We might drive ourselves crazy. We might drive ourselves to drink. But could we drive ourselves to be happy?
Quite possibly, said Nancy Etcoff, a Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist and cognitive researcher.
Etcoff spoke to a packed room Tuesday at the Museum of History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital. The event was part of the hospital’s “Perspectives in Healing: Women in Medicine” series and HUBweek, the festival of ideas underway this week.
Etcoff, who studies the science surrounding happiness and beauty, said that people can make conscious decisions to feel positive emotions.
“We can be in the driver’s seat in terms of our own happiness,” she said.
Happiness has been linked to more healthful, longer lives. During her lecture, Etcoff mentioned a study of nuns that found that the women who expressed a more positive affect earlier in life lived seven to 10 years longer than their more pessimistic peers.
On top of that, “happiness broadens the way we think,” said Etcoff, inspiring us to travel, meet new people, and try new things.
Here are some of Etcoff’s tips for a happier life:
Focus on small changes
Studies have shown that big events, like a marriage, birth of a child, divorce, or death of a loved one, do not have a lasting impact on a person’s happiness levels.
Instead, happiness can be obtained by small, incremental changes in a person’s day-to-day life, said Etcoff.
Your relationships matter
Happiness is found in getting, maintaining, and keeping close loving relationships with others, said Etcoff.
Research has shown that behavior is contagious, said Etcoff. If you spend time with people who are happy, you’ll begin to reflect their attitudes.
The flipside to that is true, too. Relationships that have a lot of conflict can lead to unhappiness. Etcoff said that within a relationship, positive interactions should outnumber the negatives ones by a ratio to five to one.
End experiences on a high note
Good memories are triggers of happiness. But studies have shown that how a person remembers an experience is linked to how it ended.
Etcoff cited research that examined people’s recollections of their colonoscopies in an era before anesthesia. Patients whose procedures were longer and ultimately more painful but ended on a more comfortable note had better things to say about their surgery than those who experienced a shorter and overall less painful procedure that ended with pain.
Stop and smell the roses
Etcoff encouraged the audience to savor experiences, whether by writing them down or taking photographs. She urged them to be grateful and to appreciate what they have. Life experienced in the moment is much happier, she said.
That theory also applies to admiring beauty and excellence, both in nature and others.
“There is happiness in our ability to recognize the goodness in the world,” said Etcoff.
During one study of women, Etcoff sent fresh flowers home with some patients. The study found that the patients who received the flowers had less worry, anxiety, and depression and more compassion and happiness.