Dr. Happiness Is In

UPDATED: May 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: November 25, 2013

Ed Diener, Ph.D., a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, is an award-winning author dubbed “Dr. Happiness” by admirers all over the world. Diener has spent a lifetime researching ways to measure and understand personal happiness, and was one of the first academics to seriously embrace a field that, in the early ’80s, was considered far too wishy-washy and touchy-feely for any man of science.

During the past 30 years, Diener has studied how our emotions and experiences—over the course of a day and a lifetime—contribute to our overall “subjective well-being,” or SWB. While happiness can be defined temporarily (sex, chocolate, runner’s high, etc.), it can also connote long-term satisfaction (raising kids, achieving goals, living life according to one’s core values). SWB encompasses both types of fulfillment. And while his research has shown that being positive and grateful can enhance your SWB, it has also shown that for people everywhere, loneliness, misery and suffering can actually be part of overall life satisfaction. (In fact, someone who is never sad, Diener told us, is likely to be “a sociopath.”) Even people living in extremely poor circumstances (Diener surveyed people living in the slums of Calcutta, for example) or going through tough events such as losing a job or getting divorced can remain happy over their lifetimes and be quite content on the whole.

Diener describes the concept of SWB in celluloid terms: “A film that is rated highly from moment to moment might consist of frequent action, sex and narrative tension. A movie that is rated as great cinema, however, is one in which the individual elements are patterned and juxtaposed in interesting and meaningful ways, and in which the overall narrative and character development are compelling. Great movies also have their sad and slow moments, with the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. The best films contain both ongoing momentary interest and a long-term sense of meaning.”

So how can the movie of your life be great cinema? Diener’s work offers many science-based strategies. A few of his greatest hits:

Bad day? Take it in stride. Is the “good life” one filled with purpose and meaning or one filled with pleasure? It’s an age-old philosophical question tackled by the likes of Aristotle, Socrates and Aquinas. Diener was the first to pose the question scientifically. In one study, he and his colleagues asked 222 college students to complete end-of-day assessments for 52 days. The participants reported the frequency of specific emotions (ranging from joy to jealousy), physical pleasures (eating, sex, beauty, etc.), discomforts (illness, fatigue, hunger, etc.) and their overall enjoyment of the day. Finally, they were evaluated on their self-esteem, sense of purpose in life and general life satisfaction. Diener found that the participants’ life- and self-satisfaction were determined more by their sense of purpose than by their day-to-day highs and lows. Satisfying days do not automatically lead to a satisfying life. Having purpose in life—meaningful work, volunteerism, art, goals and family—trumped sunny, relaxing days when it came to assessing SWB.

Keep setting new goals. Diener often asked his students if they would accept a wish granted by a genie. Almost all of them immediately said yes. But upon discussion, the students began to doubt the benefits of such immediate gratification. Getting everything you want without working for any of it might become boring and unsatisfying. Reaching a mountain peak is exhilarating in large part because of the climb to get there. If you were airlifted to the summit, Diener asks, would the moment feel as rewarding? “If we enjoy the activities needed in working for our goals, many hours and years of pleasure are provided, whereas reaching summits provides only the occasional short-term high.” Happiness is a process, not a place, he explains. So continue to set goals that you enjoy working toward.

Yes, stay positive. While Diener acknowledges that sadness and hardship are part of a rich and happy life, his research has shown that how you view these sad, hard aspects of life can increase your SWB even more. Of course, it’s simple enough to say, “Stay positive,” but if you’re a glass-half-empty type of person, how do you actually do that? It isn’t just about plastering a fake smile on your face and acting jolly. You can actually train your brain to think more positively. How? Diener uses an acronym as a guide: AIM—attention, interpretation, memory.

Take AIM on happiness. “Positive thinking is a mindset in which you recognize your blessings more than you pay attention to daily hassles,” Diener writes. The attention aspect is simply that: Look for the flowers and that’s what you’ll find; look for the weeds and your garden will be overrun with them.

Interpretation is about viewing things in a different light. You might see friends’ vacation photos or news about career highs on Facebook, for example, and feel bad that you aren’t accomplishing as much or having as much fun. But a positive person will see the success of her peers as inspiration. Being positive doesn’t mean that you’re never down or frustrated; it means recognizing tough experiences and feelings as opportunities for growth.

And being positive also means using the human idiosyncrasy of “rosy retrospection”—remembering past events more favorably than you viewed them at the time—to your advantage. The story about your disastrous first date with your spouse, when you spilled spaghetti on your lap and lost your wallet, for example, might become a charming and romantic anecdote later on when you share it with your children. Allow yourself to selectively remember certain events; people who do so are happier overall. Sure, your family vacation may have had its share of tantrums, feuds and rainy days. But when you choose to recall the shared jokes, fun times and sunny afternoons, everyone wins. You might even train yourself to put less emphasis on those not-so-great moments during your next vacation.

Don’t smile all the time. Well, you can if you want to, but Diener says being happy doesn’t mean being maniacally cheerful. Being too exuberant—without a dose of sarcasm, self-deprecation or even disgust—can be unhealthy. Sometimes, complaining/commiserating helps us bond with others, and making fun of ourselves can prevent us from taking life too seriously. Someone who never worries likely won’t take appropriate measures to protect himself from harm. Everyone has his or her own “set point” of happiness (50 percent of which is determined by genetics), Diener says. Some people are naturally more optimistic and merry than others. The goal isn’t to be happy all the time, but to raise your set point a bit to maximize your SWB. Diener advises, “Decide for yourself what your optimum level of happiness is, keeping in mind that being in a frequent mild good mood is functional, and negative emotions, so long as they are felt only occasionally, can be helpful, too. Then enjoy pursuing the goals and values that are important to you.”