Without sadness, we couldn't know true happiness either. You've probably heard someone along these lines before, but if you think about it, it makes sense — and science backs up the theory as well. Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., is the science director of the Greater Good Science Centre and co-instructor of a "Science of Happiness" online course. She earned her doctorate in cognition brain and behaviour at UC Berkeley, and the expert recently did an IAmA on Reddit where she discussed — you guessed it — happiness. Simon-Thomas answered questions we can all relate to with science-backed secrets that reveal why happiness is important and how we can work to achieve it.
1. What was your journey to being a scientific expert on happiness?
"Great question. So, the earliest moment where I thought studying happiness was a good idea came during a debate with my parents about the meaning of life. My parents were both raised strict Italian Catholic, and came to Buddhism as their philosophical/spiritual outlook as young adults. I was complaining (nine or 10 yrs old) that we didn't have enough fun, or dessert. They were saying something complex that I heard as 'life is suffering' . . . and I thought . . . 'no its not — we're meant to be happy' . . . and I wanted to understand how to best arrive at happiness. After that, I went on to study psychology and neuroscience and emotions and thinking . . . and eventually worked my way back to studying the origins, sources, and biological systems that foster happiness."
2. What is something small that everyone can do that people might not be aware might be beneficial?
"Make and keep a list of words that reflect the values and aspirations that you find meaningful, that you know pertain to strengthening your social connections, predilection towards kindness, and sense of belonging in your community. Write one down each day on a post it — right where you can see it — and let it be a source of inspiration for the day.
"My grandmother used to keep little 1 x 4 inch slips of card stock with such words written on them in her purse — and whenever we saw her — she'd invite us to pick one: jubilant, fabulous, gracious, marvellous, peaceful, spunky, generous, forgiving, kind, tenacious, appreciative, wholehearted, etc. It's inspiring, fun, and surprisingly uplifting!"
3. My spouse has been really stressed out lately, what's the best way to help him be happier?
"Part of this depends on whether he aspires to do anything about being stressed out, and how open he is to suggestions or advice from you. If he is, inviting him to share time doing relaxing things together — a walk outdoors, a conversation about something relaxing with a warm comforting beverage, or if you're feeling more adventurous, doing a guided meditation practice together. There are some great, free MP3s on UCLA's MARC website you can draw from. Other simple steps? Avoid checking email/work obligations outside of normal work hours (e.g. in the evening before bed), reflect on ways that people's actions in the world lead to goodness in your lives (gratitude), and indulge in some good comedy/humour."
4. Can I be happy and lonely at the same time?
"Tricky question. In general, loneliness is a barrier to overarching happiness in life. Loneliness is also associated with increased risk of physical illness through its influence on the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and endocrine function. Lack of social support is said to be as much of a health risk as a lifetime of smoking, or being morbidly obese. There is research that ties the current opioid epidemic to loneliness. Early research on happiness found that lonely people never fall into the category of 'very happy.'
"That said, loneliness is a subjective characteristic — that is — studies have shown that if you feel lonely, you suffer these risks, but if you simply live in a solitary way and are not distraught by it, there are few complications. Often people think having social connections means having 1 million+ friends in life and on social media, but really, social connection can be realized when you have just one person you can count on to support you in times of need, and perhaps who would also turn to you for support when they need it. So it's not about being gregarious, it's about being able to form and maintain trusting, safe, and mutually benevolent connections, and believe it or not, most people can hone and develop the skills to be good at that."
5. Do you have any thoughts or tips about how my partner and I can do our best to remain happy and connected in our new roles as parents?
"Congratulations! The most interesting research on happiness in parenting seems to centre upon mindfulness — that is — cultivating a better sense of awareness of your habits of thinking, interpreting, and judging feelings and thoughts within yourself and others, and developing a stronger capacity to attend to the present moment in real time as it is occurring. Babies live primarily in the present moment, and the more you can align your awareness with theirs, the easier it will be to understand their signals and in turn, form deep, trusting, meaningful connection. These early life connections shape lifelong patterns of behaviour, health, and mental well-being — trust your impulse to care and nurture, and indulge in being awashed in oxytocin! And, don't hesitate to ask for help and support from your community — it does, indeed, take a village."
6. Do you think artists need to feel unhappiness to create art?
"Happiness, overarching happiness in life, is not the consequence of a perpetual string of enthusiastic joy. Rather, when people's lives are emotionally diverse, and they are skilled at channelling those negative emotions (which we are biologically built to experience) into creative endeavours (or some other means of recovering from life's inevitable difficult moments) — this is an advantage. So yes, unhappy states (which is not the same as being an overall unhappy person) are instrumental to happiness, and can be a very important element of artistic sublimation!"
7. Do you have any wisdom that you could share about the science on "bittersweet" happiness?
"Yep. My son is starting kindergarten in two weeks, so I'm there right now. Sadness is a fundamental dimension of the human experience, and it manifests in a way that enables us to respond to challenging situations (e.g. irrevocable loss) adaptively, like crying — which draws supportive others close. Being supported and supporting others are experiences that activate reward circuits in our brains, and that strengthen social relationships, and strong social connections are essential to a happy life. So feeling blue is OK! Cry! Hug! Then move on, because persistent, enduring states of bittersweet, that is, not being able to recover, really does get in the way of happiness."
8. What role should "happiness" play in ones life?
"Well, happier people are healthier, have more satisfying relationships, live longer, are more creative, productive, and successful professionally, earn higher salaries, and . . . well, pretty much enjoy greater quality of life however you look . . . The pursuit of happiness, at individual and collective levels, should be baked into other important endeavours that stand to shape the course of life for all of us."