OWN: How Do The Experts Measure Happiness?

Sep 21, 2011 – Oprah Winfrey’s Primetime on OWN with Deborah Roberts, aired an ABC Special on the Keys to Happiness originally taped in 2008, but it’s message is timeless. Hosted by Bill Weir, he reports on what the experts say about happiness. Can it actually be measured and studied? Bill Weir’s report tells us, yes!

So how do the scientists measure Happiness? Bill Weir visited Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Davidson has made a life’s work out of studying happy brains. His lab is devoted to understanding how much of our happiness level is set at birth and how much can we control. Donning an electronic head cap with 128 sensors, Bill underwent a brain test in which Dr. Davidson wanted to watch Bill’s brain respond to a series of photographs, some pleasant, some distressing. By studying the activity in his left prefrontal cortex, Dr. Davidson discoverers that Bill Weir has a happy brain.  He explained that he had his parents to thank.  Not only for happy genes, but for a loving childhood.  Studies have shown that angry or critical parents can actually alter a child’s happiness level until it’s set at about age 16.

Can adults adjust their own feelings of happiness? University of California’s Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky Psychology Professor and author of The How of Happiness. A scientific approach to getting the life you want, says Yes!

Bill Weir reports that Dr. Lyubomirsky slices your overall joy like a pie.  The big slice, 50% of the pie, is set by your genes, while only 10% comes from your life’s circumstances; where you live, how much money you make, even how you look.  The remaining 40% represents the intentional activities that we choose to engage in, the things that we do and think everyday of our lives.  And by those things we can increase or decrease our happiness.

If you think that life circumstances should make up most of the pie meet Carolyn Johnson who in 2003 she volunteered for the ABC show Extreme Makeover.  She had her broken nose straightened, her upper lip lowered and she looked amazing.  But did it make her happy?  She said for about a year it made a difference.  People complimented her all time.  But after about a year it all wears off and its back to normal life again.  Most people returned to their happiness set point after a big change in life.  Researchers have noticed this in lottery winners and newlyweds.  That’s why Dr. Lyubomirsky says life circumstances only accounts for 10% of total happiness.  And that leaves the remaining 40% of the pie that we have control of.

Carolyn makes an ideal test case for this 40% theory because she has an identical twin sister named Cat.  Cat and Caroline share the same genes, the same upbringing, they live in the same area, and Cat also had an extreme makeover.

But when Dr. Lyubomirsky gave them both questionnaires to measure their happiness level.  Caroline rated above average while Cat scored very low, borderline miserable.

Caroline, the happy twin, is a married mother of three boys and is a self-employed dog groomer, whose business has hit a rough patch lately.  But Caroline is optimistic about the future and has definite financial goals.

Cat, the unhappy twin, is a single mother, supporting her seven year old daughter as a hair stylist.  She feels that she is not progressing in her career and her financial situation weighs on her.

It is such a fascinating case because these two sisters are identical twins so we know their differences in happiness cannot be explained by genetics.

Both sisters have challenges and stresses in their life so the differences in their happiness level is not circumstances but attitude.

Caroline is optimistic and focused on life goals which are qualities of happy people.

And Dr. Davidson would agree.  He has studied the brains of Buddhist monks, men who spend their lives deliberately forcing positive emotions and their happiness levels are off the charts.

Dr. Davidson’s new data claims that if a person sits quietly for half an hour a day just thinking about kindness and compassion, their brain will show noticeable changes in just two weeks. Dr. Davidson says in many ways this is the most important idea in neuro science in the last decade.  Our brains are just waiting to be transformed.  But we need to take responsibility in changing our brains in positive ways.

Dr. Lyubomirsky says there are many more strategies like gratitude and forgiveness relationships and savoring the present moment. She admits it may sound corny and old-fashioned but grandma’s advice about counting your blessings may have scientific research to back it up!

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