Don’t worry, you can be happy, research says

Happy face

Are you happy? Do you think about being happy? Meliksah Demir does.

The assistant professor of psychology at Northern Arizona University is researching ways to predict and provoke happiness.

“If we can figure out why certain people are happy and find ways to improve their happiness,” he says, “we will see higher positive outcomes of health, well being, social relationships and productivity.”

Demir, who serves on the board for the Journal of Happiness Studies, admits happiness is a subjective feeling, but says established, empirical-based research methods exist for testing happiness. After using surveys to determine a person’s happiness baseline, he tests various techniques for nudging the person up the “happiness scale.”

“Individuals might have a happiness set point, but it is possible to observe positive change,” Demir notes.

Demir is leading two research projects that take a look at what makes people happy around the world, including in the United States.

He is setting out to prove that one thing people around the world have in common is the need for close relationships. “Friends and other close relationships create a condition for happiness because they make you feel like you matter,” he says.

Other conditions matter, too. He says genetic components, such as personality and temperament, influence about 50 percent of happiness, with 40 percent of well being coming from intentional activities such as careers and close relationships. The other 10 percent of well being is derived from circumstances such as age, income and where you live.

“Psychology is known for focusing on the negative aspects of life, which is necessary for providing help for a number of disorders,” Demir says. “But it also is important to offer people ways to experience personal growth and sustain happiness.”

To increase a person’s joy, Demir has found success in having participants perform daily random acts of kindness for two weeks. They also set and complete simple goals.

“Every person who participated in this study got happier. Reaching goals, kindness and volunteer work enhance one’s well being,” says Demir, who also has researched how friends affect adolescents and how bonds of friendships form over the years. His research findings about the significance of close relationships found their way into the pages of the February 2008 issue of O, Oprah Winfrey’s magazine.

Demir earned his bachelor’s degree at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, and his master’s and doctorate in psychology from Wayne State University in Detroit. He came to NAU in 2006 to teach undergraduate and graduate courses in developmental psychology and introductory psychology.

Raised in Turkey near the Mediterranean Sea, Demir finds joy in being a soccer fan, spending time with loved ones, playing a good game of poker and volunteering with the Meals on Wheels Association of America.