Why Harvard opened a Center for Happiness

'People are increasingly discovering that health is tied to a variety of social conditions'

Harvard University is going after happiness.

The institution's School of Public Health invested an initial $21 million to establish a Center for Health and Happiness, which will promote "positive psychological wellbeing" in hopes of improving the community's physical health too, James Hamblin reports for The Atlantic.

The center—which will be housed in the public health school for nowl—will serve as a space for psychologists, anthropologists, epidemiologists, biologists, and physicians to collaborate.

"There's increasing recognition that looking at only one side of the health picture may be limiting our ability to help people attain and maintain health," says Laura Kubzansky, center co-director and professor of social and behavioral health.

The center will look at how to lead lives filled with optimism, meaning, and purpose.

"People are increasingly discovering that health is tied to a variety of social conditions—unemployment, recession, the great revolution in communication," says Kasisomayajula Viswanath, center co-director and professor of health communication. 

How to be happy—according to science

While there are many theories about how to live a happy life, few are evidence-based, making it difficult to make the case for policy changes or community investment, Kubzansky says. It's also difficult to find research funding, as the studies likely won't lead to a profitable drug or medical device.

But the center co-directors say that does not mean their work is inconsequential.  

"Making people aware of how purposefulness and gratitude influence their wellbeing is important," Viswanath says. 

Study: Young people happier than in the past, but 'mature adults' sadder

And these qualities are not evenly distributed across social classes, meaning low-income and less educated people are less likely to feel they have a purpose and be optimistic.  

"It turns out they are not heavily hereditary, but are pretty patterned by social factors. Both are heavily patterned by low educational attainment," Kubzansky says. "Status definitely helps. I think optimism is about being able to achieve goals. Whatever the goal may be, optimistic people have the wherewithal to do it" (Hamblin, The Atlantic, 4/26). 


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