The Pursuit of Happiness

Well-being and the science of smiles

Eric Van Meter

Whatever became of that quintessential American ideal — the one that stirred a nascent union to declare its independence in 1776? Namely, the pursuit of Happiness, capital H.

If a concern for happiness was a part of our earliest ideals, how did our focus on market shifts and labor and output so totally eclipse it? For UA researcher Dr. Esther Sternberg, the answer comes with a look in the mirror. Today, her research blazes new inroads to the science of well-being, but as a section chief and senior scientist at the National Institutes of Health in the mid-90s, she was the type-A poster child for a health crisis waiting to happen. And sadly, it did. 

“I was just going through my hectic days,” she says, “working very long hours and focusing on the very narrow world in front of me: the lab, the computer screen.” Under the stress of her job, a book in progress, moving and caring for her terminally ill mom, inflammatory arthritis flared to life in her joints. 

Sternberg wasn’t surprised. She knew from her own research that stress could make us sick. The links were proven and accepted. What she didn’t accept was that de-stressing could make us well. In fact, her book was meant, in part, to debunk that fairy tale. Fortunately for us, an electrical mishap put her writing on hold, stranding Sternberg sans computer in Greece — still weak and in pain — where something remarkable happened: She got better.

How Places Can Heal

“It wasn’t like a miracle,” Sternberg says, but what is it if not miraculous when sitting quietly in a special place has the power to send disease packing? For Sternberg, that place was a tiny chapel on a hill. The building was pedestrian, but it stood on the ruins of an Asclepion, one of many healing sanctuaries the ancient Greeks built in places of heart-swelling natural beauty.

“I would sit there and look out over the ocean and look at the bougainvillea and white stucco cottages and listen to the goats and the sheep and smell these wonderful fragrances of sage and 
eucalyptus and the ocean,” Sternberg recalls. “It was incredibly calming, and I felt better in a very short period of time.”

Looking back through a lens of new findings, Sternberg sees now that what she did in all those empty hours was meditate. Breathe. And that in harmony with exercise, healthy food, and the company of friends, the place was working on her. She knows now that our brains dig nature. We’re hardwired to relax in open air among trees and plants. The sounds of birds and water calm us, and calming reduces inflammation. Calming heals. The links are proven and accepted, in part thanks to Sternberg’s summer without a laptop in Greece.

Flipping the Switch on Stress

Understanding how that healing happens takes a tiny primer on stress. When you worry or dwell on dark thoughts, your brain sets in motion a cascade of hormones that ultimately pumps cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine into your body. None of those chemicals are bad, but we’re not built to entertain them around the clock. Over time, they break down muscle, mess with insulin and organ functions, suppress the immune system, and kindle a host of chronic illnesses, from heart disease to diabetes.

Reducing turmoil keeps cortisol and friends in check. It’s like taking your foot off the gas pedal of the body’s stress response, Sternberg says. But we can do more. We can apply the brake, and it’s beautifully simple to engage: Breathe deeply, past the shoulders and chest into your belly, with long inhales and longer exhales. The motion stimulates the vagus nerve, which brings your heart along for the ride, slowing your pulse with each exhalation. It shuts down the stress juice and primes your brain for good thoughts.

Overcoming Our Ancient Antagonists

While environments can passively help our bodies heal, we can also actively promote well-being by how we engage the world, says UA researcher Dr. Charles Raison. All it takes is overcoming four million years of natural selection. To catch his meaning, picture our earliest ancestors wandering amid predatory raptors, deadly toxins, and bacteria — no Z-Paks, no guns or mace. Danger lurked at every turn, so who survives to reproduce in that scenario? 

The answer, Raison suggests, is the hominids who a) reflexively sorted everything around them into good, bad, or unimportant, and b) were hypersensitive to danger. Survival depended on not once mistaking a prehistoric bear as cuddly, even for a second.

These traits are our ancestors’ gifts to us — more hardwiring — but their legacy has become our liability.

“We’ve got these old internal systems activating the way they always did and causing these hostile, paranoid, guarded, anxious emotions,” Raison says. “But if we can train ourselves to see the world as less an arena of threat and more a domain of opportunity, then we’re not constantly activating our stress systems because our brains aren’t perceiving constant danger.” 

The Compassionate Path to Well-being

The training Raison refers to is nuanced, spaced out over months of practice. It comes down to short-circuiting those primal systems we’ve inherited, starting with not instinctively sorting people into friends, enemies, and nobodies but realizing we all share a common goal.  

“The one thing that we see in every organism, even insects, is that they move toward what they think will help them,” Raison says. “That’s the basis of equanimity — recognizing that even people you have conflict with share that drive and have an equal right to pursue happiness.” We may never perfect it, but with practice, when your inner voice says, “That SOB just cut me off!” a second might chime in: “He wants to get home, just like you, and anyway, we’re fine.”

That kind of thinking opens the way to compassion, Raison suggests: a heartfelt desire to relieve suffering not just in people we love, but in people we don’t like or even know. And there lies the twist of modern life: While our primal mind loops “self-preservation, self-preservation, self-preservation,” people with greater compassion are happier, Raison says: “They’re not as depressed, they don’t get as sick, and they live a lot longer.”

Giving Happiness Its Due

In the early 1930s, dust storms ravaged the Heartland, unemployment clawed its way to 25 percent, and President Franklin Roosevelt asked for a cold, clear way to size up our country’s finances. 

In the wake of the Great Depression, economist Simon Kuznets forged the calculations, and, at a New Hampshire hotel in 1944, the Allied nations embraced Gross Domestic Product as the yardstick by which the world would measure its nations.

In 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy noted GDP measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.” In 1971, the tiny nation of Bhutan rejected GDP in favor of Gross National Happiness, and in the past five years, Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron, and Ben Bernanke have each called for measures of well-being to supplement if not supplant GDP as the barometer of national success. 

Last year a federally funded U.S. panel reported on a yearlong investigation into the feasibility of those measures, exploring if and how we might better quantify American prosperity. Their findings, in a nutshell: It’s complicated. However, the near future will see wellness design standards joining criteria for LEED-certified construction. Organizations from the Veterans Administration to the Vatican are looking at ways to bring mind-body healing to their services. 

And with Sternberg, Raison, and their peers shedding new light on our oldest and most fundamental pursuit, hope for change is in the air.

The Ins & Outs of Happiness

Get Back to Nature
Being outdoors helps us feel less stressed. Can’t get out? Bring the outdoors in with photos, plants, and colors that recall favorite vistas.

Recognize Unity
Remind yourself that even when people seem out to get you, they’re simply following the self-interest drive we all share. 

Spruce Things Up
Biological measures show bad lighting, unpleasant smells, and drab spaces elevate stress in ways most of us never recognize.

Tone It Down
We’re great at over-emoting. We love the Packers and hate when people don’t use their turn signals. Dial down the emotion you assign to everyday things.

Let Your Belly Out
When you breathe so deeply your belly expands as you inhale, your vagus nerve puts the kibosh on your body’s stress response.

Lend a Hand
Research shows people who are more compassionate, giving, and connected to the world around them live longer, happier lives.

Find Your Yin
Yoga, tai chi, and meditation all reduce stress and promote happiness. Not your thing? You’ll get the same quiet mind at the end of a great workout.

Dr. Esther Sternberg 

Esther Sternberg is director of research and a professor of medicine at the UA’s Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, founding director of the UA Institute on Place & Well-being and a leader in the science of mind-body interaction. Her inquiries have made her one of the most sought after experts on stress and healing and a guide to leaders and organizations around the world, including the Dalai Lama, Pope Benedict XVI, the World Health Organization, the American Institute of Architects, and the U.S. General Services Administration.

Dr. Charles Raison

Charles Raison, UA associate professor of psychiatry with a joint appointment at the Norton School of Family & Consumer Science, is a leading researcher in the relationships between stress, illness, and mental health. A past chair of the U.S. Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress and a continuing student and friend of the Dalai Lama, Raison co-directs the Institute for Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, promoting and advancing a secular training shown to improve emotional and physical responses to stress.