PROVO, Utah — Advice is everywhere on how to be happy — search online, and millions of results pop up, including tens of thousands of books for sale. Studies have created a billion dollar industry, explained Tana S. Page, the co-director of Global Health Internships at BYU, in a presentation during Education Week.
Studies show happy people are more productive and more creative. They make more money and have superior jobs. They are better leaders, are more likely to marry and have fulfilling marriages. They have more friends and social support, are healthier and live longer. They are more helpful and philanthropic. They cope better with stress and trauma.
She also pointed out that people have the misconception that they should always be happy. That’s not true, she said, “but we are built for joy. Physiologically we are built for joy.”
Traditional psychology looks at what’s wrong with people, said Page. But positive psychology looks at what is right — meaning, what brings satisfaction and well-being. This field of study has grown over the past few decades.
Lyle J. Burrup, now retired from working for the Church’s Family Services department, spoke about positive psychology and authentic happiness in his classes during Education Week as well.
He quoted a letter Joseph Smith wrote, where he said, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.”
Positive psychology has figured this out, said Burrup. The theory is that authentic happiness can be learned.
“Most people are happy and resilient. This is based on the research,” Burrup said. “Crisis reveals character. Happiness, strength of character and good relationships buffer the effects of setbacks and disappointments.”
Page said science shows that 50% of one’s happiness is tied to genetic traits and only 10% from life circumstances.
“You might think you’d be happier if you had all the money you wanted, you married the perfect person, you had perfect children and lived in the perfect place,” she said. “But that’s not the case.”
However, she said people do have total control over 40% of their happiness, because 40% of what makes people happy is intentional activities.
She quoted President President Russell M. Nelson from October 2016 general conference, where he said, “When the focus of our lives is on Jesus Christ and His gospel, we can feel joy regardless of what is happening — or not happening — in our lives” (see “Joy and Spiritual Survival”).
People have a baseline of happiness, and life has ebbs and flows, highs and lows above and below the baseline. Therefore, said Page, “When we focus on the Savior, we can raise our baseline.”
Burrup said the word happiness does not occur in the King James Bible, but Hebrew and Greek meanings for happy are “blessed.” When the Lord said blessed, he meant happy. And full joy only comes through Jesus Christ.
Ways to increase happiness
Page and Burrup in their classes each gave a list of ways to increasing happiness and learning authentic happiness, and the lists are similar.
Page said to increase one’s baseline of happiness:
- Connect with others
- Do acts of kindness
- Cultivate optimism
- Deal with your challenges
- Set goals
- Take care of your body
- Take care of your spirit
- Take time to enjoy life
- Learn to forgive
- Express and experience gratitude
Burrup gave these habits or keys:
- Spiritual engagement and meaning
- Identifying and using one’s strengths and virtues
- Positive mindset (optimism, mindfulness, gratitude)
- Acts of kindness
- Exercise and physical well-being
- Flow (trying to reach a challenging goal or activity)
When speaking on gratitude, Page said, “Research shows that gratitude more than anything else will bring your happiness baseline up.” And Burrup said, “Gratitude and happiness – it is impossible to say which one leads to the others.”
President Nelson gave a message on the healing power of gratitude in November 2020, where he said, “I have concluded that counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems. No matter our situation, showing gratitude for our privileges is a fast-acting and long-lasting spiritual prescription.”
Referring to optimism, Burrup said it has been proven to improve the immune system, prevent chronic disease, and help people cope with unfortunate news.
The presenters pointed out how the fewest signs of depression come with strong ties with friends and family and spending time with them. Loneliness increases depression, while connection and relationships increase happiness.
People who do acts of kindness and care for others’ well-being seem to be happier and less depressed as well. Setting goals — and entering a flow of reaching those goals — increase happiness and life satisfaction, said Burrup.
Changing one’s thinking
Page said thoughts, behaviors and physiology are all connected. Becoming mindful of thoughts and and thinking patterns, and then noticing behaviors, can make a person happier.
Burrup said changing one’s thinking actually changes one’s brain chemistry and what messages are sent through the bloodstream into the body, for which he cited “The Biology of Belief” by Bruce Lipton.
“What mindfulness means, is taking a step back and paying attention to what’s going on in your mind, and learning to ask questions,” Burrup said. “If you have a negative thought, take a step back and ask, ‘Is that really true?’”
In that way, a person can learn how to think about and challenge and change what is going on in their mind. Because signals in the mind come from three sources — “the Spirit, the adversary and you.”
Page said joy is a gift of the spirit, and “Men are that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). But in that same chapter of the Book of Mormon, Lehi also taught about “opposition of all things” (2 Nephi 2:11).
Burrup mentioned the concept of opposition as well. He quoted then-Elder Dallin H. Oaks from October 1985 general conference: “Seen with the perspective of eternity, a temporal setback can be an opportunity to develop soul power of eternal significance. Strength is forged in adversity. Faith is developed in a setting where we cannot see what lies ahead.”
Using emotional resilience — a topic these two presenters also addressed during Education Week — in addition to cultivating new ways of thinking and cultivating new behaviors or habits, people can learn how to increase happiness and be happier in their lives.