Are Health And Happiness Connected? That's What A New Harvard Center Aims To Find Out

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A recent U.N. report ranked the United States as the 13th happiest country in the world. (J E Theriot/Flickr)
A recent U.N. report ranked the United States as the 13th happiest country in the world. (J E Theriot/Flickr)

If you're happy and you know it, are you actually a healthier person?

That's what a new center at the Harvard School of Public Health wants to find out.

The Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness will examine how positive aspects of everyday life -- such as an enjoyable job, free time and a good mood -- can affect mental and physical health.

K. “Vish” Viswanath, one of the center's co-directors, joined WBUR's Morning Edition from Hong Kong.

Interview Highlights

How will the center be able to scientifically identify happiness and study it?

"In many ways, happiness is indeed subjective. But the goal of the center goes beyond one single definition of happiness to really understand the variety of factors that contribute to dimensions of happiness. Is it a personal state of mind? Is it a sense of purposefulness in life? Is it a sense of gratitude for what one has? I think it is this variety of dimensions that are measurable and that are of particular interest."

Why is it important for us to know this? 

"The critical reason is that if we know the different dimensions and factors [that] contribute to this sense of psychological well-being then we should be able to intervene. We do have some evidence that happiness are this sense of psychological well-being is related to health. If we understand what are the different dimensions that contribute to this well-being, then one might be able to double up both public health programs and policies that could contribute to this well-being."

A recent U.N. report ranked the U.S. as 13th happiest country with Denmark ranked first. What does that difference mean?

"There are a number of factors at play that scientists have identified as contributing to your sense of happiness. For example, among those issues are homogeneity of the population, income disparity, crime and violence, levels of corruption, family cohesion and family stress. We as a country are emerging from a rather traumatic economic disruption over the last few years and income disparity is growing and it is quite conceivable that these factors had a significant role in the way we feel this sense of psychological well-being."

Do you imagine that in the long run, with the research from this center, we could figure out a way to make us all more happy?

"... We could certainly figure out what are the set of factors that could potentially lead to the sense of well-being and ultimately contribute to health and how these different factors weigh in each given situation and context. And programs and policies can accordingly be tailored, or customized, to those situations."

This article was originally published on April 22, 2016.

This segment aired on April 22, 2016.

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Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



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