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Optimism: Is it earned or learned?

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 6:39 p.m. MDT

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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.

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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.

In Gallup's survey, Costa Rica came in at the 10th spot among countries with the highest positive emotions; South Korea came in 100th, in the bottom half among those with the lowest positive emotions worldwide.

"They think they are the top of the heap, they think they've got the best country in Central America," Johnson said.

"The Costa Ricans spend more time with their families and their friends. ... Costa Ricans think if they fail, their friends and family will pull them up."

Johnson has also seen that religious people are usually happier overall than those who are not religious.

"Probably connection and religiousness, that's probably what's helping them be happier," he said.

Johnson, who works in positive psychology, uses various techniques to help people cultivate positivity in their everyday lives. The most effective way to help people is by changing their ways of thinking.

"Optimism is a habit of thinking of the future in a hopeful way. People vary with optimism," he said. "If you measure people's happiness and train them, you can make them more optimistic."

However, the easiest way that Hunter sees positive psychology changing lives is through the words of the late Chris Peterson, a colleague of Seligman's in positive psychology.

"He said that positive psychology could be summarized in three words — other people matter," Hunter said. "The other cultures that were happiest were the ones that have a focus on other people: lots of family, less time on work and trying to make more money."

The way she sees it, other people should always be the ones who matter, those closest to a person should be the ones who matter most. In the end, family — the fundamental unit of society — would be the way to change the world with positive psychology.

Highest positive emotions worldwide

According to Gallup, the following 10 countries had the highest percentage of adults who reported feeling all the emotions asked about:

Country, percentage

Panama, 85

Paraguay, 85

El Salvador, 84

Venezuela, 84

Trinidad and Tobago, 84

Thailand, 83

Guatemala, 82

Philippines, 82

Ecuador, 81

Costa Rica, 81

Source: Gallup.com

Mandy Morgan is an intern for the Deseret News, reporting on issues surrounding both family and values in the media. She is a true-blue Aggie, studying Journalism and Political Science at Utah State University, and hails from Highland, Utah.

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