Go On, Get Happy

  • October 3, 2016

When Cal State East Bay Assistant Professor of Psychology Kristin Layous started working as a career employment counselor at CSU Fresno back in 2007, she was struck by how different students faced the challenge of getting ready for post-graduation life.

“I worked there during the economic downturn, and I saw how some students were paralyzed by the recession, while others made the most of it,” she says. “Some of them just couldn’t work on their resume at all, or apply to any job because they had this mindset that they wouldn't get anything … which of course became a self-fulfilling prophecy. But other students were able to compartmentalize that they were facing bad conditions and … wanted to work extra hard, create the best materials possible and apply to as many jobs as possible in order to be successful.”

Rather than take it at face value that some people were simply more optimistic than others, Layous became curious about whether there were specific behaviors that could help power resiliency and, ultimately, happiness. It was then that she decided to return to her initial field of interest, psychology, instead of continuing to work on the administrative side of higher education. In 2009, armed with a BS in psychology from UC Santa Barbara and a master’s in higher education administration from Ohio State University, Layous applied to UC Riverside’s Department of Psychology, where she was admitted and completed successive master’s and doctoral degrees.

There, under the direction of groundbreaking researcher and positive psychology expert Sonja Lyubomirsky (her studies appear everywhere from best-selling books to the local news to CNN and “The Today Show”), Layous began working in the professor’s Sustainable Happiness Laboratory and coauthoring numerous papers for publication — research aimed not just at understanding happiness, but generating and sustaining more of it.

“Research has already uncovered basic characteristics of happy people: they’re more optimistic, grateful and social,” she says. “What I’m researching is how it all works — what’s driving the effect?”

It’s a multi-billion-dollar question.

According to a 2015 study published in Scientific American, depression costs America $215 billion per year — and only 40 percent of this figure is associated with actual depression. The other 60 percent goes toward related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, migraines and anxiety.

“It’s theoretical at this point, but the idea with finding ways to build or practice happiness is that you’re creating resilience — not just ‘Oh, I’m getting happier and happier and happier.’ It’s that you’re building a pool of resources that will make it less likely that you’ll become depressed or experience anxiety at a clinical level if something bad happens in the future,” Layous says. “Hopefully, there’s a preventative angle in this.”

It’s no wonder then that the price tag on depression for employers — a hefty $23 billion per a 2013 Gallup poll — has corporations paying attention to the science of emotion, too. Google, Uber and Zappos are among those that have hired chief happiness officers (CHOs) and now offer positive psychology training (think mindfulness mediation) to employees.

But it’s work like Layous’ that can identify which practices have scientific backing. Today, at Cal State East Bay, she is pursuing a series of studies to examine the effect of specific secondary emotions on happiness — and she’s starting with gratitude.

“There is some theory and empirical evidence that suggest that gratitude makes you feel more connected to others and more satisfied with your relationships,” Layous says, “which breeds more relationship-promoting behaviors that feed back into the positive loop.”

One study she recently completed explored the connection between depression and rumination — that is, the state of being stuck in negative thoughts. The goal was to see whether injecting gratitude into the mix could help. The answer seems to be a resounding yes. Layous’ research assistant, Alix Najera (BS ’16, Psychology), explains, “Where distraction helps in dampening the impact of rumination, adding gratitude helped out to a degree we hadn’t expected.”

There are critics, however, who say attempts to study and codify happiness simply create another means for unhappy people to feel worse about not measuring up.

“The important part is, people can’t just take their own pulse repeatedly,” Layous responds. “A lot of the so-called happiness practices are oriented away from the self because too much self-questioning and asking ‘Am I happy? Am I happy? Am I happy?’ can turn back into rumination. It’s kind of counterintuitive because we’re saying you can be happier if you do certain things, but they’re all about doing for others.”

“I’m not a zealot insisting everyone be happy. I’m interested in the science of it. I just want to know what works.”

It’s the focus of another study she’s finishing, which randomly asked participants to make someone else happy, make themselves happy, or simply track their daily activities. Interestingly, the study showed that those who focused on others reported more positive feelings than both those who tracked their daily activities and those who focused on themselves.

But it all raises the question, what exactly can we do to be happier?

Layous recommends writing three “good things” in a gratitude journal every night. “Even gratitude that just focuses in on something like having a good night's rest serves to help the person actively recognize and appreciate the good things in life,” she explains. Hersecond tip is to write a “gratitude letter” — a letter to someone in your life about why you are thankful for them. Finally, perform a few acts of kindness each week for someone else to lift your spirits.

Although recommendations like the above cause some to question the difference between life coaching and hard science in the pursuit of happiness, Layous is ready with a firm response: “Happiness researchers don’t say, ‘Go be happier,’ but rather [they] quantify concrete actions that can lead to happier outcomes. I’m not a zealot insisting everyone be happy,” she says. “I’m interested in the science of it. I just want to know what works.

“Oftentimes negative situations and emotions grab our attention first,” Layous adds. “It’s evolutionarily adaptive for them to do that because if something is harming us, we need to address it.” Thus, “it serves us well to retrain our minds — especially those of us prone to negativity — to look for positive events and to amplify their effect on our moods by actively appreciating them.” 

Teaching in a community as diverse as Cal State East Bay also underpins one of the professor’s future goals. “Most happiness research has been done on people who have had their basic needs met; I think we can do a better job understanding how happiness works with people beyond that demographic, and understanding the nuances of ethnography,” she says.

And she hopes, by including students in her studies — both as participants and researchers — Layous will be creating a ripple effect around campus. As Najera explains, just questioning how people can become happier made a personal impact. “I became more self-aware of gratitude as a positive emotion,” she says. “In psychology, there’s lots of research on negative disorders; I find it fascinating to think about how to extend happiness for people.”