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6 Scientific Facts About Happiness

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Happiness. To some people, the emotion feels like a nebulous concept. And while happiness itself is a subjective experience, the ways in which we can achieve it don’t differ all that much from person to person. In Science of Happiness, a 45-minute lecture currently playing on CuriosityStream—an online streaming channel dedicated to factual content on science, technology, civilization, and the human spirit—Nancy Etcoff, an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard, explores the roots of happiness and what we can do to help sustain it. Here are six of her findings. 

1. THERE’S A GREAT INEQUALITY IN HAPPINESS AROUND THE WORLD.

Environmental factors have an important impact on one’s happiness, which explains why there’s an inequality in happiness around the world. “We see here in the United States one of the highest levels of happiness,” explains Etcoff. “[And] in Scandinavian countries. We see parts of Africa [with] tremendous unhappiness … What we find is that circumstances mean a huge amount when people have very little. So if you have great poverty, if you have tyranny, if you have great inequality, these things are going to drag down happiness.”

2. PLEASURE AND DESIRE ARE AT LEAST PARTIALLY SEPARABLE.

While desire has long been thought of as a major trigger for happiness—you want something, you get it, you’re happy—Etcoff’s research with drug addicts suggests that the connection between pleasure and desire is not so straightforward. “If you look at the brain, you can actually see that pleasure and desire are at least party separable,” says Etcoff. “You can really, really appreciate and love something and not necessarily have that dopamine motivational drive to say, ‘I have to have it.’ You can have that dopamine, ‘I have to have it’—which all drug addicts have—and no longer enjoy the drug you’re taking. So you can have a hyper-want, which we often do in our culture; we think we really need the new house, the new job, [we’ve] got to get that person to fall in love with me. All of these things … if we don’t get that, we’re unhappy. And if we do get them—that new car, house, whatever, more money—we’re going to be happy. [Which is] not necessarily [true]. We go into that hyper-wanting state and it becomes more and more divorced from our sense of what really gives us pleasure.”

3. FRIENDS INSPIRE MORE HAPPINESS THAN FAMILY MEMBERS.

According to Etcoff, social bonds are essential to personal happiness. “People tend to be happiest when they’re with friends, relatives, and spouses,” says Etcoff. And in that order. “Children are a little bit lower. Being alone, people don’t like it as much. And, unfortunately, being with the boss is the worst. It’s worse than being with clients or being alone. But social bonds that you enjoy have profound effects on not only your well being, but your general sense of safety and calm in the world.”

4. HAPPINESS HAS MANY POSITIVE SIDE EFFECTS.

Among the research that Etcoff cites in her lecture is Jeffrey Sachs’ World Happiness Report, which found that happiness offers several positive side effects. “Happy people live longer, are more productive, earn more, and are also better citizens,” says Etcoff. “Well-being should be developed both for its own sake and for its side effects.”

5. HAPPIER PEOPLE ARE HEALTHIER PEOPLE.

The positive effects being happy has on one’s health is not something that should be overlooked, according to Etcoff. “The positive emotions have effects on health over and above the negative effects we know of in depression and stress and anger,” she says. “With disease, we find that positive emotions have their own effect; people who have positive emotions live longer, they live better, and they’re healthier. They have greater resistance to common infections, decreased loss of function and mobility in older adults, and more and closer social ties.”

6. HAPPINESS IS CONTAGIOUS.

Smile—it might be contagious. “We catch emotions from one another,” says Etcoff, who references the Framingham Heart Study in her lecture. “We’re seeing ourselves much more as part of a whole … What’s fascinating here is that your happiness impacts your friend’s happiness, [which] impacts your friend’s friend’s happiness, whom you may never have met, [which] impacts your friend’s friend’s friend’s happiness. Happiness and emotions radiate.”

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8 of the Weirdest Gallup Polls
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Born in Jefferson, Iowa on November 18, 1901, George Gallup studied journalism and psychology, focusing on how to measure readers’ interest in newspaper and magazine content. In 1935, he founded the American Institute of Public Opinion to scientifically measure public opinions on topics such as government spending, criminal justice, and presidential candidates. Although he died in 1984, The Gallup Poll continues his legacy of trying to determine and report the will of the people in an unbiased, independent way. To celebrate his day of birth, we compiled a list of some of the weirdest, funniest Gallup polls over the years.

1. THREE IN FOUR AMERICANS BELIEVE IN THE PARANORMAL (2005)

According to this Gallup poll, 75 percent of Americans have at least one paranormal belief. Specifically, 41 percent believe in extrasensory perception (ESP), 37 percent believe in haunted houses, and 21 percent believe in witches. What about channeling spirits, you might ask? Only 9 percent of Americans believe that it’s possible to channel a spirit so that it takes temporary control of one's body. Interestingly, believing in paranormal phenomena was relatively similar across people of different genders, races, ages, and education levels.

2. ONE IN FIVE AMERICANS THINK THE SUN REVOLVES AROUND THE EARTH (1999)

In this poll, Gallup tried to determine the popularity of heliocentric versus geocentric views. While 79 percent of Americans correctly stated that the Earth revolves around the sun, 18 percent think the sun revolves around the Earth. Three percent chose to remain indifferent, saying they had no opinion either way.

3. 22 PERCENT OF AMERICANS ARE HESITANT TO SUPPORT A MORMON (2011)

Gallup first measured anti-Mormon sentiment back in 1967, and it was still an issue in 2011, a year before Mormon Mitt Romney ran for president. Approximately 22 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, even if that candidate belonged to their preferred political party. Strangely, Americans’ bias against Mormons has remained stable since the 1960s, despite decreasing bias against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and women.

4. MISSISSIPPIANS GO TO CHURCH THE MOST; VERMONTERS THE LEAST (2010)

This 2010 poll amusingly confirms the stereotype that southerners are more religious than the rest of the country. Although 42 percent of all Americans attend church regularly (which Gallup defines as weekly or almost weekly), there are large variations based on geography. For example, 63 percent of people in Mississippi attend church regularly, followed by 58 percent in Alabama and 56 percent in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Utah. Rounding out the lowest levels of church attendance, on the other hand, were Vermont, where 23 percent of residents attend church regularly, New Hampshire, at 26 percent, and Maine at 27 percent.

5. ONE IN FOUR AMERICANS DON’T KNOW WHICH COUNTRY AMERICA GAINED INDEPENDENCE FROM (1999)

Although 76 percent of Americans knew that the United States gained independence from Great Britain as a result of the Revolutionary War, 24 percent weren’t so sure. Two percent thought the correct answer was France, 3 percent said a different country (such as Mexico, China, or Russia), and 19 percent had no opinion. Certain groups of people who consider themselves patriotic, including men, older people, and white people (according to Gallup polls), were more likely to know that America gained its independence from Great Britain.

6. ONE THIRD OF AMERICANS BELIEVE IN GHOSTS (2000)

This Halloween-themed Gallup poll asked Americans about their habits and behavior on the last day of October. Predictably, two-thirds of Americans reported that someone in their house planned to give candy to trick-or-treaters and more than three-quarters of parents with kids reported that their kids would wear a costume. More surprisingly, 31 percent of American adults claimed to believe in ghosts, an increase from 1978, when only 11 percent of American adults admitted to a belief in ghosts.

7. 5 PERCENT OF WORKING MILLENNIALS THRIVE IN ALL FIVE ELEMENTS OF WELL-BEING (2016)

This recent Gallup poll is funny in a sad way, as it sheds light on the tragicomic life of a millennial. In this poll, well-being is defined as having purpose, social support, manageable finances, a strong community, and good physical health. Sadly, only 5 percent of working millennials—defined as people born between 1980 and 1996—were thriving in these five indicators of well-being. To counter this lack of well-being, Gallup’s report recommends that managers promote work-life balance and improve their communication with millennial employees.

8. THE WORLD IS BECOMING SLIGHTLY MORE NEGATIVE (2014)

If you seem to feel more stress, sadness, anxiety, and pain than ever before, Gallup has the proof that it’s not all in your head. According to the company’s worldwide negative experience index, negative feelings such as stress, sadness, and anger have increased since 2007. Unsurprisingly, people living in war-torn, dangerous parts of the word—Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Sierra Leone—reported the highest levels of negative emotions.

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11 Times Mickey Mouse Was Banned
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Despite being one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved characters, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Mickey Mouse, who turns 89 years old today. A number of countries—and even U.S. states—have banned the cartoon rodent at one time or another for reasons both big and small.

1. In 1930, Ohio banned a cartoon called “The Shindig” because Clarabelle Cow was shown reading Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn, the premier romance novelist of the time. Check it out (1:05) and let us know if you’re scandalized:

2. With movies on 10-foot screen being a relatively new thing in Romania in 1935, the government decided to ban Mickey Mouse, concerned that children would be terrified of a monstrous rodent.

3. In 1929, a German censor banned a Mickey Mouse short called “The Barnyard Battle.” The reason? An army of cats wearing pickelhauben, the pointed helmets worn by German military in the 19th and 20th centuries: "The wearing of German military helmets by an army of cats which oppose a militia of mice is offensive to national dignity. Permission to exhibit this production in Germany is refused.”

4. The German dislike for Mickey Mouse continued into the mid-'30s, with one German newspaper wondering why such a small and dirty animal would be idolized by children across the world: "Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed ... Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal.” Mickey was originally banned from Nazi Germany, but eventually the mouse's popularity won out.

5. In 2014, Iran's Organization for Supporting Manufacturers and Consumers announced a ban on school supplies and stationery products featuring “demoralizing images,” including that of Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Sleeping Beauty, and characters from Toy Story.

6. In 1954, East Germany banned Mickey Mouse comics, claiming that Mickey was an “anti-Red rebel.”

7. In 1937, a Mickey Mouse adventure was so similar to real events in Yugoslavia that the comic strip was banned. State police say the comic strip depicted a “Puritan-like revolt” that was a danger to the “Boy King,” Peter II of Yugoslavia, who was just 14 at the time. A journalist who wrote about the ban was consequently escorted out of the country.

8. Though Mussolini banned many cartoons and American influences from Italy in 1938, Mickey Mouse flew under the radar. It’s been said that Mussolini’s children were such Mickey Mouse fans that they were able to convince him to keep the rodent around.

9. Mickey and his friends were banned from the 1988 Seoul Olympics in a roundabout way. As they do with many major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, Disney had contacted American favorites to win in each event to ask them to say the famous “I’m going to Disneyland!” line if they won. When American swimmer Matt Biondi won the 100-meter freestyle, he dutifully complied with the request. After a complaint from the East Germans, the tape was pulled and given to the International Olympic Committee.

10. In 1993, Mickey was banned from a place he shouldn't have been in the first place: Seattle liquor stores. As a wonderful opening sentence from the Associated Press explained, "Mickey Mouse, the Easter Bunny and teddy bears have no business selling booze, the Washington State Liquor Control Board has decided." A handful of stores had painted Mickey and other characters as part of a promotion. A Disney VP said Mickey was "a nondrinker."

11. Let's end with another strike against The Shindig (see #1) and Clarabelle’s bulging udder. Less than a year after the Shindig ban, the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America announced that they had received a massive number of complaints about the engorged cow udders in various Mickey Mouse cartoons.

From then on, according to a 1931 article in Time magazine, “Cows in Mickey Mouse ... pictures in the future will have small or invisible udders quite unlike the gargantuan organ whose antics of late have shocked some and convulsed others. In a recent picture the udder, besides flying violently to left and right or stretching far out behind when the cow was in motion, heaved with its panting with the cow stood still.”

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