Happiness and Stress Management Research

Happiness By Numbers

Research shows that there's a lot you can do to flourish in life. Astronaut Images/ Getty Images

There is a lot of overlap between psychology and stress management because, in addition to minimizing unnecessary sources of stress in our lives when possible, managing stress involves altering how we think and feel about the stressors in our lives. One branch of psychology that has really contributed greatly to stress management in recent years is positive psychology, a field of research-based practices that focus on increasing positive attitudes, resilience, and our ability to “flourish” in life, rather than to merely survive negative experiences with minimal damage.

There are many things you learn from positive psychology that you can use for stress management, things you can actively put into practice immediately and change your whole experience of stress. (Here are some of my favorite practices that you can try now, which can increase your resilience toward stress and put a smile on your face pretty quickly as well.)

One thing I really appreciate about this field is that researchers studying positive psychology have been able to quantify—to put numbers on—phenomena that most people have either been curious about or intuitively experienced and wondered if there was anything behind their experiences. For example, how many people are really doing well emotionally—not just surviving, but thriving in many senses of the word? How much of our happiness is “set” by our inborn personality, how much is due to our experiences, and how much can we control by our thoughts and actions?

And how many positive experiences do we need in our lives to counteract negative ones? At what point, if ever, do happy experiences make us happy people? Here are some answers, backed by research, to these questions.

1 in 5: The Number of Adults Who Are “Flourishing”

We may have estimates of how many people experience specific psychological conditions or challenges, but it is interesting to know the proportion of people who are truly doing well, who are considering to be flourishing.

(This number, based on epidemiological studies, is estimated at just under 20%, or 1 in 5.) To be clear, for the purposes of the researchers who arrived at this number, to flourish means to live within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience. It contrasts with “languishing,” which is associated with greater psychological stress, among other things.

What does this mean for you and your stress levels? For one thing, if you find that you have a need for stress relief in your life, you’re definitely in the majority! There are many things you can do to contribute to greater flourishing in your life (even if you are one of those fortunate almost-one in five), and if you find that you’re not quite where you want to be in this area, there are many others who are in the same boat. So if you seem to be in worse shape than all of your friends sharing their happy photos and “wins” via social media, you may just be comparing their best experiences to your worst.

And if you want to be inspired to make positive changes in your life, knowing that as many as one in five are flourishing means that the goal is not unrealistic, either.

40%: How Much We Can Change Our Happiness Levels

There has long been speculation about how much of a difference we can make in our own happiness levels, and research has finally given us a clearer picture on this. It is true that we have certain inborn traits that cause us to be more likely to react in certain ways to certain situations, and that the lifestyles we are born into do make a difference in the experiences we are able to have. But it is also true that our habitual thought patterns affect our feelings and behaviors. These actions affect our lives, and our thoughts, feelings, and habits can all contribute to our happiness levels.

Now, thanks to the work of researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, it is believed that our inborn personality traits are responsible for fully half of our experience of happiness over our lifetime, and the range of possible happiness we may experience. 10% is due to the circumstances we face in life, over which we have no control. But that leaves 40% for us to play with! Knowing that you can be 40% happier if you choose, you should feel empowered. That’s a lot of happiness that’s under your control, just by altering the way you look at things, the habits you carry in your life, and the way you interact with others.

3 to 1: The Positivity Ratio

Researcher Barbara Fredrickson worked with mathematician M. Losada to arrive at this ratio: 3 to 1.  Most of us, apparently, experience roughly two positive experiences, thoughts, or emotions for every one negative such experience, and our happiness levels remain somewhat constant. However, if we are able to consistently reach three positives for every one negative, this seems to be a tipping point that leads to greater overall happiness, resilience, and emotional wellbeing. This is great news, considering that there are many things we can do to experience more positivity, including minimizing unnecessary negativity and adding more positive feelings and experiences to our lives.

Here are some ways to increase your positivity ratio, make the most of your 40%, and become one of those uncommon people who are flourishing in every way.

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