You might think that figuring out what makes most people happy isn’t exactly rocket science, but sometimes the results of this type of study are surprising. Researchers at Washington State University (WSU) recently published results from a study that explored whether “acting happy” by engaging in outgoing behaviors would actually lead to a greater sense of happiness. Intuitively it might seem like allowing people to behave in ways that are most closely aligned with their true nature or innate personality would make people happiest. However, when it comes to certain outgoing behaviors, it seems that isn’t always the case. The WSU study found that when people engaged in behaviors such as smiling at a stranger or calling an old friend—behaviors that would come easily to someone who is naturally outgoing but might be more awkward or uncomfortable for someone who has a tendency to be shy—regardless of their basic personality type (outgoing versus shy or introverted), they reported feeling happier. In fact, these results were tested in several countries and cultures and the results held up: if people engaged in more outgoing behavior, they reported greater feelings of happiness, regardless of where they lived, or their personality type. Personality types were measured in this study using the “Big Five” personality traits, a common psychological measure of five aspects of personality. Those traits are:
- Openness, or willingness to try new experiences. Curiosity is an important part of openness.
- Agreeableness, or being willing to trust others. Agreeableness is basic friendliness, and trust (versus suspicion) is the foundation of friendliness.
- Extraversion means seeking other people for interpersonal interaction. Someone who actively does things to interact with others—talking, emailing, etc., is more extroverted than someone who chooses to be more alone and quiet.
- Neuroticism is the group of traits that can best be summed up as being nervous or insecure. Some people are just more prone to negative emotions such as worry, fear, anger or sadness. These people would rate highly on a neuroticism scale.
- Conscientiousness or efficiency is the trait your boss wishes every worker in the company possessed. People with a high degree of conscientiousness are punctual, hard working, focused, organized and reliable.
However, another aspect of the study indicated that in addition to the outgoing behaviors such as smiling or reaching out to friends, the feeling of having a choice in whether to engage in these behaviors also increased happiness. When study subjects felt pressured or constrained to behave in a particular way, the reports of happiness decreased.
If You’re Not So Happy, Try Smiling
Although it may sound overly simple, the take-home message from a study like this is that stepping out of your comfort zone and trying certain specific behaviors might actually lift your spirits and increase your sense of well-being. Many studies indicate the positive health benefits of being happy: happy people seem to not only live “better,” they also live longer. Positive moods are associated with better physical health in general; happier moods seem to correlate with improved immune system functioning and improved response to stress. For people struggling with addiction and recovery, this is all the more relevant. Early recovery can be an emotional roller coaster, with intense feelings, physical discomfort and cravings wreaking havoc on your ability to be positive. In addition to working your recovery program, the idea that “acting as if” for a while (the Alcoholics Anonymous slogan “fake it till you make it” comes to mind) may help to lift your spirits, help you feel happier and help you stay healthier in every way is a powerfully positive one. Try reaching out to others a little bit more than you used to and see what happens. You may find that true happiness isn’t so hard to find after all.