Psychiatrist Charles Raison says he has it easy.

“One of the fun things about studying depression and happiness and what it means to lead a fulfilling, satisfied human life is that everybody’s interested in it,” he said.

As a University of Arizona researcher, Raison has spent years trying to understand what happiness is, and how we can all enjoy a little more of it.

Listen to the radio version:

Download as MP3

He and his colleagues are learning that the answers aren’t so simple. Even defining happiness can be tricky, he said.

“It doesn’t appear to be a unitary concept—it’s not just one thing,” Raison said. “It has dimensions.”

One dimension is called “hedonic happiness”—the pleasure that comes from winning a prize or enjoying a meal. But researchers have found there is another dimension or kind of happiness, called “eudaimonic happiness,” that stems from a sense of purpose or meaning in life.

These two types of happiness often go hand in hand, but “they’re not the same thing,” Raison explained.

Researchers like Raison have discovered many factors that contribute to either kind of happiness.

One of them is genetic—some people are predisposed to feel more happiness than others. Your health, environment—even the kind of bacteria living in your gut—all play a role in your individual mental health and well being.

But studies also show that certain things can make everyone happier—such as a sense of community.

“People are happiest when they’re connected in positive ways with other people, when they feel like they’re part of a group,” Raison said.

Being connected is critical, he said. But does the quality of the connection matter?

Raison’s collaborator, UA psychology researcher Matthias Mehl, is working to answer this question—by eavesdropping.

He has developed a device—called the electronically activated recorder, or EAR—to document the kinds of social interactions people have and how much happiness they feel.

“You can see how much time (people) spend talking to other people versus being alone, how much time...they spend talking to their partners, their friends and family or with strangers,” Mehl explained. “So you can get a fine-grained acoustic picture, for lack of a better word, of what participants do on a daily basis.”

Mehl and his team have found that it’s not just the quantity of social interactions, but their quality that can help create happiness.

“We found very strong effects that happy people had substantially fewer small talk interactions, and substantially more substantive interactions,” Mehl said. “In fact, the effect was so large that the happiest person in our sample had about twice the amount of substantive conversations compared to the unhappiest participant in the sample.”

Mehl and the rest of Raison’s team are working on interventions for that “unhappiest participant”—interventions that can restore happiness, particularly in patients who suffer from depression.

They’ve found another, rather surprising factor that affects mood: temperature. Raison’s team has recently revealed a powerful connection between the body’s ability to regulate temperature and its ability to regulate mood.

In depression sufferers, thermo-regulation seems to go awry, leaving them with an elevated body temperature.

Raison and his colleagues are now using a hyperthermia chamber—a kind of box that heats the body, which causes internal body temperature to drop—to improve mood in patients struggling with major depression. The hotter the box gets, the lower the patient’s body temperature afterwards—and the greater the antidepressant effect.

“The fact that warmth has these properties may explain why so many indigenous cultures around the world either adopted or developed things like sweat lodges,” Raison said. “In so many cultures, heat is a very key part of spiritual activities, healing activities, and our theory is that it’s because heat activates these pathways and part of what these pathways do is undepress people.”

Some UA researchers are going even further afield to fuel happiness.

Consciousness researcher Stuart Hameroff, an anesthesiologist at the UA Medical Center, thinks good vibrations could do the trick.

A few years ago, Hameroff read a study suggesting ultrasound waves—which are mechanical vibrations used to create images of the body—could affect mood.

After first testing the technique on himself, he and his colleagues tested a cohort of chronic pain patients, who often suffer from depression. They found that applying ultrasound waves to the brain measurably helped the patients feel better.

The interventions that Mehl, Raison, Hameroff and others are pioneering may lead to new treatments for depression, which affects an estimated 350 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

But Raison said cutting-edge technology isn’t required. Anyone can cultivate happiness.

“The things that make people happy are health, hope and positive relationships,” Raison said. “It’s very, very hard to be unhappy if you really are deeply connected with the welfare of other people, if you really are connected to something that’s going to live beyond your own small existence. That seems to be the great capstone of happiness.”