Andrew Rosenfeld, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Robert Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

Andrew Rosenfeld, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Robert Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

Who doesn’t want to be happy? You can’t go a day without seeing a new self-help book, talk show host, or scientific claim about the secret to a happy life. But what is the scientific evidence that unlocks this secret? And, how do we put it into practice to make a difference in our lives?

The answers are not easy. Some of the challenges arise in the question itself. Science is a process of generating educated guesses –what we call hypotheses – to explain our observations about the world. We then then create experiments to test our guesses. How do we apply this to something as personal and wide-ranging as happiness?

How Do We Research Happiness?

There’s a lot to be said for simply asking people. You could use standardized surveys for people to report on their happiness. This is simple, believable, and cheap. It runs the risk of being biased—having the results skewed because, say, people want to make themselves sound happier, or because something good just happened to them right before they did the survey.

It’s a bonus if research findings can be reproduced by a different, unrelated researcher with an entirely different population. Even better is when there is evidence from people’s behavior that supports the findings. For example, that people who rate themselves as being happy also have more friends and social supports (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). And perhaps best is when we can connect something in the brain with a happiness measure.

One Secret to Happiness? Positive Relationships

There is a rapidly growing body of research on areas related to happiness. One of the strongest links is to relationships. Healthy, intimate relationships show up time and again as highly related to life satisfaction and day-to-day wellbeing (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005; Acevedo et al., 2012). What’s more, relatively simple surveys that rate people’s relationships give reliable results across different researchers and populations (Graham and Christiansen, 2009). These surveys can predict meaningful aspects of relationships—like how much eye contact a couple makes and whether their romance will last (Peterson, 2006, pp. 252-253).

Relationships and Your Brain

Research findings also show that brain activation peaks in a reward network of the brain when a person looks at pictures of a person with whom they are in love (Bartels & Zeki, 2000). Looking at one’s child decreases activity in brain regions responsible for negative emotions and competitive comparisons (Bartels & Zeki, 2004).

While this may strike you as a little unbelievable, a separate group of researchers has verified the activity in brain reward areas when viewing a picture of a lover (Fisher et al., 2005). Then they looked at people who had been passionately in love, but were rejected. This study showed that the brain activity in areas focused on rewards and motivation remained. The circuits for attachment and friendship seemed to decline in activity as the participants had more time since their break-up (Fisher et al., 2010).

Finally, in long-term relationships (on average, greater than 20 years), couples still showed brain activity in reward and motivation areas when viewing their romantic partner (Acevedo et al., 2012). Unlike the rejected lovers, the activity in brain areas serving attachment remained high when looking at their long-term partner, even when compared to looking at a long-term non-romantic friend.

So, if you want to begin your life in paradise, consider starting with your friends, family, and partners. They just might hold the key to your happiness.

Andrew Rosenfeld, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Robert Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. 

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