The Surprising Science Behind “Supremely Happy” People

Contributed By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 17 September 2014

The number 1 contributor to happiness is the quality of a person’s social circle.

Article Highlights

  • The number 1 contributor to happiness is the quality of a person’s social circle.
  • Happy people take the time to unplug and go outside. Uninterrupted screen time brings on depression and anxiety.

“Sometimes people think if someone has depression, that person must be a broken Mormon. We believe that righteousness is happiness, but what happens when people are righteous and they’re not happy?” —Hank Smith, seminary instructor, author, and speaker

Hank Smith, a seminary instructor, author, and speaker known for his youth devotionals, was surprised that so many people showed up to hear him speak at BYU Education Week. He attributed the healthy attendance to the topic he had extensively researched for his presentation, “The Science of Happiness.”

Brother Smith explained that the number 1 contributor to happiness, according to Dr. Martin Seligman, was the quality of a person’s social circle. “He [Dr. Seligman] indicated that why women live longer than men is because they have bigger social circles,” said Brother Smith. “There is a myth that when a man’s wife dies he will go quickly behind because he can’t take care of himself. But this is not true. A man soon dies after his spouse because he doesn’t have a social circle upon which he can rely.”

One thing is absolutely clear in science, and that is human beings want to be happy, said Brother Smith. “They cannot get rid of that pursuit. Even evil people pursue things because they think it will make them happy. Type in ‘happiness’ on Amazon.com and you’ll find 2,000 books on happiness.”

Sharing some data about antidepressant use in the United States, Brother Smith said the latest data he had seen showed that there were 120 million antidepressant prescriptions in a country of 350 million people. “We are seeking happiness,” said Brother Smith. “We are trying, but I'm not sure if we are finding it.”

Showing a graphic based on a happiness survey from the past 50 years, Brother Smith explained that happiness hasn’t increased much over the 50-year time frame. Even though technology that is supposed to make a person happy has increased tremendously since 1972, life hasn’t gotten happier.

Sometimes a normal day consists of challenges. To illustrate that, Brother Smith shared a quote from President Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “It was meant to be that life would be a challenge. To suffer some anxiety, some depression, some disappointment, even some failure is normal. Teach our members that if they have a good, miserable day once in a while, or several in a row, to stand steady and face them. Things will straighten out. There is great purpose in our struggle in life”(That All May Be Edified [1982], 94).

Brother Smith said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles “broke wonderful ground” when he gave his conference talk “Like a Broken Vessel” (October 2013).

Brother Smith said, “Human beings struggle with depression and being happy. And so my hope in sharing this message is that I can help others.”

Exercise, a healthy diet, and making time to unplug and go outside are characteristics of happy people.

Statistics show that one in four people struggle with depression in the United States, said Brother Smith. It is a common thing, but we treat it as if it is some sort of stigma. We don’t do that with diabetes and think that person must not be spiritual, or that a person with cancer must be sinning. “Sometimes people think if someone has depression that person must be a broken Mormon,” said Brother Smith. “We believe that righteousness is happiness, but what happens when people are righteous and they’re not happy?”

The danger for some is when a couple of days turn into weeks, months, and years of sadness, said Brother Smith. It is important to be sensitive and show understanding to people who suffer from depression.

“Through MRI technology over the last 10 years, brain scans have become absolutely wonderful,” said Brother Smith. “Your frontal lobe is where happiness is located.” When someone is really sad, the right side of the frontal lobe lights up. And when someone is happy, the left part of the frontal lobe lights up. Happiness and sadness occur in different places of the brain.

Speaking about things that help the left frontal lobe come alive, Brother Smith said, “Meditation will fire up the left frontal lobe and flood your brain with dopamine.” There are 100 billion neurons in a person’s brain, and they talk to each other. To talk to each other they need neurotransmitters or chemicals. The three that make a person happy are norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. Low levels of these chemicals may make a person unhappy. Returning them to normal levels may help some people.

Factors that influence happiness are 50 percent genetics, 10 percent circumstances, and 40 percent activities a person chooses to do, said Brother Smith. A comparison study was done by the National Institute of Health in 1978 between the happiness levels of lottery winners and people with paraplegia. The study showed that happiness levels were about equal between the groups.

Kate Bratskeir, a happiness researcher, took data from multiple happiness studies from the past 40 years and put together a list of what she called “The Habits of Supremely Happy People,” said Brother Smith. “Some of the things on her list will be things you already know.”

Ten things that supremely happy people do:

1.       Happy people surround themselves with other happy people. Joy is contagious. People are four times more likely to be happy in the future with happy people around them.

2.       Happy people try to be happy. When happy people don’t feel happy, they cultivate a happy thought and smile about it.

3.       Happy people spend money more on others than they spend on themselves. Givers experience what scientists call the “helper’s high.”

4.       Happy people have deep in-person conversations. Sitting down to talk about what makes a person tick is a good practice for feeling good about life.

5.       Happy people use laughter as a medicine. A good old-fashioned chuckle releases lots of good neurotransmitters. A study showed that children on average laugh 300 times a day versus adults who laugh 15 times a day.

6.       Happy people use the power of music. Researchers found that music can match the anxiety-reducing effects of massage therapy.

7.       Happy people exercise and eat a healthful diet. Eating a poor diet can contribute to depression.

8.       Happy people take the time to unplug and go outside. Uninterrupted screen time brings on depression and anxiety.

9.       Happy people get enough sleep. When people run low on sleep, they are prone to feel a lack of clarity, bad moods, and poor judgment.

10.   Happy people are spiritual.

In closing, Brother Smith shared the words of author Victor Frankl from his book Man’s Search for Meaning: “Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself. He may turn personal tragedy into triumph.”