The science of happiness

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A few decades ago, the science behind emotions only focused on the negative feelings, like depression and anger. (WLS)

A few decades ago, the science behind emotions only focused on the negative feelings, like depression and anger. But one neuro-psychologist decided to turn that frown upside down and study the science behind happiness, joy and love.

When Barbara Fredrickson hears "go to your happy place," she literally heads for her lab. For more than 20 years, she's been studying positive emotions, tackling how they affect the heart, the immune system and mental health.

"The ways that we feel happiness and well-being are actually showing up in the cells of our immune system and supporting our health in that way," Frederickson, Ph.D., professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, UNC Chapel Hill.

Money and success account for only a small part of people's happiness, a bigger portion you create.

Meditating even just 15 minutes a day is an easy way to do that.

"Before and after a three month study we'll measure people's heart rates, and we see a healthy pattern of cardiovascular activity," she said.

"Everyone has this place inside of them that's peaceful but often we don't know how to tap into it," said Mary Brantley, meditation instructor, UNC Chapel Hill.

It is possible to re-wire your brain to be happier. And according to psychologist Shawn Achor, these five habits will do it: every day think of three things you're grateful for, write about a positive experience from the past 24 hours, exercise, meditate and perform one random act of kindness. Doing this every day, for just 30 days, can change the neuro-pathways in your brain, making happiness second nature.

A new study argues happiness does not lead to a longer life. Researchers believe suffering from disease or other illnesses causes people to be unhappy and it also causes them to die earlier. But simply being unhappy on its own does not. However, happiness at least improves the quality of life.

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BACKGROUND: Forget Disneyworld, Barbara Frederickson's PEP lab could very well be the happiest place on Earth. It stands for Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology and it is here where the professor of Psychology and Neuroscience studies the science behind positive emotions and how they affect people's thinking patterns, social behavior, health, and physiological reactions. Fredrickson and her colleagues use a series of ratings and surveys to gauge a person's happiness and they also measure bodily responses such as heart rate and respiration changes. She says certain things tend to universally help us to feel more positive and have a positive impact on our physical health. One is spending more time with people. "Whether people are introverted or not, we found that everybody feels more uplifted and alive when they are social than when they are alone," she says. She also urges people to prioritize happiness, "If we take positive emotions more seriously and schedule our days so that we know there's certain events, like if I see this friend or go for a run in nature or spend time on my favourite hobby, those things bring me joy. If we prioritise those in our days, we do better." (Source:

NEGATIVE THOUGHTS: From the minute some women wake up, to the time they go to bed, they are running an internal monologue of self-negativity; from how much money they earn to how they look. A study of 2,000 women found that the average woman puts herself down around eight times per day; half of those thoughts popped up before 9:30am. A focus on physical beauty and wanting to lose weight were the most common thoughts, with not earning enough money also being requent. Negative thoughts aren't just an emotional problem, the stress and anxiety that follows can lead to hormone imbalances, cause damage to the immune system and accelerate the aging process. When you feel happy your brain releases serotonin, dopamine or oxytocin. Conversely, negative emotions release cortisol and increase your blood pressure

PLACEBO EFFECT: For more than 50 years, scientists have known that when patients in clinical trials get nothing but sugar pills, saline injections, or fake surgeries - but believe they might be getting the new wonder drug or miracle surgery - their bodies get better 18 to 80% of the time. Placebos have measurable physiological effects. They tend to speed up pulse rate, increase blood pressure, and improve reaction speeds, for example, when participants are told they have taken a stimulant. Placebos have the opposite physiological effects when participants are told they have taken a sleep-producing drug. The scientific study behind the power of positive thinking is dated back to 1955 and a paper published by Henry K. Beecher: Beecher concluded that, across the 26 studies he analyzed, an average of 32% of patients responded to placebo. Another study showed that 79% of medical students report developing symptoms suggestive of the illnesses they are studying. Because they get paranoid and think they'll get sick, their bodies comply by getting sick.

For More Information, Contact:
Kim Weaver Spurr
Assoc. Dir. of Communications
UNC-Chapel Hill
(919) 962-4093

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