Happiness: it's in the blood

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We've all got that sad-sack friend or grumpy uncle. You know the guy. If he won the lottery, he'd complain about the taxes. It almost seems like he's constitutionally incapable of finding any lasting happiness.

Psychologist Fred Luskin says that's absolutely right. "Happiness," says Luskin, a professor at Stanford, "is about 50 percent genetic. And some people are just born on the lower end of the happiness scale."

Still, that leaves the other 50 percent. The way Luskin sees it, how one approaches the 50 percent they can control, allows them to maximize the 50 percent they can't.

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"Let's say you're a 4.2 on a happiness scale of 1-10," says Luskin, "if you live your life to get the most out of your genetic potential, maybe you could actually be a 6."

Luskin teaches a variety of classes on happiness at Stanford. He's part of a movement that looked at psychology in the mid-1990's and saw science based on what's wrong with people: misery, anger, frustration, and depression. This school isn't interested in what's gone wrong as much as how much better people function when they try to make things go right.

"When human beings act from kinder, gracious, less self-centered places within themselves, they are happier," he says. "They function better."

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At the core of Luskin's work is a distinction. "Happiness," he says, "is produced by wanting what you have. Stress is caused by wanting what you don't have." People who love their spouse, like their home, and are content with their job aren't just "full" in some squishy pop-psychology sense, according to Luskin, they have a biological advantage in the search for happiness.

"Their blood is different," says Luskin. "They don't release stress chemicals. They are not walking around gearing up for next fight."

When we're stressed, our body produces the fight or flight chemicals -- adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine. They jolt the body, preparing it to react to danger and threats.

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"When you wake up in the morning and what you've got in your head is 'my life is not good enough - my car is too old, my kids are a pain in the neck, I hate my job,' you produce stress chemicals," explains Luskin. "Your body is saying 'uh-oh there's a problem, I better get ready to fight.' In our high stress world, we don't realize the cumulative effect. It makes us think we're a lot more miserable than we actually are."

Which brings us to Dr. Luskin's prescription - ""Most people don't have nearly the level of agita their bodies tell them they do. If you say, my life may not be perfect, but I'm going to focus a little more on what's good, then you stop the release of the stress chemicals."

So Luskin suggests that if, for instance, you are ready to explode in frustration at work, head over to the office window and look outside for a minute at a beautiful tree or listen to the warble of a bird's song. Are you snickering at the suggestion that communing with nature for 90 seconds is going to keep you from images of throttling your boss? All right - pick your own happy image. I might think of my grandmother's apple pie, or the first time my dad took me to Yankee Stadium or maybe the concentration on my daughter's face when she blew out the candles at her 5th birthday party. I'm sure you can come up with your own.

This is our parasympathetic nervous system at work. There's a lot of science here. But the basics are that adrenaline alters some of the blood flow away from the part of the brain where we think (the pre-frontal cortex) and directs it toward the part where we feel. (the limbic center). That's not a good thing for people under stress because that's where negative memories are stored. And the immediate stressful thoughts start snowballing, as they trigger memories of other, similar stressful experiences. That's the science behind losing perspective.

Thinking of something calming and good (Dr. Luskin's tree) produces neurochemicals which actually force blood to rush back to the pre-frontal cortex. We literally become more reasonable people, able to realize we are actually safer than we thought five minutes before when the adrenaline started flushing blood to the limbic system. Thinking good thoughts, according to Luskin, releases those chemicals.

So to alter my mindset, and make myself happier when I'm stressed, I'll think of my Nana Helen's apple pie. What will you think about?

Jim Axelrod is a CBS News National Correspondent. His book "In The Long Run" will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in May.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.

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