03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Learning The Art Of Happiness

As a psychiatrist specializing in the science of human happiness, I'm sometimes asked, "What is the current state of happiness in America?"

Looking from a global perspective, studies reveal that America generally ranks somewhere between the 80th and 90th percentile in comparison with other nations. A solid "B." Maybe a "B+." Now, that's a respectable grade. But in a nation that has deliberately enshrined "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable human right in its original mission statement, some might ask, "So, why aren't we happier?"

In reviewing multiple sources, including the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, we find that for the past 50 years or so, the average level of happiness in America has remained essentially unchanged, with roughly one third of Americans reporting that they are very happy, roughly 10 to 15% very unhappy, and the rest of us falling somewhere in between. While there have been some changes in happiness levels among certain demographic groups, our overall level of happiness as a society has been stagnating.

Until recently, it was widely believed that it's almost impossible to raise an entire country's happiness level. Last year, however, political scientist Ronald Inglehart and colleagues from the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, analyzing data from the World Values Surveys over 26 years, were shocked to find that 45 of 52 countries showed an increase in happiness!

So, if happiness is increasing in other countries, why isn't America becoming happier? As it turns out, studies show that as a nation is lifted out of poverty, happiness increases, but in a more prosperous country like America, increasing wealth will have no significant effect on happiness. In the same way, countries suddenly experiencing democratization or greater political freedom and social tolerance will become happier, but America is already high in these characteristics compared with most nations. So, to increase happiness in America, we will need to evolve, to deepen our understanding, and give up our older notions of where and how to find greater happiness. Chasing after more and more wealth won't do it anymore. So, where do we start?

In The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, the Dalai Lama offers a good first step when pursuing any positive goal: Learning. If our objective is happiness, we need to begin by learning about the benefits of happiness. The recent scientific evidence has identified a wide array of practical benefits of happiness extending far beyond merely feeling good--including better physical and mental health, longer life, stronger relationships, greater career success, higher income, and many other personal rewards.

One of the fundamental principles of The Art of Happiness is that cultivating greater happiness not only benefits oneself but also one's family, community, and society. There is new scientific evidence supporting this principle as well. Such evidence helps dispel our common cultural biases and myths, such as perceiving happiness as a somewhat "soft" or frivolous subject, or considering the pursuit of happiness to be self-centered or self-indulgent.

Recognizing the value of happiness is only the first step. The deeper our understanding of the value and benefits of happiness, the more motivated we will be to take the next step--practicing effective strategies. Of course, cultivating greater happiness requires many different strategies. There is one approach, however, that is particularly useful during difficult times. It is based on the idea that once we have our basic survival needs met, our happiness is determined primarily by our outlook, attitudes, and perception.

In The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World the Dalai Lama explores how cultivating what he calls "a realistic outlook" can help us cope with adversity, maintain hope, and remain happy despite the many problems in today's world. Here he uses the word "realistic" in the sense of "corresponding to reality." He points out that when we react to situations with destructive emotions such as anger or fear, our perception narrows, and we see the problem as having a single dimension, as purely negative. Under the influence of these negative emotions, reality is exaggerated or distorted, and the problem assumes massive proportions and appears overwhelming. But the reality is that any given event or situation can have many different facets and be seen from different angles. As the Dalai Lama explains, "I think the fundamental basis for developing this realistic outlook or attitude is to see things from a wider perspective. If you analyze, investigate, you will find there are many ways of looking at a problem."

A rapidly growing body of scientific research conducted by investigators such as Barbara Fredrickson at the University of Michigan and others, has supported the Dalai Lama's views, finding a strong relationship between this "broader perspective" and positive emotions. Experiments have found that people experiencing positive emotions naturally tend to see things from a wider perspective, they see "the big picture." Conversely, deliberately adopting a broader perspective has been found to increase positive emotions (and reduce negative emotions). And both positive emotions and a wider perspective contribute to greater resilience, the capacity to bounce back from adversity and traumatic experiences.

A common method of cultivating this wider perspective involves "positive reappraisal," the practice of deliberately looking at a problem in new ways, actively looking for some positive meaning, higher purpose, or potential benefit related to an adversity, either in the short term or long term: Can I learn anything from the situation? Can it help me grow in some way, make me stronger? Can it potentially lead to new opportunities, new relationships, or help strengthen old relationships?

Even in today's economy, for example, with many people experiencing losses and financial hardship, some people are using the experience as an opportunity to reevaluate their underlying beliefs and attitudes about what is truly important in life. Others are discovering that the initial discomfort of having to turn to family, friends, or community resources for help during this difficult period has ultimately served to bring them closer together with their loved ones or given them a greater sense of strength and confidence that comes from feeling connected with a wider community. Paradoxically, from the perspective of leading a happier life, it is more important to practice gratitude during periods of adversity than during periods of prosperity. In fact, the more you have lost, the more important it is to view your situation from a wider perspective, giving at least equal time to remembering what you still have. Of course, adopting this broader outlook is not always easy, and requires some practice, but as one of the most powerful strategies there is to assure a happy life, it is well worth the effort.

Howard C. Cutler, M.D. is a psychiatrist, bestselling author, and speaker. He is co-author with H.H. the Dalai Lama of the acclaimed Art of Happiness series of books, international bestsellers that have been translated into 50 languages. As a leading expert on the science of human happiness, Dr. Cutler offers courses and workshops on The Art of Happiness throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Cutler and the Dalai Lama have recently released the third volume of their series, The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, along with an updated 10th Anniversary Edition of The Art of Happiness.