Harvard Is Spending $21 Million to Figure Out Why You're Unhappy

If having negative emotions like stress can make you gain weight, get stomach ulcers, experience headaches, develop heart disease, and all sorts of other nasty health outcomes, should positive emotions make you healthier?

You probably don't hear about this side of mental health nearly as often as you get warned that being stressed will fuck you over -- very helpful and calming -- but it's exactly what a group of researchers at Harvard is coming together to focus on.

Harvard recently opened the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness within its School of Public Health, which, bizarrely enough, came to be thanks to a $21 million donation from the Lee Kum Kee family. They decided that the center should be named after their ancestor, Lee Kum Sheung, who rose to fame when he allegedly invented oyster sauce -- the company he founded is now a major player in the Chinese sauce game. Since oyster sauce has brought deliciousness and happiness to so many people since then, it seems appropriate... but wait, does it actually? Why is there a center for happiness at Harvard? Aren't the students there supposed to be stressed out from the intense competition? One of the directors, Dr. K. "Vish" Viswanath, helps explain the circuitous path from oyster sauce to Ivy League studies of happiness.

What happens at the Center for Health and Happiness?

A name like the "Center for Health and Happiness" evokes either a Willy Wonka-esque factory, with Oompa Loompas happily churning out nuggets of perfectly crafted happiness... or a fascist kind of "re-education" center from an unwritten Orwell novel.

As you probably guessed, the reality isn't much like either -- change your mindset to researchers sitting at their desks in an academic office building, or whatever you imagine Harvard to be. They're really getting down to business to "conduct rigorous, systematic, longitudinal studies to advance the science of health and happiness," as Dr. Viswanath sums it up. That means the best minds on the best studies to understand how happiness makes us healthy in the long term.

The point isn't really to research how being angry, sad, or depressed is terrible for your health -- it's about figuring out just what happiness can do for your body when it's maximized. "It's an incredible opportunity to change the paradigm -- the way we think about this relationship -- to a more asset-oriented perspective rather than a deficit-oriented perspective." Be positive, people.

Is anyone actually going to care about this?

Co-directors Dr. Viswanath and Dr. Laura Kubzansky have been doing related work for a while now, but what's news is that their research groups are coming together to make for a happiness dream team. Dr. Kubzansky has done a bunch of research on emotions and health outcomes, while Dr. Viswanath is all about health communications and translational research, which essentially means figuring out how to spread the word and apply the findings of their research in the real world.

It's still very early, but the scope of the center is likely to grow, too, because it sounds like everyone wants in. "We are hearing from people in the medical school, the cancer center, people studying religion and spirituality, business, communications, psychology...," Dr. Viswanath's list went on and on. As soon as the happiness center idea was on the table, experts from all kinds of fields said, "Hey, happiness is relevant to the stuff I'm nerding out on, too!"

Research is great and all, but will it make any REAL difference?

It's one thing to say, "Everyone will be healthier if they're happier!" and another to develop practical pathways to help people get there. But the researchers have a few ideas.

One way is through policy. Policymakers tend to want hard evidence before they make changes, and that's what these researchers are after. What specific interventions can make people happier -- for example, something simple like seeing more green space -- and how does that improvement in happiness correspond to health measures? If the researchers at the happiness center can provide data to show what these outcomes are, well, it's easy to get carried away imagining all the things that make you happy becoming policy. Universal siestas? A monthly booze stipend? Mandatory three-day weekends? Now this sounds like a solid Congressional agenda.

Thinking about it backwards, some of the people with the worst health are people living in poverty. If you can promote happiness, can you promote health? "The question is what social institutions, policies, and practices can be developed," Dr. Viswanath says. "These health inequalities exist, but we can develop some steps that will buffer people from the adverse impact of these inequalities." He and Dr. Kubzansky are particularly interested in how this kind of work can help improve health for disadvantaged populations, so that will be a big research topic here.

Happiness in the 21st century means using contemporary technology

While policy is a good idea, it takes time, sometimes years or decades, to make a difference. Meanwhile, social media is fast -- you know this, because this is a problem when you post something incredibly stupid and everyone sees it before you realize it. When it comes to happiness, there's a huge opportunity there: helping people track and share the things that make them happy.

Dr. Viswanath collaborated on a study in Hong Kong where investigators called more than 4,500 people to ask about their level of happiness. Imagine your surprise getting a phone call like that, when you thought you were going to be offered volcano insurance. Respondents were also asked if they smoked. The findings were intriguing: of non-smokers, current smokers, and ex-smokers, the ex-smokers were the happiest group. Wouldn't it be logical for someone to be happier without dirtying their lungs with smoke in the first place? Apparently not. "Ex-smokers experienced a sense of accomplishment, efficacy," Dr. Viswanath theorizes. "That sense of accomplishment is something you can amplify through social media."

There are already a bunch of apps out there designed to make you happier, and they often include a social media element where you share your successes. This delicious chocolate cake that I made myself made me happy! Or getting out of bed at 5am to work out made me happy! Whatever floats your boat, right? Now Harvard is going to come up with loads of new research and figure out how to put it to work through social media.

"We have not been very good at taking studies on happiness from the scientific world and translating and communicating them to change both policy and practice," Dr. Viswanath points out. "This is an incredible opportunity for us to say, how can we amplify our findings and reach out to people where they are?" Hopefully that happens in your lifetime!

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Marina Komarovsky is a freelance writer for Thrillist, and she feels that making Monday part of the weekend would be an excellent public health strategy. For more on health, follow her tweets: @MariKomarovsky.