Anatomy of Happiness

Laura King '86, who uses hard science to dissect the art of happiness, offers some answers to the age-old question: how to live a life of meaning and well-being.

You can't be happy without being sad, but it's how you handle the downside that really sets the tone for life.

This may seem like common sense or even a self-help platitude. But Laura King '86 has helped establish this insight as solid science, part of a rigorous inquiry into questions that most people find vital but that experimental psychologists ignored until recently.

A leading researcher in the positive psychology movement, King probes for the ingredients of happiness. "I think everyday people know a lot about the secrets of a good life," says King, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "Most people think psychologists are only interested in what's wrong with them. I see good lives being lived around me every day."

What exactly does she see? Quite a lot. For anyone negotiating life's bumpy road--which is to say, everyone--King's findings translate into a good many useful suggestions.

Here are a few.

1. Writing: the"two-minute miracle"
Much of King's research has focused on how writing about your life, for as little as a few minutes a day, improves psychological and physical health. "We don't know why it works, but it really works," King says. "You name it. If you write about your life experiences, you will be better off."

In a series of experiments, King had student subjects come to her lab and write for two minutes--on a positive topic, a traumatic topic, or a control topic. The next day they came back and did it again. The results: fewer trips to the university health clinic a month later.

Her studies built on the work of other psychologists who saw the same benefits in writing. The findings are so consistent that the phenomenon was eventually given a name: the "two-minute miracle."

Researchers have noted boosts to the immune system in people who write. Brief writing sessions seem to enhance the effectiveness of the hepatitis vaccine. Writing appears to alleviate symptoms in conditions from arthritis to breast cancer.

"It probably works for a dozen or more reasons," says James W. Pennebaker, a colleague of King's when she taught at Southern Methodist University from 1991 to 2001. There, she began to extend Pennebaker's research on the health effects of writing. Pennebaker, who now chairs the psychology department at the University of Texas, says that writing affects the brain, neurotransmitters, the way genes are expressed, and probably a dozen functions in the body. "It's a cascade of effects."

Writing gives a traumatic event context, structure, and organization. "Merely putting it to words makes it simpler in your own mind," Pennebaker notes. "Afterwards, a person doesn't need to think about it as much. They don't have to obsess. People sleep better, they're more socially connected, they laugh more."

The health benefits embrace people who write about intensely positive personal experiences, as well as those who write about personal trauma in a positive way. It can also be helpful--and healthful--to write about life goals, picturing your life in the future and imagining that everything has gone well. Writing down just about anything helps: musings about your wedding day, the birth of a child, even someone else's trauma. And it doesn't matter whether you write longhand or on a computer or typewriter.

King speculates that writing interventions may work best with people who are more inclined to write journals or diaries, and some research backs up the notion that journal writers have more positive emotions. Interestingly, however, the benefits of intensive two-minute writing sessions may be longer lasting than those of normal journal writing. King recommends focused bursts of writing.

"Not necessarily every day," she says. "But when you get in a rough patch, maybe writing for three or four days. That keeps things fresher."

The important thing is not to dwell on the negative, she says. Also, pick a subject and then stay with it for the entire time, as if you're writing a different chapter each day. Skipping around with topics seems less beneficial.

"When we write about ourselves, we're writing a story that ultimately serves as our identity," King said. "When we take a moment to think about our lives as a story, we get these insights that we would not have otherwise."

2. Regret & meaning: happiness depends on the downs, too
You have a notion of who you are going to be, but you don't always turn out that way. King has studied goals and regret, and the ways that people can find meaning in disappointment. Her findings suggest that regret has value.

"We've over-pathologized regret," she says. "The truth is, you've worked hard at something and failed. You're allowed to be disappointed." Regret is entwined with meaning, she feels; it helps people grow. "People who feel bad once in a while, that's okay, because that's what life is."

King is among a number of psychologists who have studied "lost possible selves" and the way regret affects personality. This year on New Year's Day--that ritual moment when we ponder lapsed goals and missed opportunities--the New York Times published an article that discussed research in which King asked people to describe their future as they imagined it before a life-changing event like divorce.

Those who can talk or write about this "lost future" without despairing, noted the article, tend to have a quality called "complexity," an ability "to incorporate various points of view into a recollection, to vividly describe the circumstances, context, and other dimensions."

King, who followed groups of people for years, found that this ability can be learned over time. "To elaborate on loss, to look for some insight in it, is not just what a psychologically mature person does," she told the Times. "It's how a person matures. That's what the studies show."

It's unrealistic to expect happiness all the time, King points out. "There seems to be this American obsession with always being happy," she says. Be glad for the downs. "If it weren't [for them], all the happy things wouldn't mean as much."

King's research indicates that people benefit from seeing happiness in a larger context. For example, some people sacrifice "happiness," as it's usually conceived, in order to care for an ailing parent or a child with Down's syndrome. Their happiness, their sense of meaning, entails the acceptance of good and bad together.

Similarly, altruism--which also can involve self-sacrifice--is a positive experience. Altruistic people seem to live longer and have fewer health problems, scientists have found.

Some psychologists argue that altruism actually entails a kind of selfishness: people help others as a way of feeling good about themselves. King is impatient with such reasoning. "If kindness makes people happy, why pretend it doesn't exist?" she says. "Maybe that's evolution's way of making sure we engage in a behavior that we need to have in order to survive, just as we do for eating and sex."

3. Goals & happiness
King's research has convinced her that too many people are on what she calls a "hedonistic treadmill" that relegates even life's happy occurrences to the mundane. Winning the lottery might make people happy for a while, but eventually they go back to the way they felt before their good fortune.

"The best way to enjoy life is to commit to important goals and work toward those," she says. "When people are pursuing goals, they tend to be happier." Just checking off items on a daily to-do list can make you feel better. Yes, the pursuit of goals inevitably runs into frustrations and setbacks. But King sees these not as "unhappy" per se, but as keeping happiness interesting.

Again, the idea is to provide a larger context for the concept of happiness. Goals are valuable despite the failures you encounter along the way--in fact, they're valuable because of the failures. "You invest in those goals, and if you fail you get to be even happier later, happiness postponed but not denied," says King.

She adds that some goals are more important than others, as far as happiness is concerned. Doing volunteer work, for example, brings you closer to other people. So does striving to be a better parent or building a good marriage. Another example: mastering a skill, which makes you feel more competent and enhances your sense of autonomy. By contrast, research bears out the truism that fame and wealth don't bring happiness, says King, because they don't serve fundamental values.

Finally: Don't make happiness a goal in itself. "People who are seeking happiness fail miserably and often feel less happy," King says. Often, happiness emerges as a kind of byproduct, something that develops while you're on your way to some other important end.

4. Life is long. Enjoy it.
There's certainly truth in the old adage that life is short. But there's also wisdom in the recognition that, thanks to modern science, life is also long for most of us--long enough, anyway, to enlarge our perspective and adjust our goals and expectations accordingly.

"People have to balance short-term goals and long-term life dreams," says King. Those who always see things from a "life-is-too-short" standpoint can make hasty or hedonistic decisions. "The truth is that for many people life is really long. One of the greatest challenges everyone faces is to stay dedicated to living as long as life lasts. It's a long time."

King's work on life stories and the question of what makes a "good life" has led her to believe that one should negotiate with life. "Think about the relationship of life itself. How will you stay dedicated to this thing that goes on for so long and stay engaged with it even though life punches you in face?" she says. "How will you stay in the batter's box and keep taking pitches?"

Long-term dedication is "one of the hallmarks of adulthood," King believes. People who commit to new goals when old ones have been knocked out from under them are people still in the batter's box, still taking what life throws at them.

A long life also means there's plenty of time for bad stuff to happen. It's important to find meaning even in tragedy, King says. When people who have suffered terrible losses say they wouldn't change a thing, it's because they have learned from their trauma.

As an example, King points to the death of her mother, one of the most difficult experiences in her own life. "It changed me in ways for better, for worse. The joy I experience now, having been through the loss and knowing the fragility of human relationships--it's a richer and more bittersweet kind of experience," she says.

It was also an occasion for growth, and new self-understanding. "After my mom died, I spent two years waiting to go back to who I was before," says King. Ultimately, she realized that losing her mother "was like entering a new country." King needed to admit she had changed. She had to admit to her own vulnerability.

"Being happy is not about forgetting the past, but forming a life that is founded on what you had before, or who you used to be," she says.

Facing a relatively long life and the reality of loss and change, people shouldn't underestimate the importance of enjoyment, King says. Research shows that mood has an impact on the sense of well-being.

"We tend to not think about being in a good mood as important to overall functioning," notes King. But, she says, "People who are just in a good mood tend to find their lives are more meaningful. Being in a good mood helps people 'not sweat the small stuff' ... it can have a great impact and shouldn't be ignored."

Mood also affects how we look at ourselves at the most fundamental level, such as whether we judge ourselves as having a meaningful life. Experiments have shown that simply listening to happy music gives people a more upbeat perspective.

"When I talk about enjoyment, I think about the process of getting to wherever it is you are going," King says. Again, it doesn't have to be complicated. A sunny day after a tough winter can lift the spirits in a meaningful way. "It's not so much enjoying the little things as enjoying the process.

"There's plenty of research that says 'follow your bliss.' Finding a way to make a living doing the things you really love is a great recipe for the good life."

--Mike Lafferty is a former science writer for the Columbus Dispatch. This is his first piece for the Bulletin.

Back to Top