Thursday, May 26, 2011

New Zealand Does Its Own Happiness Study

A sheep on a quest to Mordor. From Wicked Campers.
Continuing the theme from yesterday, the New Zealand Herald reports that New Zealand has published its own national happiness study. The 18-month study, entitled "Working Towards Higher Living Standards for New Zealanders," says, "Treasury's role as a central agency with oversight over all significant policy issues across the state sector has also led it to acknowledge that living standards are broader than income alone, and are determined by a wide range of material and non-material factors."

Ross McDonald, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland Business School, says that he hopes the study will provide good advice to politicians. For instance, the study could lessen the move toward increasing work hours. "We've got to get out of the mindset that sees growing economies as our ultimate purpose in life," he says.

The news story doesn't go into detail about how New Zealand conducted this study, but if it's anything like other Gross National Happiness measures, they probably sent out thousands of questionnaires to citizens, asking them about their life satisfaction. As always, click on my Gross National Happiness tag to see all the other countries that are into this sort of thing, and which ones are holding out.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The OECD Throws Its Hat into the Happiness Measuring Ring

You'll never guess who this logo belongs to!
From Supply Chain Management Review.
The Guardian reports that the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (or OECD) has started including "life satisfaction" with its economic measures. As part of the OECD's 50th anniversary, The Better Life Index uses these 11 separate dimensions of measurement for each of the OECD's 34 member countries:  housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, governance, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. This should provide a more useful view of progress than the measurement of GDP alone.

OECD secretary-general Angel GurrĂ­a says, "This index encapsulates the OECD at 50, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and understanding in a pioneering and innovative manner. People around the world have wanted to go beyond GDP for some time. This index is designed for them. It has extraordinary potential to help us deliver better policies for better lives."

This effort to look beyond GDP is part of a recent trend. It started in Bhutan in the 70s, but within the past year Britain, Germany, Canada, one or two U.S. cities, and more have all started measuring their own happiness. Look at my Gross National Happiness tag for more info.

If YOU want to participate in the OECD's measurements, go to their Better Life website, where you can view stats for each country and take the survey yourself.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Men Who Like Culture Are Happier

The Louvre. From Brock's Renaissance Art.
Hey gang. Today's story is again brought to you by Julia of The Thank You Project. It seems whenever I have trouble finding new stories, there she is with a good one. Any help is always welcome!

As for the story itself, LiveScience reports that men who enjoy cultural outings, like visits to art museums or the ballet, tend to be happier with their lives than those who don't. The researchers call this "receptive culture," which is separate from "creative culture," wherein a person actually takes a hands-on approach by painting, singing, or writing.

Study author Koenraad Cuypers and his colleagues looked at data on the activities, life satisfaction, perceived health, anxiety, and depression of 50,797 adult residents of Nord-Trondelag County in central Norway. Even after controlling for income and education, participating in receptive culture has a positive effect on the wellbeing of both genders, but the effect is not equal. Cuypers says, "Men seemed to get more of a percieved health benefit from being involved in different receptive cultural activities than women did."

Since this study did not examine people's happiness over time, it can make no assertions on whether receptive culture causes happiness or if the two just happen to go together. Cuypers wants to expand the research to answer that question, and also to find out if the correlation is true in European countries other than Norway.

You can read the actual study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Martin Seligman Wants to Apply Positive Psychology to Games, the Army

Martin Seligman. From Princeton.
Martin Seligman, considered to be the father of positive psychology, is still pushing the science in new and interesting directions, according to Gamasutra. His recipe for happiness is PERMA, or positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. Seligman is now assisting the U.S. Army in teaching PERMA to soldiers in an attempt to alleviate common problems that soldiers have, like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, drug abuse, and divorce.

The Army will ship drill sergeants to the University of Pennsylvania, where Seligman teaches. The effectiveness of PERMA techniques will then be measured on one million soldiers over their entire careers. The whole program will cost $150 million.

On the topic of games, Seligman mentions a lot of untapped potential. Though he hasn't seen any games that relate to positive psychology thus far, he says, "I believe that PERMA's future...might be that gaming will be the great, exponential amplifier. Teaching emotional literacy to young people throughout the entire world [through gaming]." He also mentions a lack of research on this topic, but that there is some evidence of Bridge's positive effect in preventing dementia.

For more on positive gaming, you might check out Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. I haven't read it, but I'd really like to. You can also click on my Martin Seligman tag.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Another Study Shows the Benefits of Kindness

Kindness. From On the Fence with Jesus.
Longtime readers probably know that acts of kindness can improve your mood over the long term, but here's another study to heap on the pile of evidence. The Globe and Mail reports on a York University study that monitored 700 people as they performed small acts of kindness over the course of a week. Participants helped other people for 5-15 minutes a day, and still felt the positive mood effects six months later compared to a control group.

The researchers first evaluated participants' levels of depression, happiness, and self-esteem, then evaluated them again four more times over the six-month period. Lead author Myriam Mongrain says, "What’s amazing is that the time investment required for these changes to occur is so small. We’re talking about mere minutes a day."

Mongrain theorizes that compassion boosts our mood because it gives us meaning and self esteem. "If you make a conscious decision to not be so hard on others," she says, "it becomes easier to not be so hard on yourself. Furthermore, providing support to others often means that we will get support back. That is why caring for and helping others may be the best possible thing we can do for ourselves. On a less selfish level, there is something intrinsically satisfying about helping others and witnessing their gratitude."

You can read the actual study in a forthcoming issue of The Journal of Happiness Studies. Read more about this general topic in my blog post here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

When the Pursuit of Happiness Backfires

Maybe Will Smith isn't always for you. From Gregg Hawkins.
Today the Times of India reports that the pursuit of happiness actually makes some people depressed. This information comes from a study by June Gruber of Yale, Iris Mauss of the University of Denver, and Maya Tamir of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

These three say that problems arise when you set too many expectations for your own happiness. Gruber says, "But when you're doing it with the motivation or expectation that these things ought to make you happy, that can lead to disappointment and decreased happiness." The authors also outline some problems that happen when you really are too happy, like decreased creativity and unnecessary risk taking.

So if you read this blog or others like it and you feel disappointed when some of the suggestions don't work out for you, it may be a good idea to cut back for awhile! There's no shame in it, and you may be doing yourself a favor.

Read more about this study in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Neuroscientists Attempt to Identify Leadership in the Brain

Here is you and everything you know. From IBT.
Nothing much is going on with "happiness" per se, but some interesting news has come in regarding another aspect of positive psychology:  the flourishing of human skills. International Business Times reports that researchers at the W. P. Carey School of Business are using brain imaging and neurofeedback techniques to identify and improve the leadership areas of the brain.

Professor Pierre Balthazard and his team have collected EEG data on around 350 senior executives at various businesses. They then correlated this data with performance data to see which areas of the brain help create inspiring leadership. Balthazard says, "The concept has been proven. Now we have to go beyond the proof of concept into operationalization. Then, we will move into the delivery of products and services."

This process will probably involve neurofeedback, wherein scientists will reinforce certain areas of subjects' brains to help steer neuroplasticity in the right direction. The mental health implications of these techniques sound rather exciting to me, but I could also see how some people might be freaked out by the possibility of "mind control." As long as the scientists understand ethical boundaries with what their doing (and it sounds like Balthazard does) these techniques could be a great help to a lot of people!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Big Government is Best for Happiness?

From Visiting DC.
Today's story is brought to you by Julia over at the Thank You Project. It's always great receiving story submissions from people, so be sure to check out her blog. It's all about the power of gratitude, which should interest a lot of you.

Anyway, in a post that will probably be controversial, LiveScience reports that citizens of bigger governments tend to be happier than those of smaller governments. The actual study, published in the April issue of Politics & Policy, says that the United States ranks 10th out of 15 industrialized nations in life satisfaction. The countries with more social welfare programs rank higher on the list.

Patrick Flavin of Baylor University conducted the study by looking at data from the 2005 to 2008 World Values Survey, which asks citizens of various countries how satisfied they are with their lives. The researchers then measured the size of their governments by looking at tax revenue, gross domestic product (GDP), government consumption, average unemployment benefits, and social welfare expenditures.

After controlling for health, age, individualism, and other factors, government size proved to be the biggest influence on average happiness. Flavin says, "The jump in happiness in going from a country that's low on the government intervention scale to one that is high on the government intervention scale is about the same as the effect of getting married."

Suffice it to say, not everyone agrees with the study's conclusions. Critics point out that the study's sample of 15 countries is not big enough, while the researchers say they limited their sample size to draw more reliable comparisons between similar countries. The story itself goes into much more detail than I could summarize here, so read that if you want to learn more.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bhutan Makes Bid for Olympics

The prince doing archery, Bhutan's national sport.
From Bhutan-360.
Today Xinhuanet reports that Gross National Happiness pioneer Bhutan is now interested in hosting the Olympics. Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, the 26-year-old heir to the throne of Bhutan, is also president of Bhutan's Olympic committee.

With 60% of the country's population aged between 10 and 29 years old, the prince says that sports play an important role in alleviating social problems. He explains, "With increasing migration to the city, there are more social problems, and sports can play an important role in decreasing youth criminal rate."

Since Bhutan focuses on citizen wellbeing rather than money, its sporting industry is not as developed as those of other countries. Now the Olympic committee has members from departments of finance, agriculture, and statistics to help Bhutan compete on an international level.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Scientists Identify Happiness Gene

What your whole life looks like under a microscope.
From KQED.
TGDaily reports that researchers have found a gene that controls the flow of serotonin to the brain, which in turn affects overall life satisfaction. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of the London School of Economics and Political Science conducted the study, wherein he examined genetic data from 2,500 participants of the US National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. De Neve specifically looked for variations of the 5-HTT gene.

This gene can have long or short variations, with the long forms being more efficient and therefore able to create more serotonin transporters in cell membranes. When De Neve's team looked at how satisfied participants were with their lives on a five-point scale (very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied, very dissatisfied, or none of the above), they found that a whopping 70% of those with the efficient 5-HTT gene variation (long-long) were either very satisfied or satisfied, compared with just 19% of those with the inefficient version (short-short). Possessing even one long version of the gene allele can increase one's likelihood of being "very satisfied" by 8.5%.

Happiness has long been known to have a genetic component (such as in the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky, who says that happiness is 50% genetic), but this may be the first study to show a clear link between one single gene and life satisfaction. De Neve explains, "It has long been suspected that this gene plays a role in mental health but this is the first study to show that it is instrumental in shaping our individual happiness levels." While other genes may also have a role in happiness, De Neve says, "This finding helps to explain why we each have a unique baseline level of happiness and why some people tend to be naturally happier than others."

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Not Every Culture Sees Positive Emotions the Same Way

From Free Fish Care Tips.
Time reports that the concept of "positivity" may be more culturally subjective than previously thought. This comes from a University of the Washington study that shows some cultures get no benefit from individual positive emotions--sometimes even seeing them as suspicious or dangerous.

The study's authors surveyed around 600 students from three different cultures:  European-Americans, Asian-American citizens, and Asian immigrants. The Asians tended to associate positive feelings with social harmony, while Americans associated those feelings with personal achievement.

Asians' emphasis on social harmony may not be very surprising, but the study also found that the Americans felt more stress relief from positive emotions than the Asian immigrants. Emotions like "happy," "joyful," "proud," and "strong" all reduced stress and depressive symptoms in Americans, but not Asian immigrants, with mixed results among Asian-Americans.

It would be interesting to see a more generalized study on this topic. From what I can tell, this study only looked at university students, which is already a self-selected sample (meaning participants are probably middle-to-upper class with somewhat high goals in life, simply because they are at a university). Surveying lower class people might give completely different results, as might looking at Asians within their native culture instead of Asian immigrants living in America. And there are more cultures in the world than just "European-American" and "Asian"!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Looking Back on Positive Memories Keeps You Feeling Happy

"The Persistence of Memory" (1931) by Salvador Dali.
From VirtualDali.
As more peaceful news starts to break through again, The Times of India reports that people who remember positive experiences are happier than those who focus on negative experiences. This information is based on a study that looked at correlations between "Big Five" personality traits and happiness.

As Ryan Howell of San Francisco State University explains, "We found that highly extraverted people are happier with their lives because they tend to hold a positive, nostalgic view of the past and are less likely to have negative thoughts and regrets. This is good news because although it may be difficult to change your personality, you may be able to alter your view of time and boost your happiness."

If you've got $31.50 burning a hole in your pocket, you can pay to read the actual study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, which is good because the news article is very light on details. How was this study conducted? How many participants were there? How were cultural differences in memory controlled for?

Who knows, but at least it's kind of normal news again, right!?