Harvard Has a New Center for Happiness

There's more to health than the absence of disease.

Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

As two enormous, golden doors part, sunlight pours into an atrium filled with babies and puppies. Everyone is smiling. The air smells of freshly mown mint. Ripe avocados rain from the sky. (Somehow, they always miss the babies.) This is Harvard University’s new Center for Health and Happiness.

At least, this is how I imagine it could grow to look. At a launch ceremony on Friday, the Harvard School of Public Health announced a $21 million initial investment in the happiness center. Its goal is to promote the role of what’s broadly referred to as “positive psychological wellbeing” in bodily health.

“We don't have a building at present,” clarified Laura Kubzansky, the center’s co-director and a professor of social and behavioral health at Harvard. At the moment, the happiness center will occupy part of the School of Public Health in Boston. Like happiness itself, it will at first be an ethereal entity produced by collaboration between people—in this case psychologists, biologists, anthropologists, physicians, and epidemiologists (studying distribution and determinants of disease) from across the university.

“One of the wonderful things about studying health,” said Kubzansky, “is there's no single discipline that’s going to answer the big questions.”

Such is the grand ethos that has led one of the world’s eminent schools of public health to turn its attention to, of all things, happiness. The center will focus on how to cultivate lives that are not simply free of disease, but are imbued with purpose, meaning, and optimism. Do that, the logic holds, and physical health should follow. As Kubzansky put it, treating disease has proven an insufficient approach. “There’s increasing recognition that looking at only one side of the health picture may be limiting our ability to help people attain and maintain health.”

“People are increasingly discovering that health is tied to a variety of social conditions—unemployment, recession, the great revolution in communication,” added Kasisomayajula Viswanath, a professor of health communication at Harvard and co-director of the happiness center. The question is, how much can a person do to cultivate positive psychological states on one’s own, and how much is beyond control?

“There’s a lot of folk wisdom around this stuff,” acknowledged Kubzansky. “So people will often dismiss it. Oh, don’t worry, be happy. Everyone’s just got to be happy. Which is fine, until you’re trying to make the case that these are factors we should systematically address either with policy, education, or community investment. Then it’s important to have an evidence base to suggest valid causal factors.”

In recent years, psychologists have repeatedly found that people who have elevated senses of purpose in life do tend to live longer and experience less physical infirmity. Optimism and vitality also seem to be protective of physical health, adds Kubzansky.

These traits resonate with a trend called primordial prevention. As opposed to primary prevention (trying to intervene in a high-risk population before people actually develop a disease) or secondary prevention (trying to prevent complications and progression of disease among people who are already sick), primordial prevention looks at the risks of risks. That is, trying to prevent people from developing the risk factors in the first place. To do that, we need to know what allows people to attain and maintain health over the long term. This is where a person’s state of mind seems to factor most heavily.

“We are seeing risk factors come into play much earlier in the life course than we traditionally thought—surprisingly early,” said Kubzansky. ( Life course being the epidemiological term for life). Indeed, people who are today diagnosed in their 50s and 60s with high blood pressure are likely seeing the result of processes that began much earlier. “There’s already evidence that cardiovascular health is declining by the time people are in their late twenties, which is depressing,” she added. “Once those factors are set, they can be very hard to mitigate.”

The social distribution of optimism and purpose is also a vexing area for Kubzansky and Viswanath. “The question is, of course, who gets to have those?” she posits. “It turns out they are not heavily hereditary, but are pretty patterned by social factors. Both are heavily patterned by low educational attainment.

Are more highly educated people more optimistic, I asked, or less?

“Oh, totally, much more optimistic. Higher-ranked people in the army are, too. Status definitely helps. I think optimism is about being able to achieve goals. Whatever the goal may be, optimistic people have the wherewithal to do it.”

So, they’re not necessarily optimistic about the efficiency of the political system or the continued existence of the human species?

“Well,” she considered, “usually the way the question is phrased, it's something like, I generally view things from a positive perspective or I understand that when bad things happen it's not permanent or necessarily because I'm a horrible person.”

The center is named for an optimistic man named Lee Kum Sheung. (In all, it’s a mouthful of academic honorifics: the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.) But if anyone deserves his name on a happiness center, it may be Sheung. In China’s Guangdong Province in 1888, he concocted a thick batter of sugar, salt, and corn starch that would come to be known as “oyster sauce.” He launched the company Lee Kum Kee, which today distributes its sauces in at least 100 countries, the products aptly illustrating a modern tension between health and happiness.

The oyster-sauce empire remains today predicated on it founding principles of “pragmatism, integrity and constant entrepreneurship.” Lee Kum Kee also has a division which deals in Chinese herbal health products (Lee Kum Kee Health Product Group Infinitus), so this sponsorship affords a fitting branding opportunity to ally with Harvard.

But if oyster sauce is not itself the key to happiness, then researchers might do well to take its profits and turn them into a more tenable proposition. Because funding for this sort of research is not falling from the sky (like avocados). It is unlikely to lead to a profitable happiness drug or marketable medical device that induces happiness. It’s difficult to justify at the federal level, too. “If you think about tax dollars paying for research,” said Kubzansky, “I want to know that the government is looking at, say, heart disease, if my dad died of heart disease. Or Alzheimer's because I have a relative with Alzheimer's. It's very salient to say you’re going to fix these things. You have to have a longer view on things to say I'm going to learn something really important even if I'm not solving that problem today. We hope to gain insight that will help solve many problems.”

“Making people aware of how purposefulness and gratitude influence their wellbeing is important,” said Viswanath, “but just because you tell people that they should have a purposeful life doesn’t make the rest of the factors disappear.” For people who have lost a job, for instance, the challenge is much greater than a loss in wages. For many, it is rather the loss of community and purposefulness will be the greatest barrier to moving forward and thriving. Social isolation, hopelessness, and worthlessness coalesce into physical effects.

This is where it could be worthwhile to have honed a sense of resilience and optimism, as much as that is possible.

“Sometimes, there are problems we can't fix,” adds Kubzansky. “But we can put into place compensatory processes—workarounds that mean people are still in a good place, even when the problems are maybe, you know, not fixable.”

Maybe then, too, there is a role for oyster sauce.