"Our review provides strong support that happiness, in many cases, leads to successful outcomes, rather than merely following from them," author Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, said in releasing that study.
A number of studies have linked happiness with good health, although it is less clear which comes first there. Health is one issue that can have a major impact on personal happiness, but many people seem happy even when confronted with a crippling or life-threatening disease. How can that be?
Some studies insist that happiness is largely independent of our status in life. Australian psychologists studied 900 twin pairs and said earlier this year that they had identified common genes that resulted in distinct personality traits and a predisposition for happiness. Thus, happiness has its roots in our genes, if this study is right, although the various predicaments we find ourselves in can also contribute significantly. It's hard to keep smiling if you're broke, lonely and sick, for example, even if you have the right genes.
And there is some evidence that our level of happiness does not remain constant throughout our lives. We get happier as we get older, according to a University of Chicago study published last April in the American Sociological Review. That study was based on interviews with at least 1,500 people from 1972 to 2004 by the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center, supported by the National Science Foundation.
That study found that the happiest people in the country are in their late 80s. Honest.
The happiest people on the planet, however, appear to be in Denmark, which has ranked first among 178 nations for 30 years in life satisfaction surveys. The University of Leicester has produced a "world map of happiness" showing that Switzerland, Austria, Iceland and the Bahamas follow, in that order, after Denmark. The United States ranks 23rd, and the strife-torn East African country of Burundi is at the bottom of the list.
Why are those Danes so dang happy? The study suggests that Danes have low and realistic expectations for the coming year, so they are not likely to be disappointed.
But can something as simple as a happy face have much of an impact? Maybe, if it helps us concentrate on the Big Picture.
"By seeing the big picture," the new study says, you "should be better able to perceive the benefits of engaging in activities that provide long-term rewards, consider future activities more important than immediate ones, and adopt whichever abstract goal is accessible." It might not last long, but it probably doesn't hurt to try.