July 10, 2006 -- It's easy to name the things that make you happy, but measuring the emotion itself is more difficult.
Still, the official study of happiness as a science is booming, and research projects, books, and even college courses are dedicated to it. The most popular course at Harvard last semester was positive psychology, a class that teaches students about happiness.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, only 34 percent of U.S. adults say they're very happy. The survey found that income and status were not important indicators of happiness and that CEOs were not as happy as the people who worked for them.
Chris Peterson, who works at the Positive Psychology Institute, developed a way to quantify happiness.
He uses what he calls an authentic happiness inventory that rates contentment on a scale of 1 to 5.
Peterson said the average American scored a 3.2.
Have Connections With Others
"You have to have something you're passionate about and also people in your life. … Other people matter," Peterson said. "That's what comes out of the study. Now, not only should we pursue happiness, we feel entitled to it."
The inventory is comprised of 24 multiple-choice questions that allow you to rate how you feel about things like work, success, your purpose in life, and how bored you get on a daily basis.
Peterson said few people scored a 5.
Happiness studies have already yielded some important findings.
For example, more unhappy people are in big cities than in rural areas, and people who have children are no happier than those who don't, although married people are usually happier than single people.
The most important factor in happiness is having friends, the inventory found.
Peterson also said that having friends at work was more important than making a lot of money in determining how happy you were at the office.
"The ones that did took fewer sick days.They liked their jobs better," Peterson said. "Having a best friend at work was more important than salary, status, or whether they had a corner office."
A psychiatrist and host of his own show, Keith Ablow said the survey was helpful because it could place people on a spectrum and give them an idea of where they could improve their lives.
"But your number isn't the final answer," he said. "It's basically a good jumping-off point in the pursuit of happiness. The important thing to remember is that this test is an important piece of the puzzle, but you shouldn't forget the puzzle."
Ablow said that people shouldn't get bogged down in numbers, but that there were simple steps they could take to make themselves happier.
"Pets can help. Being connected to your work," he said. "Let's not forget that there are things in your life story that might need to be resolved. … If you are from a family that never took risks, then you are unlikely to take the risk to work in an environment you love. You need to go back and say, 'Well, wait a second. I learned something that's preventing me from taking that step toward happiness."
Specific Steps to Take:
Throw receipts away after shopping.
Ablow said that would prevent you from being ambivalent about what you bought.
Teach your children to make friends at every stage of their lives.
Take a five-minute cool-down after working out.
Ablow said cooling down gave you positive reinforcement after a short burst of pain.