The science of happiness, under test. health and wellness

We all want to be happy – and for decades, psychologists have tried to figure out how to achieve that state of happiness. Many surveys and experiments in this area have pointed to a variety of approaches, ranging from giving away our things to stopping using Facebook or forcing ourselves to smile by showing our teeth.

But psychology has been seriously disrupted in the past decade, when researchers realized that many studies were unreliable and unrepeatable. This has led to closer scrutiny of psychological research methods, and the study of happiness is no exception. what is it then In fact makes us happy? Under today’s close microscope, some paths to happiness appear to be true, while others do not, or have not yet been proven. What we know so far and what remains to be evaluated, according to a new analysis published in Annual Review of Psychology.

keep a happy face

A long-standing hypothesis is that smiling makes us feel happier. In a classic 1988 study, researchers asked 92 Illinois college students to hold a marker in their mouth with their teeth, forcing an unnatural smile, or with their lips, pouting. Next, students viewed four examples of comics far away, On average, people with forced smiles find single-panel comics slightly funnier than people with forced pouts.

But when 17 different research labs came together to re-test the effects of forced smiling on 1,894 new participants, the findings didn’t hold up, researchers reported in 2016.

Replicating the study was part of a broader effort to combat psychology’s reproducibility crisis, thanks to the variety of ways researchers can check and reanalyze their data until they reach publishable results. “It’s like shooting a bunch of arrows at a wall and drawing a bullseye later,” says Elizabeth Dunn, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and co-author of the new paper. Annual Review of Psychology.

One solution is for scientists to publicly declare, or pre-register, their analysis plans before conducting their experiments. In other words, they draw the bullseye first. Dunn and his graduate student, Dunigan Folk, focused on these pre-registered studies in their analysis, which narrowed the vast field of happiness research to just 48 published papers. Even this small number is encouraging, says Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and executive director of the Center for Open Science, which aims to improve the reproducibility of research. “The truth is, I was surprised that there were so many jobs that met the requirements,” he says. “It really shows that this area of ​​research adopted many of these new practices to increase rigor.” Is.”

Researchers studying how facial expressions affect mood used a pen to force people to make the expression of smiling (left) or pouting (right).
Researchers studying how facial expressions affect mood used a pen to force people to make expressions like smiling (left) or pouting (right).Quentin Gronau/Flickr

Pre-registration alone does not guarantee that the results are accurate, nor does it solve all reproducibility problems in psychology. For example, qualitative studies also require robust methods and large, diverse sets of participants. And, in fact, most of the papers reviewed were of high quality in characteristics that went beyond mere pre-registration, Dunn says. The researchers found that even under the renewed scrutiny regime, some pathways to happiness persisted, such as practicing gratitude, acting pro-socially and spending money on other people.

Let’s take the example of gratitude. In a recent study, researchers asked hundreds of parents to write about how they spent the week or to send a thank-you letter to an acquaintance. Expressing gratitude creates a more positive mood. In another recent study, scientists asked more than 900 college students to express their gratitude in letters, texts or on social media or list their daily activities. People in the gratitude group were happier and more satisfied with their lives the next day. In both cases, it is unclear how long these effects will last.

Three separate pre-registered studies showed socializing to be beneficial. In one, scientists assigned 71 adults to behave extrovertedly – ​​”bold, talkative, sociable, active and assertive” – for a week, and another 76 to be “considerate, sensitive, calm, polite and quiet”. Appointed for. Participants in the extroverted group reported better mood during the study week, although the benefits were smaller for those who were naturally introverted.

And surprise! Smiling as a method of promoting happiness was also supported by new pre-registered research – once scientists switched to more natural smiling. Nearly two dozen laboratories from 19 different countries worked together to test nearly 4,000 subjects instructed to press a pen between their teeth or imitate the expression of a person smiling. Pressing the pen didn’t work, but those who were asked to imitate the smile appeared to be in better mood. Surprisingly, this was true, even though people did not believe it would work, as another team reported in 2023.

Researchers have also discovered that external agents can boost people’s happiness. Giving people money increased their life satisfaction, as did interventions such as workplace napping.

However, Dunn cautions that participation in pre-registered studies produces small effects on overall happiness, partly because scientists cannot collect data in large numbers. He says that if the intervention had been a diet program, users could have lost about two kilos.

good ideas, bad results

Other well-known approaches to happiness don’t line up with Dunn and Folk’s—at least not yet. The researchers found no clear evidence of the benefits of volunteering, performing random acts of kindness, or meditation. For example, in a recent pre-registration study, participants were asked to perform acts of kindness for others, or for themselves, or simply make a list of what they did each day. . Being kind to others made no difference to well-being over a four-week period.

Dunn and Folk found no pre-registered studies on exercising or spending time in nature, two frequently recommended strategies. This doesn’t mean that these strategies don’t work or can’t work, says Dunn, but, as the landscape of pre-registered studies stands, research has not commented on the matter. The pair only considered two pre-registered studies on meditation, and did not include research on meditation in people with mental health problems.

Such rigor is admirable, says Simon Goldberg, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but it also means things can be overlooked. Goldberg studies the effects of meditation on people with psychological problems such as depression and anxiety. He notes that because of Dunn and Folk’s strict criteria, they left out hundreds of studies on the benefits of meditation. “To be precise, that’s throwing many babies out with the bathwater,” he says. “It’s actually pretty clear that meditation training reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression.”

Dunn agrees that the review only covers the tip of the happiness research iceberg. But that tip should expand as more psychologists pre-register their science as part of what some call a renaissance in the field. As Dunn and Folk conclude, “Happiness research is on the threshold of an exciting new era.”

Article translated by Debbie Ponchner.

This article was originally published on worth knowing in spanishA non-profit publication dedicated to making scientific knowledge available to everyone.

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