Top 10 Tips for Increasing Well-being and Happiness – Insights from 2015 Research

What did we learn in 2015 about how to improve well-being, stay happy, mindful, and healthy? Here are some of the key findings from research studies.

Insight #1: Experiencing awe makes us, well, awesome.

Before this year, there were just a handful of studies ever published about the experience of awe. It was one of those emotions—like gratitude and happiness before it—that had been neglected as a topic worthy of serious scientific attention.

That started to change in a big way this year. Several studies published in 2015 suggest some profound, previously overlooked benefits associated with awe, which is defined by researchers as feeling like we’re in the presence of something larger than ourselves—be it a natural wonder, a work of art, or feats of athleticism or altruism—that defies our understanding of the world and makes us feel like we’re just one small part of a vast, interconnected universe.

Two studies in particular stood out. A paper published in April in the journal Emotion linked awe to special health benefits. The researchers found that people who experience high levels of positive emotions in general had significantly lower levels in their bodies of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are proteins associated with type-2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, and other health problems.

Closer analysis of the results revealed that awe was the emotion most strongly associated with lower levels of cytokines and thus better health. In fact, the more frequently participants reported feeling awe, the lower their cytokine levels. 

A woman practicing yoga in front of an awe-inspiring sunset, in Lotus Pose (Padmasana)A separate study, published in June in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that awe might not only boost our health but also make us more kind and helpful to others. In one part of the study, participants either gazed up at some towering eucalyptus trees, which induced feelings of awe, or stared up at a large building. When a passer-by (who was actually working with the researchers) “accidentally” dropped some pens in front of them, the people who had looked at the trees were significantly more likely to help pick the pens up.

Both of those studies were conducted by a team that included Greater Good Science Center Director Dacher Keltner, who has been a pioneer in the study of awe. As the field takes off and attracts more interest from other scientists, it’s likely that new awe findings will make this list in the future.

Insight #2: Cynicism can hurt your pocketbook

Don’t be so trusting. Watch your back. You can’t be too careful. That’s the way to get ahead in life, right?

paper published in May in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology casts some doubt on that mentality.

In an analysis of more than 68,000 Americans and Europeans over nine years, researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany found that cynicism isn’t the path to financial success. If you are wary of trusting others, worry about being taken advantage of, and see others as self-interested and deceitful, you’re likely to have a lower income now (and in the future) than people with a rosier view of humanity.

There was just one exception: Cynicism is less financially detrimental in countries where it seems justified—where the murder rate is high, the giving rate is low, and more people see each other as selfish and predatory. In a few countries, cynics actually earned slightly more money.

“Cynical individuals are likely to lack the ability (or willingness) to rely on others,” the researchers explain. That may be helpful in the roughest areas of the world, but not so helpful in civilized society, where they miss out on valuable opportunities attained by asking for help, making compromises, and collaborating.

In other words, if you’re a cynic among people who would be happy to offer help and support, you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot—a good reason to put a little faith in humanity.

Insight #3: We can bridge political divides by appealing to the other side’s moral values

American political debates seem shaped by sides unwilling or unable to find common ground. Partisans sometimes feel intense frustration that the other side won’t buy their (clearly correct) point of view. However, research by Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, and others has suggested that we often fail to recognize how moral systems undergird political divisions, and that this obliviousness may explain the intractability of today’s political climate.

In a study published this month in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer hypothesize that political advocates make arguments grounded in their own morality, not the values of those they want to persuade—which the researchers memorably describe as a “moral empathy gap.” They also wondered if arguments appealing to the moral values of those targeted for persuasion will be more effective.

To test these assumptions, they ran six studies. The first two asked 93 participants to write essays that try persuade the other side—the results of which did indeed confirm the hypothesis that both liberals and conservatives tend to write from their own moral foundations without, apparently, considering the morality of their opponents.

The next four studies tested the idea that re-framing political arguments in the moral terms of the other side would prove more persuasive. In the third study, for example, Feinberg and Willer presented 288 participants with arguments in favor of universal health care that invoked either the value of fairness (i.e., health care is a right for all) or the value of purity (i.e., sick people are disgusting and therefore we need to reduce sickness). This and similar studies did indeed confirm that arguing from moral foundations made a difference: Conservatives who heard the purity argument for Obamacare became friendlier toward it.

In addition to establishing more links between morality and politics, this paper reveals on an empirical level that efforts to bridge the moral empathy gap can pay off in persuasion. “Morality contributes to political polarization because moral convictions lead individuals to take absolutist stances and refuse to compromise,” conclude the authors. “Our research presents a means for political persuasion that, rather than challenging one’s moral values, incorporates them into the argument.” (Or, perhaps, advocates need to directly address the morality of opponents, instead of ignoring its importance to their political positions or bickering around specific policies.)

Will making a moral argument persuade Donald Trump to welcome people to the United States who don’t look like him? Probably not. But it may influence enough of his supporters to make a difference.

Insight #4: Inequality—not wealth—is the enemy of generosity

Some of Greater Good’s most popular and provocative articles over the past few years have reported on new research suggesting that people of higher socioeconomic status are less generous, less compassionate, and less empathic than others.

But this year, a new study offered a significant twist: The earlier research, it seems, may have told only part of an important and timely story.

According to the new study, published online in November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), higher-income people are less generous—but only when they live in a place that has high levels of inequality. When the gap between rich and poor is low, the rich might actually be more generous.

Those conclusions were based on data from a big national survey of United States residents that found that in states with greater inequality, people with higher incomes were less willing to share a prize with a stranger, but in states with low inequality, they more were willing. A subsequent experiment—where the researchers told people their state had high or low inequality—suggested that the rich become more selfish only when they believe that they live amidst great inequality. The researchers speculate that’s because great inequality impels the well-off to convince themselves that they truly deserve their good fortune and thus don’t need to share it.

Those findings echo the results from another recent study, published in October in Nature, in which researchers made an unequal distribution of resources among members of a group. The wealthier members were less likely to cooperate when the inequities were made visible; when they weren’t apparent, the rich weren’t less cooperative.

So why did previous studies suggest that the rich were unequivocally more selfish? One possible explanation: Many of those earlier studies were conducted in California, a state with some of the highest inequality in the country.

According to the PNAS study’s authors, their findings don’t contradict the prior research as much as offer a caveat to it. What’s more, says study co-author Robb Willer of Stanford University, their work offers more targeted prescriptions for public policy.

“If you’re concerned about the relationship between income and generosity,” he says, “one way to counteract that is to adopt policies that promote equality.”

Insight #5: Pursuing happiness makes you unhappy—but only if you live in an individualistic culture.

A group of young women smiling happilyAmericans want to be happy. But some recent studies have found a paradox: The pursuit of happiness tends to make individual Americans unhappy.   

new study sheds some light on this peculiar American contradiction, suggesting that the relationship between pursuing happiness and decreased well-being, far from being universal, may actually be a product of our individualistic culture.

Brett Ford, of the University of California, Berkeley, teamed up with researchers from around the world to look at the pursuit of happiness in four culturally-distinct locations: the United States, Germany, Russia, and East Asia. College undergraduates living in each location answered questionnaires measuring their psychological and physical well-being, their motivation to pursue happiness, and the extent to which they viewed happiness in social terms—meaning that, for them, happiness was linked to social engagement and helping others.

Ford and colleagues then analyzed the data to find out how these factors interacted with one another in different cultural settings. The results, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, showed that the pursuit of happiness did indeed lead to less well-being for Americans, a finding that replicates prior studies. This wasn’t the case elsewhere in the world.

The impact of culture on the pursuit of happiness seems to be related to the way different cultures view happiness, says Ford. In Russia and East Asia, study participants were shown to strongly equate happiness with social relationships—something Ford says is in line with their more “collectivist,” or group-oriented, cultures. In Germany and the United States this wasn’t the case, probably a result of their more “individualistic” orientation.

This suggests that in collectivist cultures, people seek social solutions for becoming happier, says Ford. Since social ties are well-known predictors of well-being, this may explain why happiness pursuers in Russia and East Asia tend to actually feel happier.

The upshot? Try to focus less intensely on your desire to be happy and just concentrate on building social relationships—hang out with friends and family, seek out social opportunities when possible, and develop practices like compassion and gratitude, which can make you feel more connected to others.

This is Part 1 of a longer article. Part 2 is coming soon!

Printed with Permission from The Greater Good Science of a Meaningful Life

Jason Marsh is the founding editor in chief of Greater Good and the GGSC’s director of programs. Jeremy Adam Smith is producer and editor of the Greater Good Science Center’s website. Kira M. Newman is an editor and web producer at the Greater Good Science Center. Kirra Dickinson is a research assistant at the Greater Good Science Center. Jill Suttie is Greater Good’s book review editor.

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