Optimism: Is it earned or learned?

Published: Tuesday, March 19 2013 5:44 p.m. MDT

The study of — even search for — happiness and general well-being has been of relevance to people the world over for centuries, as indicated by the World Happiness Report.

So what makes people happy? To the surprise of many analysts and leaders who focus entirely on traditional economic indicators to gauge the well-being of certain peoples, recent data from Gallup shows that may be a flawed premise.

Of 148 countries, Latin America contains eight of the top 10 for positive emotions worldwide, according to a Gallup survey conducted in 2011.

Panama, with the highest percentage of "yes" answers to the five questions asked to indicate daily personal positivity, ranks 90th in the world for GDP per capita. Singapore, fifth in the world for GDP per capita, was the least likely to report positivity on a daily basis.

The presence of daily positive emotions and well-being was defined by Gallup researchers through the five questions asked of respondents — whether they experienced a lot of enjoyment; whether they did or learned something interesting the day before the survey; whether they felt respected; whether they felt well-rested; and whether they smiled and laughed a lot.

“If you measure Singapore by the traditional indicators, they look like one of the best-run countries in the world,” said Jon Clifton, a Gallup partner in Washington in a Bloomberg Businessweek article. “But if you look at everything that makes life worth living, they’re not doing so well.”

In Elisa Hunter's graduate studies in applied positive psychology, there's one thing that has become clear — well-being is often found in places, and with people, where it's least expected.

"Objective well-being is increasing while subjective isn't: people are making more and living longer," said Hunter, a student at the University of Pennsylvania. "They are doing better with the things you can measure, it seems like they would be doing better — but they're not."

According to Hunter's studies, global research indicates that well-being and satisfaction with daily life in developing nations are higher, on average, than with the average American.

"We can go in and say 'What are cultures practicing that allow them to have more satisfaction in life?'" she said. "As we study and see that we can help other people adopt those practices, we study that and create interventions to help increase the frequency of positive emotion in peoples' lives. The research is showing that that is successful."

Positive psychology is a fairly new field of study fathered in this age by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, Hunter's mentor. It is "the scientific study of what people do, and what contributes to well-being and happiness," she said.

Where traditional psychology looks at what is wrong with people and how to fix it, positive psychology looks at what is right with people and how to best cultivate it, she said. In a general sense, it is the study of how communities, people and families thrive and become successful.

"I think that everyone wants to have more satisfaction with their lives, so if that's what they want, it makes sense to study how to cultivate it," Hunter said.

So what does make for positive feelings and what environments cultivate them?

To Lynn Johnson, positive emotions in a culture often come from sociality and connections.

"When it comes to what we know about happiness, social connection is hugely important," said Johnson, a psychologist in Salt Lake City. In a study in which well-being of the people of Costa Rica and South Korea were compared, it was shown that Costa Rica brings in less than half the income of South Korea, but "they are far happier than those in South Korea," he said.

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