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Recent research: four happiness studies on traditional advice, health benefits, and the particular value of safety & contentment

It seemed time to post on recent research involving happiness and wellbeing.  Here are four studies from the current issues of the Journal of Happiness Studies (the September edition is open access with all full articles freely viewable) and the Journal of Positive Psychology.  Ad Bergsma discusses advice on how to be happy given across the ages.  He refers to some of the other articles in this edition of the Journal of Happiness studies, including papers on the happiness advice of Epicurus, Schopenhauer, and the ancient Chinese philosphers.  Maarten Berg looks at the possible value of ‘New Age' suggestions on happiness.  Paul Gilbert and colleagues look, very interestingly, at different types of positive emotion and suggest that it may be what they call "safe/content" feelings that are particulary protective against a variety of unhappy emotional states.  Veenhoven reviews thirty studies on happiness and longevity and argues that, although happiness does not seem to cure illness, it does a good job of reducing the chances of getting ill - with a similar effect size to the benefits of being a non-smoker rather than a smoker.

Berg, M. (2008). "New age advice: ticket to happiness?" Journal of Happiness Studies 9(3): 361-377.  [Free Full Text]
The ‘New Age' movement emerged in the second half of the 20th century and New Age ideas became the vogue in the Western world. New Age is much concerned with personal quality of life and offers both a philosophy of life and various therapeutic practices, presumed to raise happiness. This paper first describes the main recommendations to be found in New Age books. Next it considers the probable effects on happiness of these, by examining both the theoretical plausibility and the empirical conditions of happiness. This paper concludes that several recommendations are likely to produce beneficial consequences. It is argued, however, that the advice will not fit everybody equally well and that some New Age practices may reduce happiness, e.g., practices that undermine a realistic outlook on reality (this article is viewable as free full text).

Bergsma, A. (2008). "The advice of the wise." Journal of Happiness Studies 9(3): 331-340.  [Free Full Text
The demand for happiness advice is vast and many different thinkers have offered their views. This special issue (with all articles freely viewable/downloadable) presents a cross section of happiness counseling through the ages and considers the advice by classic Chinese philosophers, Epicurus, Schopenhauer, as well as contemporary New Age thinkers and self-help authors. The papers follow three leading questions: 1) What is recommended for leading a happy life? 2) How does this advice fit in the worldview of the author and into a social, cultural and historical context? 3) Are the recommendations in line with what is known about the conditions of happiness? There are common themes in advice for a happy life but also much contradiction, and some honoured philosophers offer advice that can harm happiness if it is taken to heart by present day readers.

Gilbert, P., K. McEwan, et al. (2008). "Feeling safe and content: A specific affect regulation system? Relationship to depression, anxiety, stress, and self-criticism." The Journal of Positive Psychology 3(3): 182 - 191.  [Abstract/Full Text
Recent work in the neuroscience of positive affect has suggested that there may be two different types of positive affect. One is linked to a drive/seeking system (and may be dopaminergic mediated) and the other is a soothing-contentment system (and may be opiate/oxytocin mediated). This study sought to develop a self-report scale that could tap these positive affects in regard to characteristic feelings individuals may have. Results from 203 students suggested three (rather than two) underlying factors: activated positive affect, relaxed positive affect, and safe/content positive affect. It was the safe/content positive affect that had the highest negative correlations with depression, anxiety and stress, self-criticism, and insecure attachment. Hence, greater clarity on the different types and functions of positive affect may demystify the relationship between positive emotions and well-being.

Veenhoven, R. (2008). "Healthy happiness: effects of happiness on physical health and the consequences for preventive health care." Journal of Happiness Studies 9(3): 449-469.  [Free Full Text
Is happiness good for your health? This common notion is tested in a synthetic analysis of 30 follow-up studies on happiness and longevity. It appears that happiness does not predict longevity in sick populations, but that it does predict longevity among healthy populations So, happiness does not cure illness but it does protect against becoming ill. The effect of happiness on longevity in healthy populations is remarkably strong. The size of the effect is comparable to that of smoking or not. If so, public health can also be promoted by policies that aim at greater happiness of a greater number. That can be done by strengthening individual life-abilities and by improving the livability of the social environment. Some policies are proposed. Both ways of promoting health through happiness require more research on conditions for happiness.

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