Scientists Reveal Three Keys to Happiness

A picture with a little mystery is preferable because "people want to explore, and they want to find things out," he says. Conversely, if they can't understand what's going on, they become very angry. So the pictures told the story of a very basic need among all persons — the need to understand their world and pick their own options as they head on down that trail and around the tree.

Is Taking Control a Mistake?

But for that little adventure to be helpful, Kaplan says, a person needs to believe that his or her life can make a difference. Nothing is more irritating, or frustrating, than the feeling of helplessness, so if you want to make a difference you've got to take control, right?

Not necessarily, the Kaplans believe.

Taking control sometimes can be a bad mistake.

"There's a tremendous number of times when people want things to be under control, but they don't want to control them. That's a tremendous responsibility," Kaplan says.

"So gradually we came to the realization that what people want to do is participate. The opposite of helplessness is being heard. It's playing a part. It's being engaged in the action. Not being ignored." Only then will it be possible for your life to make a difference.

But chances are you're going to be ignored anyway unless others see you as competent and effective, the third step on the Kaplan's road to self fulfillment. And once again, they concluded, nature can play a part.

In a series of studies, the couple demonstrated that an office window that overlooks a natural scene helps people relax, thus fighting off one of the primary threats to competence, mental fatigue. Both energy and job enthusiasm rose among people who had a chance to glance out the window occasionally and see something, even if it was only a single tree.

Nature, the Kaplans suggest, is competency's greatest ally.

Natural Healing

It even helps when trying to deal with a potentially fatal illness. One of their studies involved cancer patients.

"The first thing they wanted to do when they got their diagnosis was take a ride in the country," Kaplan says.

The study found that spending 20 minutes outdoors each day helped the patients cope with the "mental fatigue" of dealing with all the issues that come along with the cancer.

But wouldn't a debilitating disease like cancer be so overwhelming that it would wipe out the three conditions the Kaplans feel are so important? Aren't things like health, love, and even an adequate income also extremely important?

Of course, Kaplan says, but their findings lay the foundation for dealing with all those other issues.

You've got to feel competent, think you can make a difference, and understand what's going on to handle any crisis. And for starters, take a look out the window occasionally.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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