in their own groups.

Johann Bollen, main author of the study, says, "Beyond demographic features such as age, sex, and race, even psychological states such as 'loneliness' can be assortative in a social network." The research doesn't cover why this might be, but it seems that the old adage of "misery loves company" holds true, even in a massive, wide-open, semi-anonymous social network like Twitter.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Zappos CEO to Start New Company to Teach Happiness Principles

Tony Hsieh. From Fast Company.
Today Fast Company reports that Tony Hsieh, billionaire CEO of Zappos, plans to start a new company based on the principles in his book Delivering Happiness. The new start-up, also called Delivering Happiness, will advise businesses on value-based management and design a line of "motivational apparel." Hsieh (pronounced "Shay") says that his company’s root principles are to inspire, connect, educate, and experience. He suggests that companies adhere to their principles, even when they impact the bottom line.

In the future, Hsieh also wants to expand beyond helping businesses. He and his business partner Jenn Lim hope to publish educational literature for college students and provide "experience packages"--which include things like helicopter pilot lessons and foreign trips. Whether these packages will help longterm happiness or just create short-term pleasure is anyone's guess, but Zappos has an incredibly low employee turnover rate, even in its call center, so Hsieh probably knows what he's doing.

(You can read about Tony Hsieh at the Global Happiness Summit here, or see a video of a speech he made to Google here.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Casual Friday: A Trip to the Art Museum

As Aristotle was fond of saying, "There comes a time in one's life when one has no idea what to post on one's blog." For me, that time is now, so I'm just going to post a bunch of paintings that I like, because art is a great method of transmitting meaning and joy. I don't know if anyone else will like them and I don't know if most of these would even be classified as "happy" art, but they do all have a positive feeling to them. (You can click each one for the full-sized version.)
"First Steps (after Millet)" by Vincent Van Gogh. He painted this in 1890 while he was a voluntary insane asylum patient at Saint-Remy, where he also did some his most famous work (like "Starry Night").
"The Botanist" by Louis Wain. Louis Wain is one of my favorite painters, even though he's not really considered serious or deep by the art world (because he mostly painted cats with funny anthropomorphic features). He is also famous for becoming schizophrenic, with his cat paintings often looking completely abstract and psychedelic before psychedelic was even a word. You can check out other Wain paintings at Catland.
"Every Girl Should Have a Unicorn" by Dr. Seuss. Many people don't know this, but the famous children's author and artist Dr. Seuss also made paintings for adults--he just didn't release them usually. Well, his "adult" paintings are just as colorful and imaginative as the ones in his children's books, if not more so. You can see them in the excellent book The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss.
Hopefully these are some paintings you haven't seen before. I'm keeping it short so YOU feel free to post any paintings you like in the comments!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Happiness From Romantic Relationships May Dissipate After Three Years

From Uber Review.
Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon reports on new research that shows the happiness and passion of marriages and other romantic relationships tend to fizzle out after three years. Part of this information comes from a new study suspiciously funded by Warner Brothers, but to avoid the icky feeling of corporate research, the article focuses on a 2007 study that found similar results.

In this 2007 study, researchers interviewed each participant twice with six years between interviews. Some participants were single at the time of the first interview, then found a longterm relationship by the second, while some were already in a relationship, then got married by the second interview, and some were married during both interviews. Results showed that, on average, married people were happier, but that this happiness boost declined after three years. Researchers call this short-term boost the "honeymoon effect."

Kelly Musick, sociologist and one of the researchers on the study, says the decline after the honeymoon effect may be caused by shattered expectations of longterm romance. In other words, after three years, couples learn that marriage is more about doing laundry and other chores than constant romance. Musick is quick to point out, however, that these results are averages, so some couples even improve their happiness and passion over many years.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Gallup Finds "Happiest Man in America" in Hawaii

That's Alvin on the right. From the Daily Record.
Like Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster, a "happiest person" in any given country might seem like a mythical creature whose only evidence is some sham photographs or an odd sighting by unreliable sources. Well, according to this story from the Los Angeles Times, Gallup has apparently done the unthinkable (or maybe unnecessary?) and found the happiest man in America:  69-year-old Alvin Wong of Hawaii.

Gallup accomplished this by first assembling data on what traits and situations make people the happiest. They found that happy Americans tend to be one or more of the following things:  tall, Asian American, Jewish, 65 or older, married with children, living in Hawaii, and running their own business with a household income of more than $120,000 a year. So a theoretical "happiest person in America" would be all of these things put together, right?

Well, Gallup found that this collection of traits is not just theoretical, but that one real person in America actually meets all of them, and his name is Alvin Wong. Alvin is a Chinese-American convert to Judaism who is 5ft 10in tall, has children, owns his own business, and all the rest. The Daily Record reports that Alvin says his life philosophy is "if you can't laugh at yourself, life is going to be pretty terrible for you." He also says, of the study itself, "This is a practical joke, right?"

Who can blame him, really? Congrats, Alvin, on apparently winning at life! Your new title carries with it a lot of expectation, but you seem like the kind of guy who can take the pressure!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Children Apparently DO Make Parents Happier, Just Later in Life

Look on the bright side:  someone else will
probably deal with messes like this after you're 40.
From the Missourian.
In spite of the common wisdom that children bring happiness to their parents, psychologists have long known that parents' happiness scores actually drop the more children they have. Now, however, Medical News Daily reports that this trend reverses after age 40. Once parents reach that age, they become happier with up to three children, and after age 50, they become happier no matter how many children they have, all independent of sex, income, or partnership status.

This information comes from a survey by the University of Pennsylvania and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR). The survey covered around 200,000 men and women in 86 countries from 1981 to 2005.

MPIDR demographer Mikko Myrskyl√§ theorizes that the change in happiness has to do with life stages of the parents, saying, "Seeing the age trend of happiness independent of sex, income, partnership status and even fertility rates shows that one has to explain it from the perspective of the stage of parents' life." The negative aspects of early childhood--like messes, troublemaking, and safety concerns--often overshadow the positive aspects, but as children mature, parents can rest easy and enjoy the benefits. Researchers also believe that the financial burdens of early childhood weigh on young parents, because countries with better-developed welfare systems show less difference in happiness between people with children and those without.

People's decision to have children is usually independent of what science shows, but in case it does affect your decision, this stuff is good to know anyway!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Racial Identity May Be Part of Happiness

A strange old chart of racial classification.
From Associated Content.
The Michigan State University website reports on a new study that shows African Americans who identify more strongly with their race tend to be happier. The study, published in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, surveyed black adults in Michigan.

Stevie C.Y. Yap, lead researcher on the study and MSU doctoral candidate, says, "This is the first empirical study we know of that shows a relationship between racial identity and happiness," even though previous studies have made a connection between racial identity and self esteem.

Yap hypothesizes that this link may have something to do with a sense of belongingness. Do these results apply to other racial groups as well? We don't know yet, but further research might find out.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Britain Preps Study of 90,000 Children

Prime examples of British children. "Charlie Bit Me"
screenshot from cityrag.
Today parentdish reports on Britain's next phase of its national happiness program:  a study of 90,000 British children. Both children and parents will be surveyed, hopefully giving more insight into the roles that different social, economic, biological, environmental, and health factors play in the lives of children than previous studies. This phase will begin in 2012 and will cost around £33.5 million.

British Science Minister David Willetts says, "Birth cohort studies provide a unique insight into all the factors affecting people's lives and are central to our understanding of child development. They produce powerful evidence that informs government policy on a wide range of issues, including social mobility, inequality, education, and public health. This in turn has positive economic impacts through changes in the delivery of public services, earlier diagnosis of diseases, and improvements in quality of life."

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg supports the program, adding, "This government is committed to the long term - to making decisions today that will promote a better future:  a more prosperous economy, and a fairer society."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

China's Prime Minister Orders Officials to Make People Happy

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. From The Telegraph.
Continuing last week's China coverage, today The Telegraph reports that Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao plans to judge officials on how effectively they make people happy. He says that citizen happiness in each official's province is more important than "how many high-rise buildings and projects [the official] had been involved in." These statements are a prelude to China's version of parliament, the National People's Congress, which convenes this weekend.

However, before you start thinking that China is sincere in turning a new leaf with Bhutan-like Gross National Happiness measures, consider that this new "focus on happiness" is largely a cynical reaction to the current protests in the Middle East; a tactic meant to stop the protests from spreading. In fact, China has actually ramped up its online censorship and harassment of the foreign press, recently arresting around 100 protesters.

But that doesn't stop Chinese officials from ACTING like they care. As one official put it, "It's all about making people happy these days. Happy, happy, happy, that's the only word that counts at the moment." Communist newspaper The People's Daily also gets in on the act, writing, "Let happiness take off among the masses." The Communist Party has repeated "happiness" so often that it has replaced their previous favorite buzzword, "harmony."

So we'll have to keep an eye on China and see whether these new policies have any effect. Chinese citizens can usually see through propaganda campaigns, so Chinese officials may want to start delivering on their promises.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Happy Adolescence Leads to Happy Adulthood...and Divorce

So now when I look at pics like this, I know around 20%
of these excited kids will be divorced. Thanks science!
From English Subject Centre.
Apparently in keeping with this week's divorce theme, the Vancouver Sun reports that a happy adolescence increases the likelihood of a happy adulthood, but also increases the likelihood of divorce. This information comes from a study in the The Journal of Positive Psychology that analyzed data on 2,776 British citizens born in 1946. The data concerned teacher evaluations of students aged 13 to 15, rating them on their popularity, ease of making friends, energy levels, and overall happiness.

This interesting rating method revealed that around 20% of the kids who scored highly in multiple areas were divorced by age 53, compared to around 16% of the kids who scored poorly, even with no change in the likelihood of marriage. The difference of four percent appears small, but is significant enough to warrant further investigation. (For comparison, the divorce rate in the United States is somewhere around 43%, increasing to around 75% the more marriages a person has.)

The study, carried out by Felicia Huppert of the University of Cambridge and Marcus Richards of Britain's Medical Research Council, says, "The explanation for this is not immediately obvious and warrants further investigation. One possible factor might be that positive children have higher self-esteem or self-efficacy than their peers and are therefore more willing to leave a marriage if it is not meeting their needs."

HOWEVER, before you try to protect teenagers by making them sad, the study goes on to say that the benefits of a happy adolescence outweigh the downsides. Happy teenagers go on to become adults who are more satisfied with their jobs, more social, and 60% less likely to develop mental disorders. Whew!