3 Scientific Insights About Happiness

For centuries scientists have been peering out at the stars and into the human body, trying to learn how people and the universe work. But only recently did it occur to anyone to start investigating happiness.

Fuzzy and subjective, meaning and fulfillment long seemed the province of religion and self-help gurus, but these days scientific researchers are making up for lost time, crafting rigorous studies to look at one of the most important questions all of us (including business owners) face — what’s the good life and how do we achieve it?

And they’re making progress, as UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center recently demonstrated with a long roundup of findings from the field of positive psychology in 2013. Some are only applicable to certain groups like teachers, but several could benefit any entrepreneur looking to ensure they’re living their life and running their business for maximum satisfaction. Check them out below.

Meaning and Happiness Aren’t Synonymous

Is a meaningful life and a happy one the same thing? Last year a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology aimed to find out by surveying approximately 400 Americans. The conclusion? The concepts overlap but their are differences.

Greater Good sums up the results: “Happy people seem to dwell in the present moment, not the past or future, whereas meaning seems to involve linking past, present, and future. People derive meaningfulness (but not necessarily happiness) from helping others-;being a ‘giver’-;whereas people derive happiness (but not necessarily meaningfulness) from being a ‘taker.'”

Which you’re after is up to you, but other research shows your body has a preference. “When Barbara Fredrickson and Steve Cole compared the immune cells of people who reported being ‘happy’ with those of people who reported ‘a sense of direction and meaning,’ the people leading meaningful lives seemed to have stronger immune systems,” the article reports. Maybe that will help you put those less happy moments when you’re pursuing meaning rather than immediate good vibes into perspective.

Happiness Is Complicated

Big shocker, right? Anyone who has ever tried to find and hold on to happiness can attest to the fact that it’s a slippery concept. The fact that happiness is elusive isn’t a surprise, what may be more interesting is research findings that show it’s alright if you can’t hold on to happiness all the time or fall far short of ecstatic. Rest reassured — you’re still on the right track.

“June Gruber and her colleagues analyzed health data and found that it’s much better to be a little bit happy over a long period of time than to experience wild spikes in happiness.Another study, published in the journal Emotion, showed how seeking happiness at the right time may be more important than seeking happiness all the time. Instead, allowing yourself to feel emotions appropriate to a situation–whether or not they are pleasant in the moment–is a key to long-lasting happiness,” reports Greater Good.

Context Affects Our Sense of Right and Wrong

Need to face down temptation of make a tough call? When and where you decide to make that decision matters, according to new research. Last year studies “revealed how susceptible we are to context. One study found that people are more moral in the morning than in the afternoon. Another study, cleverly titled Hunger Games, found that when people are hungry, they express more support for charitable giving,” according to Greater Good.

If that sounds like less than amazing news about human nature, the article suggests that instead we think of these findings as an opportunity to tweak our surroundings to support the better angels of our nature. “Knowing how our minds work might help us to make better moral decisions,” the article concludes on a hopeful note.