Pharrell Williams' Secret to Happiness

Our forefathers didn't need today's science to tell them how essential happiness is to the human condition when they guaranteed the right to purse it alongside the rights to life and liberty. So if just listening to music can lift one's mood, "Happy" as a state of being has enormous utility.
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Nothing seems crazy about what Pharrell Williams has to say in "Happy," which has now become one of just 28 songs to have topped Billboard's Hot 100 for 10 weeks or more.

The 41-year-old Grammy winner seems to have discovered the secret to happiness, at least for four minutes, and has given us words to live by. Who can resist clapping along with the infectious video as people of all ages and from all walks of life let go and do their happy dances as if no one were looking?

And in what some may call the ultimate display of happiness, Pharrell broke down in tears on Oprah recently as he talked about the magnitude of "Happy" and the impact it's had on people's lives. There's a 24-hour version and even a puppy and doggy version.

So what is it about the song that makes people so happy? As a doctor studying the benefits of positive emotion on the human psyche, I went back in time in an attempt to answer that question myself.

"Happy" is not the first example of pop music trying to spread euphoria. In fact, one song in particular stands head and shoulders above the rest as the anthem of happiness. You can name that tune -- Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy." The song was wildly popular in the 1980s, playing seemingly nonstop on the radio and MTV, and when it wasn't emanating from a nearby speaker, it seemed that everyone I knew was singing it.

The song also spawned the antidote-for-the-blues catchphrase of the decade, "Don't worry, be happy." In practice, however, those words were hollow... meaningless. "Don't worry, be happy" was a cheery sentiment for T-shirts but was as futile an antidote for sadness as "just say no" was a deterrent to drug use. Roots of sadness and worry run deep, and human emotion is too complex to patch up with a trite slogan.

But "Happy" is different, somehow. Though, I must admit, I didn't get that right away.

One might think that I, of all people, would embrace the message of "Happy" the first time I heard it. After all, as a graduate of Martin Seligman's Positive Psychology Master's program at the University of Pennsylvania and an avid advocate of applying the science of well-being in the addiction treatment field, it stands to reason that positive thinking of any shape or size is a good thing. However, the first time I heard the song, I wasn't thrilled. In general, most attempts to induce people into their happy place -- with a song or a slogan or a mantra -- relax my pyloric sphincter and gastro-esophageal reflux ensues. Perhaps this unpleasant physical reaction is due to all the self-help gurus I encounter who profess to satisfy all our hearts' desires and quell our fears with their own brand of catchy phrases, but nothing more substantial.

What makes Pharrell's "Happy" work for me?

First, Pharrell doesn't push happiness on anyone. He offers a first-hand account of happiness, the experience. The song is upbeat, and of course, you can dance to it. (I'm no music critic by any stretch of the imagination, so I'll spare you from pointing out the obvious. If you don't believe me, play the song for children and if they are anything like my 3-year-old, they won't be able not to "move it, move it.'')

On a strictly structural level, Elizabeth Margulis, director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University Of Arkansas and author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, says: "That's a pretty repetitive song. There is a catchy bit that expressly invites you to clap along. It is literally inviting you."

But there's more to this song's mega-success than a catchy hook and it has to do with brain chemistry.

Science has shown us that listening to music causes the brain to release dopamine, a feel-good chemical and one that is also key to our survival. It drives desires as basic as eating and sleeping -- and being happy. Our forefathers didn't need today's science to tell them how essential happiness is to the human condition when they guaranteed the right to purse it alongside the rights to life and liberty.

So if just listening to music can lift one's mood, it's not difficult to understand why a song about happiness, what happiness feels like, would trigger a dopamine explosion.

When we hear it, we identify with the experience. We think, "Yes, when I'm happy, I'm a hot air balloon that could go to space." Happiness, as Dr. Barbara Fredrickson discovered, is not simply a welcomed side effect of evolution. We know negative emotions like fear are behind the fight-or-flight instinct that helps us act in the face of mortal danger, but no one could prove what positive emotions were good for. Fredrickson demonstrated that positive emotions have an upward spiraling effect on our creativity. When we are happy, we are more likely to explore because it's a signal that, yes, our needs are met. When happy, we think more creatively, which, when combined with exploration, leads to resource-building and social connections. And social connections, in turn, increase health and lifespan.

A landmark study on nuns by the University of Kentucky proves that happiness and longevity go hand in hand. The Catholic sisters were seen as ideal subjects because they lived under the same conditions, ate the same foods and had the same routines. What was strikingly different, however, was how healthy they were and how long they lived. Ninety percent of the cheerful nuns were still alive at age 85, while only 34 percent of the least-happy nuns lived that long. Overall, the happiest of the nuns lived 10 years longer than the least-happy nuns.

Positive psychology teaches us that feeling happy "primes" our brains to thrive. These emotions cause our brains to secrete neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which actually improve our ability to learn and store information. Because neurons that fire together wire together, our brains then become better organized and quicker at creatively discovering problems and emotionally-focused behavior strategies.

In the end, "happy" as a state of being has enormous utility. Pharrell is on to something.


Dr. Jason Powers, M.D., is certified by the American Board of Addiction and holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Chief medical officer at Right Step and Promises Austin, Dr. Powers is the recipient of Sierra Tucson's Compassion Award and has been recognized four times as a top addiction by H Texas Magazine. Dr. Powers is also the author of "When the Servant Becomes the Master," published in April 2012.

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