Happiness Down to a Science

Purdue researchers pursue the secret to well-being through psychology, consumerism and human connection

Story by William Meiners, photos by Charles Jischke

Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers thought enough of the subject matter to declare its pursuit a fundamental right in the Declaration of Independence. Although the right to chase anything is no guarantee you’ll someday catch it. And though happiness may be the elusive quest for most any human negotiating life, this idea of how “to be,” or maybe how to better be, could forever mark the collective path of humanity.

Researchers within Purdue’s College of Health and Human Sciences often are concerned about finding a better way through daily lives — by way of psychology, health and wellness, financial fitness, and more. Some are focused on the direct links between our lives and the possibilities of happiness. Others are investigating matters more tangentially connected to what many would consider strategies for better living.

Happiness is a subjective construct, something in the mind of the individual beholder. As such, there are no definitive answers about how any of us can achieve it. The following five HHS researchers, however, weigh in with expert opinions — based on scientific evidence — on causes and effects for happiness, as well as ways to measure it.

Smile Psychology

Louis Tay Louis Tay, assistant professor of psychological sciences

Louis Tay, assistant professor of psychological sciences, is teaching The Science of Happiness this semester. A course, he says, that seeks to provide a psychological account of happiness — its definition, theories, determinants and outcomes. He’s hoping his students not only familiarize themselves with the scientific aspects of the subject, but also engage in validated practices — such as gratitude, prosocial giving and active listening — that lead to happier outcomes in their own lives.

Tay began his academic pursuit of happiness in graduate school when he had the chance to conduct data analysis for Ed Diener, a professor at the University of Illinois renowned for his research on the subject. “When I chose to go into psychology, I wanted to help individuals and society,” Tay says. “One path is through clinical psychology. After visiting a mental health facility, however, I realized it was not my strong suit, in spite of its importance. As such, I had to find another path to help others.”

Diener’s research goals resonated with Tay’s desire to help others. “We all seek happiness in our lives, but the question is ‘How do we achieve happiness?’” Tay says. “I want to help people by providing empirical answers to this important question.”

As for other takeaways from The Science of Happiness, Tay hopes his students will learn that happiness is an evaluative as well as emotional state, which is measurable. Additionally, it is changeable, and not merely something we’re born with.

Not surprisingly, Tay says there are many cause-and-effect determinants for happiness, including choices, mindsets and habits. Social relationships are huge factors in determining personal happiness. And research shows that increased happiness can pay dividends in success, longevity, health, creativity and even with greater profitability for companies. It’s no wonder that more governments and organizations are interested in tracking happiness in order to make better public policy decisions.

Tay’s own research has helped zero in on some universal truths. “In a worldwide study, I have found that human happiness is universally contingent on the fulfillment of physical and psychological needs such as food, shelter, safety, social relationships, sense of respect and autonomy,” he says.

But how does one find happiness? If it were simply a matter of flipping on a happy switch, many would simply turn that on and embrace the emotion like a favorite song. Though genuine happiness should have staying power beyond three minutes.

Maybe the answer, in part, can be found in consumerism. Do we truly find joy in what we wear, eat and drive? Richard Feinberg, a consumer psychologist and professor of consumer science, has explored that academic angle since arriving at Purdue in 1980. “My research is about why and how consumers buy things and the role that products and purchasing play in our lives,” he says. “In general, it’s all about happiness.”

The message vehicle connecting people with products may have changed, but the practice is older than the Old West. “It truly goes back to the Declaration of Independence, which says we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Feinberg says. “Consumers pursue their happiness by buying stuff.”

Richard Feinberg Richard Feinberg, consumer psychologist and professor of consumer science

People have all sorts of products that make them happy, says Feinberg, who admits to a personal brand preference in mayonnaise (Hellmann’s) that creates some low level of happiness in his own life. Still, the onslaught of messages can be counterproductive from a sales standpoint. “A lot of consumers deal with it really easily, because we don’t pay attention to most of it,” Feinberg says.

Societal Conditions

With the rising interest in using happiness as one metric of societal progress, psychologists are increasingly interested in understanding the societal conditions that lead to happiness. In his research, Tay often uses large data sets, some of which, he says, comprise more than a million individuals from around the globe and represent 95 percent of the world’s adult population. He’s often looking at how a type of society affects the individual’s capacity for happiness.

“Even after accounting for income levels, societies and communities that have greater equality, democracy, less environmental pollution, and lower corruption have higher levels of happiness,” Tay says.

Though democratic societies might logically point to more enjoyment per capita, Tay says there are controversies about whether national income increases happiness: “I have found, across over 150 nations, that there is a small but robust association with life satisfaction over years, which is an evaluative component of happiness but less so with feelings of happiness. Part of it is how income is spent. To the extent that national income is put to use in fulfilling the basic needs of citizens, happiness levels rise over time.”

Societal conditions also can add to — or reduce — one’s level of happiness beyond personal conditions. Based on scientific findings, Tay says, “Individuals who have the same income level in richer nations have higher levels of life evaluations compared with individuals with the same income levels living in poorer nations. However, their levels of negative feelings, like stress, are also higher.”

Workplace Blues

For many, that broader sense of well-being is put front and center in the workplace. Howard Adler, C.B. Smith Professor of Hotel Management, has been preparing Purdue students for the business that caters to happiness since 1982 — after spending about 15 years in the hospitality profession himself. Although his research is focused more on employees than consumers, those contentment factors come into play.

“Learning to work as a team is really the most critical aspect. That, in turn, creates a culture of happiness.”

“Research shows that the No. 1 reason employees leave a company doesn’t have to do with the company,” Adler says. “Nor does it have anything to do with the employees. It has to do with how they are treated by an immediate supervisor. These employees are going to be spending more hours per day with an immediate supervisor than they will with a spouse, child or whoever.”

Through two internships, hospitality and tourism management students gain practical experience from on-the-job psychological training. “They need to learn how to deal with people who are younger, who are older or may come from very different ethnic backgrounds,” Adler says. “If you’re a 23-year-old female supervising housekeepers, and those ladies are older than your mother, you have to be able to relate to them. Otherwise, you’re not going to gain their respect.”

Most college graduate hotel managers have never cleaned 16 rooms in one day. Yet they have to somehow connect with their housekeeping staff. “You don’t operate a hotel or restaurant by yourself. You operate it through your employees,” Adler says. “Learning to work as a team is really the most critical aspect. That, in turn, creates a culture of happiness.”

That culture may not be reflected by a hotel full of whistling bellhops and front desk people. But simply creating a hospitable workplace (no matter the business) is not a bad place to start. “To me, happiness relates to how individuals feel about the quality of relationships that they have at home, at work and in their communities,” Adler says. “Since work plays such an important role, if you’re happy or feel satisfied, it’s going to translate into related aspects of your life.”

Blissful Additives

Most Purdue researchers — aside from Tay — attempting to stare directly into the gleeful abyss of bliss, and Feinberg — looking at the pleasant byproducts from purchased products — do not try to measure happiness. In fact, they’re usually investigating something on its opposite end. Still, by understanding what makes something unhealthy, researchers could make inferences for positive opposites. At least anecdotally.

Zoe Taylor, assistant professor of human development and family studies, arrived at Purdue in 2013 with a broad focus on risk and resilience processes in children and families. Working across campus with researchers who are focused on Latino families and children of migrant workers, Taylor explores important issues in the areas of child and family health and well-being. Her methods include both interviews and biomarkers, which measure physiological stress such as cortisol levels through saliva samples.

“When we talk about well-being, we usually think of someone who’s not depressed,” Taylor says. “But not being depressed doesn’t necessarily equate to happiness.”

The idea of resiliency, or the ability of children and families to thrive despite experiencing challenges and adversity, could provide insight into how to more effectively intervene to foster well-being and better mental health in vulnerable populations. Taylor also has examined the concept of optimism, another component of resilience, as a sort of buffer against bad things that happen to people.

“When we talk about well-being, we usually think of someone who's not depressed,” Taylor says. “But not being depressed doesn't necessarily equate to happiness.”

Strong relationships also can increase happiness. “One thing almost everyone seeks is social support,” Taylor says. “If you feel cared for and feel connected, that’s one of the most powerful aspects that is found to relate to health and well-being.”

For many who are not finding a happy home within a family circle, outside activities could provide a positive outlet. Runners, swimmers, bikers and cross-trainers may be doing more than trying to slim down. Looking good and feeling good could make for happier dispositions among the physically fit.

Steve Amireault, assistant professor of health and kinesiology, is particularly interested in what keeps people on that exercise path. Entering his second year on campus, Amireault will recruit up to 200 “older adults,” or those over 60, to track both activity levels and personal perceptions about their exercise programs.

Almost anyone who has hopped on and off a treadmill in hopes of shedding 10 pounds can testify to how quickly the good work can be undone with just a little time off. “Most benefits you acquire are reversible,” Amireault says. “And not just for physical benefits, but for mental well-being, too. That’s why I’m focusing on a maintenance program.”

Through a 12-week period, Amireault is using objective measures, including recorded workouts of treadmill running and resistance measurements for weight training, and records from fitness devices that track activity outside of fitness centers. He’s also asking participants to complete detailed surveys every three weeks. The measurable exercise and the personal reflections can provide Amireault insight into what it takes to maintain a fitness program over time. Perhaps more importantly, he’ll gain a greater understanding about the perceptions of what it’s like to get back into the gym after a full week of inactivity.

Though results may vary in individual households, the exercise quotient could add points to the happiness scale. “Much of this study is related to the effects on levels of depressive symptoms,” Amireault says. “If you’re experiencing less of these symptoms, you’re likely happier.”

Of course there’s no easy answer in any of this happiness business. So whether happiness is found on a dirt road in the middle of an endorphin-pumping run, or somewhere surrounded by loved ones, or within the perfect job, or behind the wheel of a large automobile, the happy ones may well indeed sleep like kings and queens. And they’re free to boost that contentment with whatever sandwich condiment they like best.

“Most benefits you acquire are reversible,” Amireault says. “And not just for physical benefits, but for mental well-being, too. That’s why I’m focusing on a maintenance program.”
Steve Amireault, assistant professor of health and kinesiology

Happiness High Five

Carl Jung, the noted Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, in a 1960 interview with Gordon Young offered the five following basic factors for happiness:

  1. Good physical and mental health.
  2. Good personal and intimate relationships, such as those of marriage, the family and friendships.
  3. The faculty for perceiving beauty in art and nature.
  4. Reasonable standards of living and satisfactory work.
  5. A philosophical or religious point of view capable of coping successfully with the vicissitudes of life.

More Life 360 Stories