Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Lazy Way to Happiness

Sleep and mood are closely related. In the modern society, to manage more, people compromise on sleep. Newborns normally require 10.5 to 18 hours of sleep, while adults may need to sleep from 7.5 to 8.5 hours.

Sleep deprivation in normal subjects typically causes worsening of mood, with complaints of irritability, depression, and decreased motivation. Lack of sleep may decrease a person’s ability to appreciate things as funny, which would be considered amusing in general. Lack of sleep can also be a significant risk factor for anxiety.

Less sleep has been reported to result in decrease in brain serotonin levels, which can influence academic and athletic performance, and overall subjective well-being.

Healthy sleep has been shown to enhance well being. Adequate sleep has been shown to benefit several forms of neural processing, including insight formation, novel-language perception, visual discrimination, and motor skills.

It has been suggested that if one is feeling down for no reason, shifting the snooze time a bit early for a few days and taking proper sleep would bring back the zest.

To enhance happiness, it is thus advisable that we assess our sleep requirements and develop a proper routine.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Munching Away to Happiness (4)

The type and quality of fats in the diet can influence mood and behaviour.

Dietary fats are built from fatty acids. Fatty acids can be either saturated or unsaturated. Saturated fatty acids (SFA) have all the hydrogen atoms the carbon atoms can hold. They are usually solid at room temperature. Saturated fatty acids are considered the main dietary factors in raising blood cholesterol.

Unsaturated fatty acids have at least one unsaturated bond; that is some of the carbon bonds are shared doubly with the adjoining carbon atom. They are usually liquid at room temperature and generally come from vegetable sources. They are known to keep the blood cholesterol level down and reduce cholesterol deposits in artery walls. The unsaturated fatty acids can be further classified as mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFA; single double bond in the fatty acid chain) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA; more than one double bond).

Two important unsaturated fatty acids are n-3 fatty acids (popularly called as omega-3 fatty acids) and n-6 fatty acids (popularly called as omega-6 fatty acids).

Due to recommendations to substitute PUFAs for SFAs to lower serum cholesterol, there has been increased intake of vegetable oils from sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, corn, cottonseed, and soybeans. This has resulted in a significant increase in the consumption of n-6 fatty acids. Traditionally the ratio of n-6 to n-3 fatty acids in the diet has been mentioned to be 1-2:1, which is now estimated in urban diets to be 20-30:1 (approximately).

Although investigators are not sure of the reasons, a high n-6 to n-3 fatty acid ratio has been associated with health problems including mental health problems like affective problems and concentration/memory difficulties.

Studies have shown decreased levels of n-3 fatty acids and higher n-6 to n-3 fatty acid ratio in patients with mood disorders. Some published reports show a significant effect improvement in depression symptoms on n-3 fatty acid supplementation.

n-3 fatty acid containing foods include:

Fish - Salmon, sardines, mackerel, Scallops, fresh tuna, halibut, shrimp, cod, trout
Seeds - Flaxseed
Nuts - Walnuts

If we get our facts about fats right, perhaps we can understand happiness better.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Munching Away to Happiness (3)

Minerals like vitamins are classified as micronutrients. They are required in small quantities for healthy functioning. As with vitamins, certain minerals contribute to a positive mood. Deficiencies in minerals are sometimes implicated in certain mental health problems. The main minerals implicated in affect on mood are magnesium, zinc, selenium and iron.

These nutrients appear to have a role in neurotransmission. Levels of magnesium and zinc have been shown to be lower in the blood of patients diagnosed with depression. Low selenium levels have been associated with poor mood. Supplementing the diet with selenium can lead to a subsequent improvement. Iron deficiency has also been implicated in poor mood and attention.

Minerals which can impact mood and their food sources include:

Veg - spinach, watercress, avocado, peppers, broccoli, brussle sprouts, green cabbage, watercress
Nuts - Almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, peanuts, macadamias, pistachios, walnuts, pecan
Seeds - pumpkin, sunflower, poppy
Wholegrains - oatmeal, wheatbran, long grain rice, buckwheat, barley, quinoa
Dairy - plain yoghurt
Legumes - baked beans
Fruit - banana, kiwi, blackberries, strawberries, orange, raisins
Sweet - chocolate

Veg - mushrooms, garlic, spinach
Wholegrains - wheat germ, brewers yeast, barley, rye, oats, long grain brown rice
Meat - turkey breast
Fish/seafood - Cod, Tuna, Halibut, Salmon, shrimp
Legumes - tofu
Nuts - brazil nuts
Dairy - mozzarella cheese
Seeds - mustard, sunflower

Cereals - fortified breakfast cereal
Nuts - cashews, walnuts, almonds
Dairy - mozzarella, Swiss, cheddar cheeses, low fat yoghurt
Pulses - chick peas, kidney beans, baked beans, lima beans
Legumes - lentils, miso
Seafood/fish - oysters, mussels, shrimp
Meat - chicken (dark meat), turkey, lamb, pork
Seeds - pumpkin, sesame
Vegetables - spinach, mushrooms, squash, asparagus, broccoli
Fruit - blackberries, kiwi
(The concentration of zinc in plants varies based on levels of the element in soil.)

Cereals - fortified breakfast cereal
Veg – spinach, peas, broccoli
Fruit/dried fruits - blackberries, kiwi, pomegranate, prunes, raisins, apricots
Pulses - kidney beans, baked beans, lima beans
Meat – red meat. chicken, turkey
Fish/seafood - Cod, Tuna, Salmon
Legumes- tofu
Nuts - almonds
Wholegrains – wheat, millet oats, brown rice

It has not been proven unequivocally that people with a low mood affect have a lower mineral status than the general population. However, a sensible diet is sure to bring some zing in the routine.


1. Sanstead HH. A brief history of the influence of trace elements on brain function. Am J Clin Nutr. 1986;43:293-8. [PDF]

2. Kaplan BJ, Crawford SG, Field CJ, Simpson JS. Vitamins, minerals, and mood. Psychol Bull. 2007;133:747-60. [Abstract]

Friday, November 6, 2009

Munching Away To Happiness (2)

The relationship between certain vitamins and mood is well established. The importance of specific vitamins in neurotransmitter systems is also known.

Some vitamins which are known to affect mood, attitude and thus happiness levels include B1 (thiamine), B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), B12 (cobalamin), B9 (folic acid) and C (ascorbic acid). All vitamins must be derived from the diet.

Several studies have shown that participants experienced low mood, irritability and fatigue when their thiamine status was low. On increasing the thiamine status their mood improved. Individuals with low levels of pyridoxine have been shown to display more irritability, depression, hostility and anxiety as compared to individuals with normal levels. Folate deficiency has been implicated in both depressed moods and in major depression. Patients with low levels of folate and B12 exhibit poorer moods than patients who have at least one of the vitamins at a normal level.

When deficiency of these vitamins occurs, the initial reported symptoms may well be only behavioural or psychological disturbances. Sometimes psychological symptoms can occur in the absence of physical signs of a deficiency. Scurvy from vitamin C deficiency is often preceded by irritability and a general malaise. There is a subset of individuals with Vitamin B12 deficiency who present with psychiatric symptoms in the absence of anaemia.

It has been shown that adequate repletion of the vitamins can improve cognitive functioning and reverse mood alterations triggered by the deficiency.

Vitamins which can impact mood and their food sources include:

Vitamin B1
Wholegrain - spelt bread, oats, brown rice, barley, fresh pasta
Veg - peppers, cabbage, broccoli, asparagus, romaine lettuce, mushrooms, spinach, watercress, green peas, aubergine, brussel sprouts
Pulses - lentils
Legumes - Soya milk
Seeds - sunflower seeds
Nuts - Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, sesame seeds
Fish/seafood - tuna, salmon, mussels

Vitamin B3
Wholegrain - brown rice, rice bran, wheatgerm
Veg - broccoli, mushrooms, cabbage, brussel sprouts, courgette, squash
Nuts - peanuts
Meat - pork, turkey, chicken
Fish - tuna, salmon
Seeds - sunflower seeds

Vitamin B6
Wholegrains - brown rice, oats, bran, barley
Fruit - bananas, mango
Fish - tuna, trout, salmon
Veg - avocado, watercress, cauliflower, cabbage, peppers, squash, asparagus, bok choy, potato
Meat - chicken, turkey
Beans - lima beans, soy beans
Pulses - chickpeas
Seeds - sunflower

Vitamin B12
Meat - chicken, turkey, lamb
Fish/Seafood - salmon, halibut, bass, tuna, shrimp, trout, oysters, crab, clams
Dairy Products - cottage cheese, low fat yoghurt, boiled or poached eggs, milk

Folic acid
Veg (especially green leafy) - Spinach, lettuce, asparagus, beets, Savoy cabbage, broccoli, green peas, fresh parsley, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, avocado
Fish - cod, tuna, salmon, halibut, shrimp
Meat - turkey
Nuts and Seeds - peanuts, sesame seeds, hazel nuts, cashew nuts, walnuts
Beans and Pulses - lentils, chick peas, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans
Fruit - oranges

Vitamin C
Veg - red pepper, red cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, kale, celery, squash, cabbage, watercress
Fresh fruit - strawberries, oranges, tangerines, kiwi, cantaloupe, papaya, cranberries, pineapple

A balanced diet which includes these vitamins may just be the right thing to bring out that spontaneous smile.


Kaplan BJ, Crawford SG, Field CJ, Simpson JS. Vitamins, minerals, and mood. Psychol Bull. 2007;133:747-60. [Abstract]

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Munching Away to Happiness (1)

Conventional wisdom mentioned that what we eat effects on our thoughts and feelings. Modern day research has also shown that there exists a relationship between a person’s diet and his mood. The food we consume can influence the chemical composition within the brain and affect our mood.

Food can affect the production and release of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are messengers which allow neurons to communicate information amongst themselves. Some food substances contain amino acids which are precursors to neurotransmitters. Fats consumed in the diet can directly affect the brain cell membrane structure and substance.

Serotonin which is a monoamine neurotransmitter is also known as the 'feel-good hormone', and is involved in the regulation of mood and sleep. It is made in our body from an amino acid called tryptophan. In healthy people with high trait irritability, tryptophan has been shown to increase agreeableness, decrease quarrelsomeness and improve mood.

Orally taken serotonin does not enter the brain. However the precursor tryptophan and its metabolite 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) can enter the brain. Increase in consumption of tryptophan can lead to increase in brain serotonin. By eating a balanced diet of which includes foods that contain tryptophan, the levels of serotonin can be increased.

Foods containing tryptophan include:

Vegetables - spinach, cabbage, watercress

Pulses - lentils, chick peas (hummus)

Nuts - almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, peanuts,soy nuts

Seeds - poppy, pumpkin, sesame seeds

Legumes - kidney, soya, lima beans

Lean meat - skinless chicken, skinless turkey

Dairy - plain yoghurt, milk, eggs, cheddar, gruyere, swiss, cottage cheeses

Fruits - bananas, pineapple, plums, dates, figs, prunes

Wholegrains - porridge oats, brown rice

Of course there is a catch. Conversion of dietary tryptophan to serotonin is affected by other factors. Other competing amino acids present in the protein may hinder its transport to the brain. Carbohydrates may increase tryptophan’s availability, because the insulin released by them puts the competing amino acids to a different use. Thus eating small amounts of brown rice, wholemeal bread, porridge oats along with the protein food is useful. Further, different enzymes, minerals and vitamins are required to convert tryptophan to serotonin.

Other methods to increase serotonin include:

1. Exposure to sunlight (bright light)
2. Exercise


Young SN. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. J Psychiatry Neurosci 2007;32:394-9. [PDF]

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Happiness in Relationships

The primary trait to look for in a partner is strength of character.

I thought about it and I find it very apt. Good character values are not only uplifting and inspiring but also come in useful during times of interpersonal conflict.

In an article, author Karen Salmansohn says that to find sustainable happiness in love, one must prioritize finding a person who:

1. Values growing as a person.

2. Understands that a relationship serves the double function of ‘den of pleasure’ (fun, companionship, etc which keep the passion thriving) and ‘laboratory for growth’ (to inspire, nurture and motivate each other to achieve eudaimonia).

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Self Image and Individual Happiness

A significant factor which influences our happiness levels is our ‘self-image’. If you sit back and think about yourself, how do you perceive yourself as in general? Do you see yourself as a serious person, as a grim person, a no-nonsense person, a melancholic person or a happy person? Our perceived self-image makes us seek and enact accordingly. A person who has a melancholic image will find reasons to burden himself with heavy thoughts even under happy circumstances. A person who has an image about himself which communicates humour or happiness will find reasons to smile even at the dullest occasion.

An American cosmetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz noted that after corrective plastic surgery some patients experienced an immediate increase in self-esteem. However, in some cases the patients continued to feel inadequate. He then recognized that reconstruction of the physical image would not help, if there was no reconstruction of the ‘non-physical face of personality’ or ‘self-image’. He developed Psycho-Cybernetics, a system of ideas through which, one could improve one's self-image and, in turn, lead a more successful and fulfilling life. The book Psycho-Cybernetics includes several techniques and is considered a classic personal development book.

The self-image in general and that related to happiness is imbibed at various moments subconsciously and soon we start identifying that image as ourselves (‘this is me’). The fact is that this is how we have come to consider ourselves as, slowly over a period of time. The self-image can be changed through deliberate intent.

The initial step would be to relax and then create an image of yourself as happy and joyful. Imagine how you would behave, act and feel if you had the new image. Associate words like happy, joyful, cheerful, jolly, blissful, humourous, mischievious etc with this image. This may need to be practiced frequently, particularly when you recognize that you are exhibiting the previous unhappy behaviour. Several experts mention that a behaviour practiced over twenty one days becomes a habit. Each time while practicing add more details (like speech modality, appearance).

It would be very useful to align this image with the individual definition of happiness.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Individual Happiness

It is essential that individuals are clear about their definition of happiness. In the absence of a clear definition there is all probability of a person being swayed by each propounded concept targeted towards him.

Though there are various concepts of happiness, I find the concepts of hedonia and eudaimonia to include a lot of aspects and easier to comprehend.

Hedonism: The doctrine that pleasure is the sole or chief good in life. A hedonist strives to maximize the net pleasure (pleasure minus pain).

Hedonism has been expressed in many forms and expressions have ranged from a narrow focus on bodily pleasures to a broad focus on appetites and self-interests. Hedonism is broadly said to include pleasures of both the mind and body.

Eudaimonia: Eudaimonia has been defined as the subjective experiences associated with doing what is worth doing and having what is worth having.

The adjective eudaimon is a compound word comprised of ‘eu’ meaning “well” and ‘daimon’ (daemon), which refers to a sort of guardian spirit. Eudaimonia could literally translate to “the state of having a good indwelling spirit, a good genius”.

As per the Aristotelian definition, people achieve eudaimonia by developing their ultimate potential and bringing this excellence and virtue to action.

According to positive psychologists, eudaimonia occurs when people’s life activities are most congruent with deeply held values and are holistically or fully engaged.

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle mentions three prominent kinds of lifestyles (1) the life of pleasure, (2) the life of practical activity (politics), and (3) the philosophical (contemplative) life.

Within the definitions of a pleasant life, good (engaged) life and meaningful life, I find the concept of the ‘meaningful life’ appealing. A meaningful life consists of using characteristic strengths in the service of something you believe is larger than yourself. I would add to it the perspective of developing the strengths to the level of excellence. This would be an acceptable definition. Well, just to be a bit greedy I would maybe sprinkle in some hedonistic moments.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Personal Energy

Personal energy has been mentioned to have four dimensions: Physical energy, Emotional energy, Mental energy and Spiritual energy. For a greater sense of well being these aspects of energy can be expanded and regularly renewed by intentionally practiced and precisely scheduled behaviours.

The personal energy audit below helps to identify the state of our energy management skills.

__ I don’t regularly get at least seven to eight hours of sleep, and I often wake up feeling tired.
__ I frequently skip breakfast, or I settle for something that isn’t nutritious.
__ I don’t work out enough (meaning cardiovascular training at least three times a week and strength training at least once a week).
__ I don’t take regular breaks during the day to truly renew and recharge, or I often eat lunch at my desk, if I eat it at all.

__ I frequently find myself feeling irritable, impatient, or anxious at work, especially when work is demanding.
__ I don’t have enough time with my family and loved ones, and when I’m with them, I’m not always really with them.
__ I have too little time for the activities that I most deeply enjoy.
__ I don’t stop frequently enough to express my appreciation to others or to savor my accomplishments and blessings.

__ I have difficulty focusing on one thing at a time, and I am easily distracted during the day, especially by e-mail.
__ I spend much of my day reacting to immediate crises and demands rather than focusing on activities with longer-term value and high
__ I don’t take enough time for reflection, strategizing, and creative thinking.
__ I work in the evenings or on weekends, and I almost never take an e-mail–free vacation.

__ I don’t spend enough time at work doing what I do best and enjoy most.
__ There are significant gaps between what I say is most important to me in my life and how I actually allocate my time and energy.
__ My decisions at work are more often influenced by external demands than by a strong, clear sense of my own purpose.
__ I don’t invest enough time and energy in making a positive difference to others or to the world.

How is your overall energy?
Total number of statements checked: __
Guide to scores
0–3: Excellent energy management skills; 4–6: Reasonable energy management skills; 7–10: Significant energy management deficits; 11–16: A full-fledged energy management crisis

What do you need to work on?
Number of checks in each category:
Body __; Mind __; Emotions __; Spirit __;
Guide to category scores
0: Excellent energy management skills; 1: Strong energy management skills; 2: Significant deficits; 3: Poor energy management skills; 4: A full-fledged energy crisis


Schwartz T, McCarthy C. Manage your energy, not your time. Harvard Business Review. October, 2007. [Full text]

Friday, October 16, 2009

Energy Quiz

Lack of energy is one of the reasons for lack of joie de vivre. There is a previous post with a questionnaire which helps to identify if one is stressed. The following quiz helps to identify energy drains. Most of us know what should be done, yet few do it. The quiz is an indicator.

Questions 1 and 2 are indicators towards sleep and rest; 3 to 7 deal with diet; 8 with exercise; 9 and 10 with lifestyle.

1. Do you usually sleep for at least seven and a half to eight hours each night?
2. Do you rarely wake during the night?
3. Do you eat three well-balanced meals a day at regular intervals?
4. Do you always eat breakfast?
5. Do you eat at least two portions of protein food everyday (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, pulses) as well as two portions of wholegrain carbohydrates (bread, pasta or porridge)?
6. Do you eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day?
7. Do you drink at least one and a half litres of fluid a day, not counting very strong coffee, alcohol or energy drinks and keep your alcohol levels within recommended levels?
8. Are you active, on the go for at least an hour or more a day?
9. Do you feel content and happy with your lot?
10. Do you feel that you have a good work-life balance?

A ‘no’ answer to a question indicates a requirement of attention to that particular aspect.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Thoughts and Reality

Masaru Emoto is a Japanese researcher and author. Dr. Masaru Emoto’s water crystal experiments consist of exposing water to different words, pictures, or music, and then freezing and examining the response in the form of aesthetics of the resulting crystals with microscopic photography.

It is claimed that depending on the different focused intentions, water appears to ‘change its expression’ and images of the water crystals are beautiful (in one study beautiful crystals were defined as symmetric, aesthetically pleasing shapes) or unsightly depending upon whether the words or thoughts were positive or negative.

The children’s version of the book ‘The Message from Water’ is available on the net. It is available in different languages.

Commentators have criticized the research for insufficient experimental controls, and for lack of sharing of sufficient details of the approach. In other experiments scientists have not been able to either accept or reject the findings.

At least there is proof that thoughts and feelings affect physical reality and it would be preferable to maintain an environment of positive thoughts, words and actions.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tips for Happiness And a Novel Term

Robert Holden shares the following ten tips to increase happiness.

1. Define Happiness – A person’ definition of happiness, influences significant decisions in his life.

2. Accept Happiness – Be willing to accept that happiness already exists inside you.

3. Follow Your Joy – Notice what truly inspires you, listen to your heart’s desires and recognize your soul’s purpose.

4. Choose Happiness – Choose instead of chase happiness.

5. Free Happiness – A lot of happiness is overlooked because it doesn’t cost anything.

6. Love Someone – People who give their time, energy and attention to their important relationships are happier.

7. Forgive Now – Forgiveness releases people from their past and positively affects their happiness course.

8. Vocal Gratitude – The more grateful a person, the happier he/she is.

9. Beware Martyrdom – The person and the people around him are happier when he treats himself better.

10. Be Present - Happiness is where you are. The more present one is in each moment, the more happiness he/she will find.

The above tips are discussed more in the slideshow ‘10 Ways to Find Happiness’.

While discussing the satisfaction levels of some individuals, in another related resource, he uses a term "happy-chondria" for a condition based on a belief that any happiness carries an eventual fall and price (A related technical term could be cherophobia). Dr. Robert Holden says that a person has got to dare to let life be great, and trust that happiness can happen and that it can last.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Endorphin Visualization

Robert Holden is a psychologist, author and broadcaster with expertise in the field of positive psychology and well-being. He holds a Ph.D. in the Psychology of Happiness. He is a personal and professional coach and coaches in business, healthcare, education and sport.

Endorphins are endogenous opioid compounds and have the ability to produce a sense of well-being. Holden suggests the following visualization for a wave of good feel in the body and mind.

Imagine that your body is filled with golden light (It can actually be whatever colour you like – any colour that brings a smile to your face when you think about it.).

Now imagine that light flowing throughout your body like a warm liquid, nourishing every cell and organ along the way.

If you look closely, you can see tiny little ‘en-dolphins’ swimming in the light. Each ‘en-dolphin’ is a carrier of joy.

Imagine yourself diving into the light and swimming with the en-dolphins. You can continue doing this for as long as it feels good.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Kindly Happy

Kindness is the act or the state of being kind and marked by charitable behaviour, marked by pleasantness, tenderness and concern for others. A random act of kindness is a selfless act performed by a person or persons wishing to either assist or cheer up an individual or in some cases an animal. There will generally be no reason other than to make people smile, or be happier.

A close association has been reported between kindness and happiness. Kind people experience more happiness and have happier memories. A simple intervention of counting acts of kindness daily for a week (‘counting kindness’ intervention) has been shown to increase happiness. By acting kindly and being aware of the acts of kindness, people appear to become happier and more grateful. Variety in the acts of kindness can positively moderate the effect of such strategies.

There is a beautiful, phrase "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty", which may have been coined by peace activist Anne Herbert.

The ‘acts of kindness’ website provides resources and ideas for spreading kindness.


Otake K, Shimai S, Tanaka-Matsumi J, Otsui K, Fredrickson BL. Happy people become happier through kindness: a counting kindnesses intervention. J Happiness Stud. 2006 ;7:361-375. [Full text]

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Gratitude Visit

Expressing gratitude to others is among the most effective ways of raising our own and others' level of happiness and well-being.

The gratitude visit exercise was practised as part of Martin Seligman's positive psychology class and was considered one of the highlights of the class.

For a gratitude visit exercise, Martin Seligman suggests to select one important person from our past who had made a major positive difference in our life and to whom we could never express our gratitude. Then with adequate thought and time, a testimonial expressing our appreciation should be written. The length of the testimonial should be about one page.

When ready, the testimonial should be read to the person face to face and not expressed over phone or sent by mail. We can travel to the person's home or invite him/her over, but not tell the purpose of the meeting in advance. After settling down, the testimonial can be read aloud slowly, with expression and with eye contact. A laminated version of the testimonial should be a gift.

Expressing appreciation in this manner positively impacts relationships and the happiness of both the recipient and the person coveying gratitude.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, meaning grace, graciousness, or gratefulness.

Typically gratitude originates from the perception of a positive personal outcome, not necessarily deserved or earned, that is due to the actions of another person.

Gratitude interventions have been evaluated favourably in studies. Writing down up to five things major or minor for which one is grateful or thankful for, on a daily or even weekly basis has been shown to increase the sense of well being in study participants.

Putting aside a minute or two everyday to express gratitude can have far reaching consequences. Experiences of gratitude have been associated with happiness, positive emotions and well being. Grateful people are less depressed, less stressed, have more positive traits and are more satisfied with their lives and social relationships.

To avoid habituation, Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that the exercise be done on a weekly basis. Tal Ben-Shahar says that to ingrain it, the exercise be done daily and to maintain freshness one should make a conscious effort to diversify the elements. Independent studies have shown both methods to be effective.

One can practice the exercise with children by asking them at night what was fun for them during the whole day.

Emmons RA, McCullough ME. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003;84:377-89. [Abstract] [Full text]

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Accepting Emotions

Right from our childhood we are told that it is improper to display emotions like anger, angst, anxiety or even affection in public. We learn to suppress several of our emotions. Slowly we are unable to express or acknowledge emotions even in private. In the process of trying to gain acceptance from others, we get to reject part of ourselves.

Tal Ben-Shahar is a writer, speaker and a lecturer at Harvard University. Tal Ben-Shahar states that we should provide a channel for the expression of our emotions. We should ask ourselves, if we have outlets like trusted friends for the expression of painful emotions. If we cant identify people whom we can trust, writing a journal is also helpful. People who are able to express difficult emotions are reported to be happier and physically healthier.

We should, however, be able to distinguish between accepting an emotion and ruminating (obsessively thinking about the emotion) over it. Further, accepting an emotion does not imply that we also accept the behaviour that might spring from it. For example, we can accept that we are jealous and yet act benevolently.

In this program video Tal Ben-Shahar talks about positive psychology and discusses tips which can increase happiness.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Happiness Traits

Originally from Russia, Sonja Lyubomirsky (Lyubomirsky in Russian means love and peace) is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Lyubomirsky teaches courses in social psychology and positive psychology. Her research addresses questions like what makes people happy and how can people become happier still.

According to her, happy people have been noted to exhibit some thinking and behaviour patterns. The following is a sample of the observations.

1. They devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships.

2. They are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have.

3. They are often the first to offer a helping hand to co-workers and passersby.

4. They practice optimism when imagining their futures.

5. They savour life’s pleasures and try to live in the present moment.

6. They make physical exercise a weekly – and sometimes daily – habit.

7. They are deeply committed to a life-long goal and ambition.

She has also authored the book ‘The How of Happiness’ which contains happiness related information based on scientific research.

In this video Lyubomirsky discusses how learned traits influence happiness.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sound Effects

Low frequency noise is common in urban environments, and has physiological and psychological implications.

For healthy adults the range of hearing is often quoted as extending from 20Hz to 20,000Hz. ‘Low frequency noise' is the term used to describe sound energy in the range from about 10Hz to 200Hz. It spans the infrasonic and audible ranges. Infrasound is specifically used to describe sound energy below 20Hz.

Low frequency noise may be produced from many artificial sources like automobiles, rail traffic, aircraft, industrial machinery, artillery and mining explosions, wind turbines, compressors, and ventilation or air-conditioning units and household appliances such as washing machines.

Low frequency noise can evoke particularly strong reactions in some groups of people. Reported effects include annoyance, irritation, unease, stress, depression, fatigue, headache, dizziness, palpitations, nausea, disturbed sleep and increased cortisol levels. Low frequency noise from ventilation systems can disturb rest and sleep even at low sound levels (This could explain why I lie awake sometimes in hotels trying to shut out the noise of the central air-conditioning system). Although exposure to low frequency noise in the home at night causes loss of sleep, there is evidence that low frequency noise under other conditions induces drowsiness.

As people cannot consciously detect infrasound, it can cause them to have unusual experiences. Infrasound has been reported to cause unexplained feelings of awe or fear in humans.

A low frequency noise can be heard by one person and not by another because people’s hearing sensitivity varies from one individual to another. Consequently it may annoy one person but not the other.

Earplugs are not an adequate solution.

A review of published research on low frequency noise and its effects is available at the Defra website. More research papers on low frequency noise are also available on the website.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Happiness Equations (3)

In the relatively recent field of 'Happiness economics' economists have started assessing welfare by combining economists’ and psychologists’ techniques. Micro-econometric happiness equations have been reported to be represented as:

Wit = a + BXit + Eit

W = The reported well-being of individual i at time t; a (alpha) is a coefficient; X = Vector of known variables including socio-demographic and socioeconomic characteristics; E = Error term which captures unobserved characteristics and measurement errors.

This requires knowledge of regression-analysis and is more suited for the economists.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Happiness Equations (2)

A simple equation has been suggested for happiness (H), by Gottlieb and Rosenau, in a conference paper.

H = k (A – E)

Where, k = Proportionality constant (essentially how much a person cares about something); A = Perceived actual state of reality; E = Expected state/place in life.

According to this equation H depends only on the difference between A and E and how much one cares about that difference. It does not depend on the absolute level of A and E.

An equation has been devised by Dr. Cliff Arnall to calculate the happiest day of the year.

H = O + (N x S) + Cpm/T + He

Where, O = Outdoor activities (and being outdoors); N = Nature; S = Socialization; Cpm = Childhood positive memories (including those of childhood summers); T = Temperature; He = Holiday expected fun (excitement)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Happiness Equations (1)

Formulas have been defined for happiness (H).

According to Positive Psychology,

H = S + C + V

Where, S = Genetic set point; C = Circumstances; V = Voluntary activities

The genetic set point for happiness is said to have about a 50% influence on happiness. This is said to be immutable. Happy parents would have happy children. Circumstances are said to cause a 10% influence on happiness. Intentional activities can affect happiness levels to about 40%. Thus by choosing the right activities a person can significantly increase his happiness levels.

According to a report by Carol Rothwell and Pete Cohen,

H = P + (5 x E) + (3 x H)

Where, P = Personal characteristics (inherited and learnt) and outlook on life. Outgoing, energetic, optimistic, resilient and flexible people tend to be happier.

E = Existence needs. Some basic existence needs which need to be met are health, financial security, personal safety, a sense of belonging and engaging in meaningful activities.

H = Higher Order needs. These relate to a deeper outlook on life and personal relationships and include self-esteem, expectations, depth of relationships and sense of humour.

The report is downloadable and includes the self-assessment questionnaire.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Virtues and Strengths

It has been mentioned in a previous post that the Good life and Meaningful life require the utilization of signature (character) strengths. Virtues and strengths that enable human thriving are described in Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (CSV).

The CSV identifies six overarching virtues that almost every culture across the world endorses.

Wisdom and Knowledge: Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge

Courage: Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal

Humanity: Interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others

Justice: Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life

Temperance: Strengths that protect against excess

Transcendence: Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning

The 6 virtues are made up of 24 measurable strengths. Signature strengths are those one most frequently expresses. It is suggested that practice/utilization of these traits lead to increased happiness.

One can find out about his/her signatures strengths from this survey.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Postive Psychology: The Pleasant, Good and Meaningful

Positive psychology is a branch of psychology which focuses on the empirical study of positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions. Positive psychology seeks to find and nurture genius and talent and to make normal life more fulfilling. In contrast to psychology’s usual emphasis on mental illness, the focus here is on mental wellness.

Dr. Martin Seligman is considered the founder of Positive Psychology. According to him ‘the overriding goal of Positive Psychology is to increase the tonnage of happiness on the planet.’

In this insightful talk he mentions that Positive Psychology is not ‘Happiology’. He also talks about the three ‘Happy’ lives.

Pleasant life: consists in having as many pleasures as possible and having the skills to amplify the pleasures.

Good life: consists in knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting activities to use those strengths to have more flow in life.

Meaningful life: consists of using signature strengths in the service of something you believe is larger than yourself.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.

These are words which have the power to transform perspective and attitude.

The first part of the quote is attributed to the Scottish author and dramatist Sir James M. Barrie. The source for the continuation is difficult to trace.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Happiest Man

Mathieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk who is also an academic, scientist, author and photographer.

He has been labeled as the ‘Happiest Man in the World’. MRI scans have shown that long-term meditators experience high levels in the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain. A study done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison involved attaching 256 sensors to the skull, and three hours of continuous MRI scanning. The scores of hundreds of volunteers ranged between +0.3 indicating depression and -0.3 denoting great happiness. Mathieu Ricard’s score was much beyond the others at -0.45.

Mathieu Ricard talks about ‘mind training’. He says that, happiness is a skill and it requires effort and time.

Matthieu Ricard has his website which contains his photography and writings.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Synthesis of Happiness

Daniel Gilbert is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. In this informative and humourous talk he shows how humans make errors in predicting what will make them happy. He talks about the synthesis of happiness and biases including impact bias and belief bias.

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (10): Medium Maximization

To obtain a desired outcome, people have to exert effort. However, the immediate reward may not be the outcome itself but a medium or instrument or token, which has no value in itself but can be traded for the desired outcome. People should be focusing on the relationship between their effort and the outcome, but they may put in more effort to pursue the medium. The presence of a medium could lead people to exert more effort but without a better outcome.

For example, a person may choose an airline which offers more frequent-flyer program points, rather than the one which provides a better experience but lesser points.


Hsee CK, Hastie R. Decision and experience: why don't we choose what makes us happy? Trends Cogn Sci. 2006 ;10:31-7. [Abstract]

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (9): Lay Rationalism

Human beings attempt to make decisions based on rationality and they may ignore the affective influence. The ‘rational decisions’ may prevent us from choosing experiences optimal for happiness.

The three specific manifestations of lay rationalism are: (a) lay economism (focus on economic values), (b) lay scientism (focus on hard rather than soft attributes), and (c) lay functionalism (focus on main function or objective).

Lay economism is the tendency to base decisions on financial/economic aspects and ignore the experiential aspects. For example, while choosing a pizza people may give more importance to the price and size and less to the factors like shape, colour and taste which significantly influence the consumption experience.

Lay scientism is the tendency to base decisions objective (hard) attributes rather than subjective (soft) attributes. Decision makers may thus trust hard facts and discount soft preferences. For example, when choosing between two equally expensive audio systems, most people will pick up the higher wattage (hard attribute) model rather than the one with a richer sound (soft attribute), even though when asked to predict their enjoyment, they would favour the richer-sounding model.

Lay functionalism is the tendency to focus on the primary objective of the decision and overlook other aspects that are important to overall experience. Although functionalism helps us to achieve objectives, it may also in some cases prevent us from an experientially optimal experience.

For example, while driving to office a person may choose the shorter route which helps him to reach office quickly rather than the longer route which has more pleasant scenes and which he would have identified as the more preferable route.

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (8): Rule Based Decisions

Decision-makers sometimes base their choices on rules for ‘good behavior’ rather than what they predicted as the optimal choice. Examples of such decision rules include:

Don’t waste: Research has shown that when people have double-booked an activity, they will choose the one which is more expensive, even if the less expensive one is more enjoyable.

Seek variety: The concept of variety being the spice of life may make people make decisions contradictory to their own predicted experience of a repeat particular experience having the ability to generate greater happiness.

A boy may be quite happy in the company of a girl, but the concept of seeking variety may cause him to date different girls only to realize that this variety didn’t add to his happiness.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (7): Impulsivity

To gain optimal happiness decision-makers not only need to make accurate predictions about what will bring in maximal happiness, but also act on their predictions. This means that some people even after they have identified what will bring in optimal happiness, may not choose it.

One reason for the inability to follow accurate predictions is impulsivity.


Impulsivity leads to the choice of an immediate gratifying option at the cost of long-term happiness.

Although the inability to predict long-term experience may be the cause of impulsivity in some cases, in most cases impulsivity is due to a failure to follow predictions. For example, drug abusers may accurately predict that the short-term pleasure from drug abuse may undermine their long-term or even overall (short-term + long-term) happiness. However, their continuing to do so (before dependence also becomes a factor) could be attributed to impulsivity.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (6): Belief Bias

Although people lack accurate knowledge of basic psychological processes which make them happy, they do have beliefs about basic processes. These lay theories are developed over a period of time in situations where they are valid, but are then over-generalized to situations where they do not hold.

The common belief-biases are:

Contrast effects: A classic question which highlights our perception of the contrast effect is: ‘Will you enjoy a glass of wine more after sampling an expensive estate-bottled wine or a cheap table wine?’ People usually believe that when a product of superior quality is experienced, it diminishes the appeal of another product of lesser quality. However, in one study it was shown that although students believed that eating a tasty jellybean would reduce the enjoyment of a less tasty jelly bean at a later time; but this contrast actually was not observed.

Adaptation: People generally believe that repeated exposure to an event will decrease the pleasure it gives. People may in fact grow to enjoy a certain kind of music more as they repeatedly hear it.

More choice is better: People believe that having more options is always better. However, more choices can sometimes make people unhappy. For example, if employees are given a free trip to Paris, they are happy; if they are given a free trip to Hawaii they are happy. But if they are given a choice between the two trips, they will be less happy, whatever option they choose.

Certainty: It is generally believed that reducing uncertainty will increase happiness. However, certainty can reduce the pleasure of positive events and this is sometimes referred to as the ‘pleasure paradox’. Most people do not recognize this fact and under
some circumstances, seek certainties that diminish their pleasure rather than uncertainties that prolong it.

The organizer of a get-together may feel happy if she comes to know that many guests have praised the arrangements. She may not feel the same happiness, if she comes to know who had specifically praised her preparations.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (5): Memory Bias

People draw on their memories of past events to forecast their reactions to future events. However, this process has been shown to introduce biases into evaluations. Memory based evaluations are influenced by the peak-and-end rule. This rule states that people’s global evaluations of previous events can be predicted by the affect experienced during just two moments: the moment of peak affect intensity and the ending. This sort of evaluation generally ignores the event’s duration and other related events.

Thus if people remember last year’s family outing by recalling its rare moments of thrill on the water-rides, then they may make predictions and plans accordingly, only to find themselves once again jostling in ticket and food queues at an overcrowded park.

There is also a common tendency to recall and rely on atypical instances. In studies, participants who were asked to recall a single instance of an event, or to recall no
event at all, made extreme forecasts about the future.

To counter memory bias it is suggested that one should recall more than one past event of that type and also focus on the whole event.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Choosing What Makes Us Happy(4): Distinction Bias

Distinction bias occurs because choices and predictions are made in one evaluation mode, and when the experience occurs, the evaluation mode is different. Though this may initially sound to be similar to the projection bias, it is quite different. When choosers or predictors compare multiple options or scenarios, the evaluation is said to be made in the joint evaluation (JE) mode. The actual experience typically takes place without the comparator options, wherein the chooser savours only the chosen option. Here the evaluation is said to be made in the single evaluation or separate evaluation (SE) mode.

Differences which may appear distinct and significant in JE mode may actually be inconsequential in SE. Thus, due to differences in JE and SE, people in JE may overpredict the experiential difference between alternatives in SE.

At a party, a young man was introduced to two attractive ladies. He was wondering whom to ask for a date. He felt a rapport with one of the girls, but he asked the other one out because she was taller of the two. While on the date he realized that the girl’s being tall didn’t help the conversation and the happiness levels much. The girl’s being tall dictated his choice in the JE mode, but made no difference in the SE mode.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (3): Projection Bias

Projection bias occurs because a person maybe in a particular visceral (emotional) state while making the prediction, while he maybe in a different state while actually experiencing the event. For example, a person maybe rested, hungry or sexually aroused while making a choice for happiness, while he maybe tired, satiated or sexually unaroused while experiencing the selection.

Thus a hungry person tends to pick up a lot of varied food-stuff from the market, which he may not actually enjoy later.

People might tend to understand that their tastes may change, however they may systematically underestimate the magnitudes of these changes.

Projection bias may occur not only when people make predictions for their own happiness, but also when they make choices for others.

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (2): Causes of Impact Bias

Focalism: One cause of the impact bias is focalism. People pay too much attention to the main event which they are considering and may neglect other simultaneous events that will alter the impact of the main event.

Sense making: People have a tendency to make sense of events. By making sense of events people adapt emotionally to them. This is useful for events with a negative affect, but the same process also may also work for events with a positive affect.

Thus a student who receives higher than expected marks may initially feel happy, but then she would start searching for reasons for her higher marks. Once she has the explanations in place, the event would seem more normal and she would generally feel less happy.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (1): Impact Bias

To choose the optimal option to maximize happiness we need to

1. Predict accurately which option amongst the available choices will generate the best experience AND
2. Base the choice on the prediction.

Researchers have shown that people do not either predict or choose what maximizes their happiness, or even both.

Inability to predict the accurately how we may feel about a future event, may be due to various biases.

Impact Bias

Research has shown the people are unable to predict both (i) the intensity of an emotional event and (ii) as to how long it will last.

For example, cricket fans are generally not as happy as they expect themselves to be when their team wins.

In one study, voters in a gubernatorial election predicted that they would be significantly happier a month after the election if their candidate won than if their candidate lost. However, the supporters of the winning and losing candidates were just as happy a month after the election as they were before the election.

Thus if consumers become aware that buying a particular brand is not going to make them happy, their buying choices may change and they may choose to spend their money on something else.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Gross National Happiness

The only country in the world which puts happiness central to government policy is Bhutan. The concept is rooted in the Buddhist notion that the ultimate purpose of life is inner happiness. The government must consider every policy for its impact not only on Gross Domestic Product, but also on Gross National Happiness (GNH).

The concept of GNH apparently is based on the assertion that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

According to a global survey conducted by the University of Leicester in 2006 referenced to as the "World Map of HappinessBhutan is the happiest country in Asia and the eighth happiest country in the world.