What’s the Secret to Happiness?
As part of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication’s Q&A series, we’re ecstatic to bring you the below discussion with Jason Marsh, founding editor-in-chief of Greater Good magazine and director of programs for Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. GGSC explores all aspects of happiness and the many forces that drive the creation of a satisfying and meaningful life. Senior Writer for the CPTC, Allison Gilbert, an award-winning journalist, had the opportunity to speak with Marsh about his work and how parents and teenagers can nurture happiness and bring more joy into their lives.
Allison Gilbert: Your research centers on a scientific understanding of happiness. How are you defining happiness? Doesn’t it mean different things to different people?
Jason Marsh: Yes, definitely. In our definition of happiness, we look at the ways scientists have measured it and tried to define it over the years, and we’ve settled on a definition that looks at both momentary experiences of positive emotion and longer-term satisfaction with life. We don’t see happiness as a fleeting sense of pleasure. Happiness is a combination – it’s experiences of joy, contentment, and positive emotion combined with an underlying sense that life is satisfying and meaningful and good and really worth living.
AG: Your work explores 10 building blocks that contribute to an individual’s overall well-being. One of them is gratitude. Why is gratitude so important?
JM: Gratitude is linked to a broad range of benefits — psychological, physical, and social. The benefits are so great it practically seems that gratitude is synonymous with happiness. Almost by definition, it is very difficult to experience happiness if you don’t appreciate the good things in your life, the things from which you derive a sense of pleasure and satisfaction, joy, meaning, and purpose.
Gratitude has been called a social glue – helping bind us to the people who are important in our lives. In fact, researcher Sara Algoe says gratitude “reminds and binds,” meaning it reminds us of the good things and good qualities of people in our lives so that we don’t take them for granted. It’s an important emotion for strengthening relationships while supporting individual well-being.
In terms of physical benefits, people who are more grateful are less likely to get sick and less likely to report feeling aches and pains.
AG: Can we make ourselves more grateful?
JM: Yes! One of the most common ways is keeping a gratitude journal. For a few weeks, individuals write down at least a couple times a week the things and people for which they are grateful, and in doing this, there’s evidence suggesting it makes them experience more gratitude and feel more satisfied with life. It also decreases signs of illness.
Another popular one is writing a gratitude letter. The idea is to pick someone who you never properly thanked, write them a letter expressing your appreciation, and then, ideally, read or deliver it in person so you can share the experience.
AG: What strategies work best for boosting gratitude among teenagers?
JM: There have been studies conducted by Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono that have found students who kept a gratitude journal enjoyed a lot of the same benefits as adults who kept a gratitude journal. Students reported greater life satisfaction and greater engagement with their school.
There are also three core strategies that help foster more gratitude. Instead of encouraging teens to say a general “thank you,” try to help them —
- Recognize the intention that went behind a gift or act of kindness. Help them recognize the act was done on purpose, that it was done because an individual wanted to help them, that someone noticed a need they had and were trying to meet it.
- Recognize the cost they incurred to give that gift or perform that act of kindness. Not only did an individual realize they had a need, he or she had to exert some amount of time, effort, or money in order to address it.
- Recognize the benefits they’ve received. Help them savor the good things that developed as a result of someone’s help or kindness.
AG: Let’s talk about forgiveness. For many of us, letting go of pain and anger is hard to do. What’s the best strategy for creating a more forgiving environment at home?
JM: It helps if you are more forgiving yourself. It helps if you’re less likely to throw blame around, to hold a grudge, to accuse someone of wrongdoing or assume they have bad motives. The most important thing is modeling forgiveness.
AG: You’re the founding editor-in-chief of Greater Good and the GGSC’s director of programs. What are you currently working on?
JM: A lot of good stuff! This year we’ve launched a podcast called, The Science of Happiness, and a series of online courses called, The Science of Happiness at Work. We’re also excited about Bridging Differences, an initiative looking at key strategies that promote dialogue, relationships, and understanding across groups – whether groups are divided by political ideology, race, religion, or age. We’re really trying to pinpoint what are the most effective practices for bridging those divides.