Slices of Life: The science of happiness

"From my very limited research, along with (extensive) lifetime experience, I’ve concluded that happiness is a habit. As with all habits, it gets easier and more natural with practice," writes Jill Pertler.

Jill Pertler
Jill Pertler
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Lately I’ve been interested in happiness — scientifically speaking, of course. That sounds counterintuitive, oxymoronic even. How can the cut and dried factual-based world of science have anything to do with something as instinctive and emotional as happiness?

Turns out they have more in common than I originally thought. Happiness causes physiological changes within us that science is able to use to identify, quantify and even predict happy.

I’ve always thought of happiness as external — something that happens to me. Happiness comes from going to Disney World, opening presents at Christmas, saying “yes” to the dress, a brand new convertible, landing that dream job, scoring the last slice of chocolate cake, winning the lottery and so on.

While this might sound logical, external experiences and things that happen to us aren’t the real source of happiness. In truth, happiness comes from within. At least that’s what science says.

And who are we to argue with science?


Scientists have studied happiness and they’ve found it happens naturally. (Duh.) But, (here’s the kicker) it can also be manufactured. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert describes “synthetic happiness.” It’s the happy we create when we don’t get what we want.

Sort of like seeing the glass as half full.

As it turns out, when we don’t get what we want, the happiest among us take on a new perspective and choose to see it another way.

Key word in that last sentence: choose.

Happiness is a choice.

Absorb the power in that for just a minute, because it is great. It is gigantic.

You get to choose your own happiness. How flipping awesome is that? Flippingly! Because choice is power. And the power is in your hands. No one else’s. You are in charge.

Flippingly in charge. Damn grand.


From my very limited research, along with (extensive) lifetime experience, I’ve concluded that happiness is a habit. As with all habits, it gets easier and more natural with practice. In contrast, the opposite is also true. Choosing a dim outlook on life can also become a habit. You can send two people to the county fair on the same day. One will see dirt and dust and crowds and long lines in front of the food trucks serving greasy food. The other will see the roller coaster, Ferris wheel and delicious corn dogs on a stick.

Same fair. Same day. Same experiences. Different outlooks. Different outcomes.

The people in the white lab coats tell us happiness is a choice, and in that, they have a few other gems that can help us find our own Happiness Boulevard. Here’s what their studies suggest:

Gratitude increases happiness. If we spend time thinking of all that we have, we commit less brain energy to all things we want or don’t have. Gratitude, like happiness, is a habit. They are best friends and are often seen having coffee together on Tuesday mornings at the cute little pastry shop down the street — visibly exuding appreciation and love for one another over lattes and donuts.

Happiness can be increased by (ready for this shocker?) engaging in activities you enjoy. Do what makes you happy and you will more likely be happy. Standing ovation for the obvious.

Understand that your emotions are your choice. Even in dire circumstances, you choose how you feel. It may be bad, but it will get better and could possibly be worse. Most of our challenges won’t even be on our radar a year from now, much less five years from now. Even if they will be, life won’t always be the same as it is today. Ponder and remember that. Allow yourself to give it perspective even if it has to be one conscious breath at a time.

The happiest people believe in something greater than themselves. This lifts the weight of the world off of their shoulders. Perhaps we are not in control after all. Understand this and accept it. Embrace it for the gift it is.

I grew up believing “things” made me happy — experiences, good fortune, other people. Turns out I was only half right. Happiness might (sometimes) come from our environment, but most often it is already within us — waiting for us to embrace and recognize it. It is there for the taking. Go ahead, scoop up a healthy portion for yourself.


You’ll be glad you did.

Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright and author. Don’t miss a slice; follow the Slices of Life page on Facebook.

Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright and author.
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