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What really makes people happy

  • Story Highlights
  • Expert says happiness can be found in the connectiveness between people
  • Also in connecting with something bigger than yourself
  • Trend analyst: People volunteer to lift their spirits in tough times
  • A 20-minute "Google Earth vacation" can open mind, give perspective
By Jessica Winter
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Oprah

(OPRAH.com) -- It was a dreary afternoon not long ago, one of those days when the sunlight is wan and somehow sooty, flattening everything into a halfhearted pencil sketch. Sitting at my desk, I quit staring at my cuticles long enough to open a YouTube link from a friend -- a newsclip about Jason McElwain.

Connecting with other people can lift your spirits.

Connecting with other people can lift your spirits.

You might remember Jason, the autistic high school student from Rochester, New York, who scored 20 points in four minutes during his one-and-only stint in a game with his school's basketball team. In the clip, the coach gets choked up retelling Jason's story; tears sprang to my eyes, too.

As I watched the elated home crowd rushing the court after Jason's final three-pointer, I felt borne aloft on a wave of happy pandemonium.

I started forwarding the video, hoping my friends would feel what I felt: awe, surprised delight, teary joy.

Within a few minutes, the replies started coming in:

"Crying."

"Oh no, I'm crying at work!"

"I'm Facebooking this now. Amazing."

"Wow -- just what I needed. Thanks!"

And then I wondered: Does this feeling come in prescription form?

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Especially in our current moment of doom and gloom, stories like Jason McElwain's seem like just what the doctor ordered. When forces beyond our control have upended what we thought we knew for sure (about our savings, our homes, our country, our future) and a drizzle of apprehension settles over us, we hunger for uplift.

We want a nudge toward happiness, a little magic to open the pressure valve of everyday life -- the sublime thrill of transcendence to be found in a Mendelssohn symphony or a Turner landscape, in a perfect kiss or perfect morning jog, in time spent with our families and friends. And then we want to hit Forward on that feeling: because the more we share it, the stronger it grows.

But a yen for uplift isn't just a sentimental reflex (grumps and pessimists, stick with us!). The physiology that makes McElwain-brand exhilaration possible is also the bedrock of our instincts for compassion, caretaking, and connection. The capacity for uplift is part of what makes us essentially, euphorically human.

According to a growing body of scientific research, it's critical to our health and well-being. And luckily, lifting our spirits doesn't depend on finding YouTube miracles in our in-box. (Well, not entirely.) For the most part, it's up to us. Oprah.com: The most addictive Web site ever

We can start in the general vicinity of our cleavage, with that serene warm-chest feeling that washes over us when we're moved by an extraordinary act or by a person of great virtue (whether it's Nelson Mandela, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, or the amazing woman who runs your local soup kitchen).

But to reach the physiological root of those sensations, we need to take a close look at the vagus nerve -- actually a bundle of nerves that starts at the base of the brain and branches out through the body, linking up with the facial and vocal muscles and the heart, lungs, and gut.

Acting as a messenger between the central nervous system and the major organs, the vagus nerve slows the heart rate (through the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine), calms the immune response (by controlling the release of proteins called cytokines), and communicates with the muscles that control respiration and digestion.

When we give a reassuring smile or sigh in sympathy with another person, the vagus nerve is quietly at work behind the scenes, "reducing our heart rate to a more peaceful pace [and] enhancing the likelihood of gentle contact in close proximity with others," social psychologist Dacher Keltner writes in his recent book, "Born to Be Good."

The mellowing vagus is also closely associated with oxytocin, the all-important hormone of human trust and devotion. For a study published last year, researchers Jonathan Haidt and Jennifer A. Silvers invited nursing mothers to bring their babies and watch a clip from "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in which a musician paid moving tribute to his former teacher for steering him away from a life of crime and gangs.

The moms who watched (and, sometimes, cried through) the elevating Oprah clip were more likely to nurse and hug their babies -- suggesting heightened levels of oxytocin, which cues lactation -- than another group who laughed along with a video of Jerry Seinfeld telling jokes.

Oxytocin, often released along the smooth and orderly Route Vagus, is essential to uplift, according to Haidt, an associate professor in social psychology at the University of Virginia. (His name, aptly, is pronounced "height.")

In his view, human happiness derives neither from external validation nor solely from within, but from "between": through the relationships created by love, work, and "something larger than yourself" -- whether it's a religious group, a volunteer organization, or a political campaign.

"If happiness comes from between," Haidt says, "then oxytocin is the hormone of between. It's the catalyst that helps bond people together."

Even if we don't know Oxytocin from OxyContin or our vagus from Las Vegas, we seem to know intuitively how to prepare our spirits for takeoff -- even when the forecast calls for grounding all flights.

For one thing, we're yearning to discover new, deep connections with others. In fact, many of us are investing in the most private form of "between" there is: the oxytocin factory known as romantic intimacy.

Memberships at the online-dating site Match.com were up 16 percent in January compared with the same period in 2008; in February, Match's competitor PlentyofFish.com saw a whopping 94 percent rise in traffic over the previous year.

And despite the sharp contraction in most consumer spending since the economic crisis blew up last fall, Babeland, a sex toys retailer with four outlets in New York City and Seattle, has seen double-digit increases in sales; during Valentine's Day weekend, sales were up 26 percent over the previous year.

"We haven't seen a spike like this since just after September 11," says cofounder Claire Cavanah. "People are nesting. They're looking for a stress reliever. They want to be comforted." (And, evidently, they want vibrators. Sleek, fuchsia-colored vibrators.)

We're sweating out stress at the gym, too, which also hits the V-spot: Aerobic exercise and yoga enhance vagus nerve output -- as does meditation. The Equinox fitness club chain, with locations nationwide, reports an 18 percent increase in usage of its gyms since last autumn; attendance at Curves, a women's-only national chain, was up 22 percent in January 2009 compared with the previous year. Memberships at Life Time Fitness, which has locations in 18 states, are up 14 percent.

And yoga teachers appear to be the new first responders to (economic) emergency. Invoke, a yoga and Pilates studio in Indianapolis, has seen higher revenues and attendance since last fall, according to owner Amy Peddycord, whose $5 community yoga classes are always packed. David Sunshine, owner of Dallas Yoga Center, laments that he has to keep turning people away from his new yoga-for-stress classes. Oprah.com: The yoga that refreshes

Groups of people sun saluting through hard times together is an indicator of what Haidt calls our "hive psychology."

"Evolutionary history over the past 15,000 to 20,000 years involves a lot of synchronous movement, chanting, dancing -- the temporary creation of larger groups," he says. "It's a way of ramping up the 'between' to make people feel part of something greater than themselves."

Joining a hive could be as simple as laughing or gasping along with an audience at a comedy or thriller (movie attendance is up 17.5 percent this year). Or as profound as huddling in freezing temperatures with 1.8 million of your fellow Americans at the National Mall on Inauguration Day.

President Obama's call to service has given a big boost to one of the most reliable vehicles for uplift: volunteer work, which forges yet another kind of nourishing "between." Sonya Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, has consistently found that performing acts of kindness is highly correlated with increased happiness, improving both our self-image and -- oxytocin alert! -- our sense of community.

One beneficiary of the service surge, the volunteer organization New York Cares, reports a 30 percent increase in prospective volunteers attending orientation sessions in January compared with the same period in 2008, and a monumental 75 percent increase from February 2008 to February 2009. Oprah.com: How to become a volunteer

"People will increasingly turn to volunteer work to lift their spirits during the economic crisis," predicts trend analyst Kiwa Iyobe, of the New York City--based marketing consultancy Suite 2046.

"A lot of people seem to have learned through their experiences during the presidential campaign that being part of a community and making a difference -- even a small one -- is deeply satisfying. No matter how busy or stressed they are right now, volunteers report that they always feel better after taking a few hours to do something positive for their community along with a bunch of like-minded strangers. It has the effect of putting their own lives and problems into perspective."

So, the basic, scientifically proven recipe for raising our spirits appears to be deliciously straightforward: sex, exercise (other than sex), and service (other than...never mind). But for those times when your sweetheart and your running shoes are out of reach and your next volunteering gig is a few days off, uplift is also available in instant fun-size packets.

"Even if you're just sitting in a chair, there are things you can do to change the pace of the day in a way that's recuperative and uplifting," says Karen Bradley, a visiting associate professor of dance at the University of Maryland.

"Take a minute to write your name in cursive with your eyeballs, or count your teeth with your tongue, or just hum along with some music. The muscles around your eyes will relax; your jaw will relax; you will start to breathe more deeply." (Caution: All that droning and eye-rolling may not have the same calming effect on observers.)

Bradley also loves "the 20-minute 'Google Earth vacation.' You pick an exotic location, choose your resort hotel, decide which restaurants to visit and what you'll eat. I've gone everywhere: New Zealand, Machu Picchu, the Galápagos Islands. It reminds you that you're not the center of the universe -- it opens your mind and gives you perspective."

Evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy likewise looks outward to find "momentary joys." "I'll take a walk and wait for little flashes of discovery in the natural world," she says. "Recently, I watched my dog leap through the air, over a creek, to chase a wild turkey -- something I'd never seen her do before. I can't jump creeks anymore, so I enjoyed being part of her abandon!"

Any minor shift in outlook -- including a little vicarious creek jumping -- can make a dismal picture less dispiriting. Yale psychology professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, an expert on depression, has studied our penchant for self-punishing rumination when we face a problem -- a tendency that many of us have indulged during the past eight months.

She found that a simple, ten-minute imagery task (such as picturing clouds in a bright blue sky or a cheery stack of watermelons in a pickup truck) can turn brooding into focused action.

"The quality of your problem-solving markedly improves," says Nolen-Hoeksema. "When you're ruminating, the negative thoughts are so strong that it's hard to inhibit them. But even after a moment of distraction, those thoughts aren't activated anymore. It's like pressing the restart button when your computer is acting up."

Remember, too, that crafty reprogramming of the mind doesn't necessarily depend on what you're thinking about, but how you're thinking about it.

Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer once assembled three groups of football-averse women to watch the Super Bowl; the group assigned to make six "novel distinctions" about the game ("It didn't matter if it was about the players' rear ends -- anything," Langer explains) enjoyed themselves significantly more than the group that had to take notice of just three things, or nothing at all.

What we can learn from the mindful Super Bowl party, Langer says, is that "when times are tough, the way out is in actively noticing new things. The essence of happiness is that feeling of engagement with the world and with other people."

In other words, instead of waiting for this daunting moment to pass, we can try to seize and shape it, to lighten it -- however we please.

So send the link. Start the conversation. Report for duty. Make the novel distinction. Move. Roll your eyeballs around. Go to the game. Grab somebody's hand. And, yes -- if you do just one thing -- only connect.

A friend tells a story about going to see an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She was drawn to a room where a crowd had gathered in a semicircle before a canvas, obviously mesmerized. As she approached the painting -- Vincent van Gogh's breathtaking Starry Night -- and joined the group, she felt gathered up into their shared, awestruck stillness. Tears welled in her eyes: For one transcendent instant, she'd found her hive, had found her between.

"We are incomplete creatures," says Jonathan Haidt. "We cannot live alone; we cannot find our own meaning alone. We realize our potential, we become alive, only when we find the 'between.'"

Chances are, the between is closer than you think. It could be waiting for you in someone's eyes, in a phrase of music, in a starry night. You can find it. Just keep looking up. Oprah.com: 6 experts (and one taxi driver) reveal how they cheer up

By Jessica Winter O, The Oprah Magazine © 2009

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TM & © 2009 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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