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Climbing the Ladder of Success is Easier with a Smile

December 20, 2005

Worried about how to succeed in life?

Don’t worry, be happy.

That’s the take-home message from a major new review of studies on the downstream benefits of personal happiness.

While everyone knows that successful careers and relationships make people happy, new research suggests this process works both ways.

“Perhaps happy people also have a lot of good things come to them because of their happiness, their sociability, their energy,” said lead author Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

Her team’s 53-page review of more than 225 epidemiological, longitudinal and experimental studies strongly suggests that happiness is literally its own reward: That it breeds success, just as success can breed happiness.

“It’s clear that the relationship is bi-directional,” Lyubomirsky said. “It’s an upward spiral.”

Reporting in the January issue of Psychological Bulletin, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues pored over data collected over the past two decades on more than 275,000 people.

She pointed out that throughout most of its history, psychology has tended to focus on what goes wrong with people emotionally — only recently has it switched that focus to the exploration of “good” emotions like happiness, contentment and joy.

“It’s a trend called ‘positive psychology,’ ” she explained. “What makes ‘the good life,’ what makes life fulfilling?”

At first, most of this work on happiness focused on its origins, Lyubomirsky said. “So, if you had a study and you saw a correlation between rising income and happiness, it was immediately interpreted as ‘OK, money makes people happy.’ “

While not disputing that rather obvious fact, the California researcher wondered if success and achievement weren’t, in their own way, encouraged by happiness.

Hundreds of studies appear to support that theory. Some examples from her team’s review:

  • In an infant study, babies who smiled and laughed more developed stronger bonds with their caregivers.
  • Numerous studies showed that happier people tended to do better on job interviews, secure better jobs, and then get better job-performance ratings while working.
  • Other research showed happier individuals had more satisfying marriages and were more likely to describe their partner as their “great love.”
  • Happy people were also more likely to engage in new, pleasurable pursuits and “discover rewards in even ordinary, mundane events.”
  • Happiness may even improve health: Experimental studies suggest good mood boosts immune function and reduces colds.
  • Other studies suggest happiness helps lengthen lifespan.
  • But does happiness precede and encourage success? The evidence for that came primarily from dozens of longitudinal studies, which tracked changes in people’s lives over time.

One of these studies focused on 30-year-old college yearbook photos. Researchers assessed each photo for what experts call “Duchenne smiles” — a certain play of facial muscles that only occurs during truly happy, unposed smiles.

“Only very, very good actors can fake them,” Lyubomirsky said.

“In these yearbook studies, women who showed Duchenne smiles when they were in college had happier marriages by age 52,” she said. In another study, college freshmen tested as very happy in college made more money 16 years later, she said. Other longitudinal research mirrored these results.

Why might happy folks be rewarded with success?

According to Lyubomirsky, “they’re feeling more confident, optimistic, more energetic,” all of which are attractive qualities. In fact, studies consistently find that when people appear happy, total strangers rate them as sexier, too.

“They’re also more sociable, and sociability is really important,” the researcher said. “You get out there, you like people more. And people are more motivated to work with, and be friends with, happy people.”

The new review should help change psychologists’ view of the happiness/success relationship, said James Maddux, professor and director of the clinical psychologist training program at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va.

“It pulls all the research together in a very compelling way,” said Maddux, who specializes in the study of “positive psychology.”

He and Lyubomirsky agreed that “happy” doesn’t mean empty-headed cheerfulness. “The research isn’t saying that happy people are naive Pollyannas, and it’s not saying that being happy is incompatible with — on occasion — being critical and cynical, sad or angry,” he said. “That’s just part of being a healthy, emotionally well-rounded human being.”

More mysterious is why some people — even as infants — are naturally happier than others. DNA is the most obvious answer. “Based on the research, there’s a general conclusion that between 50 to 70 percent of the variation in people as to their level of happiness over time is genetically determined,” Maddux said.

That doesn’t mean genes are destiny when it comes to happiness and success, however.

“It just means that the person who’s born happy doesn’t have to try as hard — just like thin people don’t have to work at it as much,” Lyubomirsky said. “You can make yourself happier using all kinds of strategies — but you have to put some effort into it.”

More information

For more on “positive psychology,” visit the American Psychological Association.




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