UVA Study: Can People Learn to Be Happier?

Aug 4, 2016

Psychologists at the University of Virginia plan a clinical trial this fall to find-out if it’s possible to improve people’s happiness.  Is it possible to teach new ways of thinking and acting?  

Post Doc Samantha Heintzelman has studied the literature.  She says people can learn to be happy – but maybe not for long.

“Research is showing that we can enhance people’s happiness," she explains, "but they’re really these one shot activities where people are doing these things very briefly -- writing a gratitude letter to people, doing acts of kindness, writing about your goals, using your strengths in different ways.” 

Now, Heintzelman and her colleagues at the University of Virginia have come up with a 10-week program to make happiness a habit.  She hopes to enroll more than a hundred volunteers.

“Study subjects will be given activities which they can implement these things into their daily lives,"  Heintzelman says. "They’ll be doing some writing and making plans and goals for moving forward.” 

Heintzelman adds that genetics play a role in promoting happiness.

“Some of us are just born a bit more cheerful than others, but that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to just stay where we are.  A sort of equal portion of happiness is also based on our daily activities.” 

To promote long-term well-being, she says, it might be necessary to make certain ways of thinking and behaving automatic.

“Savoring the little things in life.  A lot of times we think it’s these really big events like getting married or getting a promotion that make us happy, but our program really focuses on these small aspects of daily life," Heintzelman says.

She and her colleagues will be testing their new program designed to enhance people’s well-being.  In September, participants will have an in-person evaluation, then take a series of classes online. For details, e-mail Enhance Happiness@gmail.com.