The Science of Happiness, and What You Can Learn From Unhappy People

POPSUGAR Photography | Maria del Rio
POPSUGAR Photography | Maria del Rio

If you've ever heard of "positive psychology," then you already know the technical term for what is often called the "science of happiness."

Positive psychology focuses on the opposite of what psychology has historically concerned itself with — our negative thoughts and behaviors. Scientists are researching the many various and complex factors that comprise happiness.

But this negative focus in conventional psychology also gives us great insight into what makes a person live a happy life. By better understanding what makes people unhappy, we discover what thoughts and behaviors to avoid to create happiness in our lives.

Unhappy people tend to build up negative thoughts — and dwell on them. That negativity might manifest itself in various ways:

  • Constantly complaining
  • Gossiping about others
  • Being highly critical and judgmental
  • Worrying all the time — including about what others think of them
  • Constantly feeling regret
  • Overreacting to difficult situations

Research in positive psychology suggests that training ourselves by creating new and positive habits is a way to rewire the brain. Just like an amateur violinist or swimmer must practice very frequently to refine her skills and eventually achieve a professional level, a person must practice actions and thoughts that lead to a more consistently positive mindset and attitude in life. This is what you'd usually call a happy person.

So now that you know the habits of unhappy people, it's time to refine your happiness skills by practicing the kinds of thoughts and behaviors that generate a positive mindset.

One way to avoid piling on the negative energy is to find a way to release those negative thoughts. You can keep a journal and write it out, you can get crafty and creative and make some art, you can go for a swim or a walk and sweat it out, or you can go and hang out with one of your most positive friends. Whatever you do, remember it's fine to have negative thoughts, as long as you let them go — the sooner, the better.

Focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses is another important step toward "happy person" mode. And that applies to the people around you, as well as yourself. Make a list of all the positive things about yourself, your life, the people you know. Tape it to your mirror and read it every day.

Not only will nonstop worrying keep you unhappy, but it will definitely take its toll on your health and your memory, and can even adversely affect your closest relationships. To help fight off anxious thoughts and feelings of regret, especially about things in life that you simply cannot control, instill some peace and quiet into your mind. How? Meditation and yoga are simple but powerful methods of calming your noisy mind. Start with five minutes of meditation a day, and slowly increase the duration at your own pace. Take a yoga class with a friend so you can keep each other accountable for sticking to the schedule. Being in a more tranquil state of mind will also help you react to complex and stressful situations in a more effective and organized manner.

Vanessa Van Edwards is a behavioral investigator and published author. She figures out the science of what makes people tick at her human behavior research lab, the Science of People. As a geeky, modern-day Dale Carnegie, her innovative work has been featured on NPR, Business Week, and CNN and her latest CreativeLive class, The Power of Happiness, teaches you how to be a happier person every day.