Happy 101

Sacramento State’s first-ever professor of happiness unlocks the mysteries surrounding what is arguably the holy grail of human emotion. As Prof. Meliksah Demir explains, the path to joy is a winding road and the journey requires a bit of effort, but in the end, we all have the tools we need to find our happy place.
Happy 101

IfMeliksah Demir has his way, an infusion of bliss is afoot for River City residents this spring. Tracking its origins would lead to a small cluster of students at Sacramento State, where Demir—the school’s newly minted Rekhi Singh Endowed Professor in Happiness (a position named after the MBA alum whose donation made this role and its accompanying wellness initiative possible)—begins teaching a course called “Psychology of Happiness” on Jan. 25. Held virtually (for now), it’s inspired by the pioneering curricula at universities like Yale, whose wildly popular “Psychology and the Good Life” course has spawned an equally popular online version called “The Science of Well-Being” (available for free to anyone, it has surpassed 3 million sign-ups since its inception in 2018). 

As you might expect, “happiness interventions”—from random acts of kindness to “best self” daydreaming—must be implemented in order for students to investigate the complicated pursuit of happiness. Since one can only presume that the butterfly effect of a single good deed or a flicker of gratitude knows no hard boundaries, it’s entirely possible that some much-needed citywide cheer may emanate from Demir’s class.

Not a moment too soon, either. A June 2020 poll from the University of Chicago found that Americans are less happy than they’ve been in nearly 50 years, while the latest survey data from the American College Health Association reveals an alarming year-over-year trend—a growing number of college students experiencing a spectrum of mental health issues from anxiety to hopelessness.

“This position has the potential to promote the well-being of the students, faculty and staff on our campus. Sac State can become a hub for research focusing on happiness,” says Demir, a native of Turkey who has co-authored numerous academic papers on friendship, compassion, happiness and other dopamine-boosting topics in the relatively new realm of positive psychology, most while he was a professor at Northern Arizona University for the past 14 years. “This is a dream job for me.”

In the wake of an unrelenting year, with the benefits of happiness—from improved immunity and speedier wound-healing to better sleep and overall longevity, according to a study published in Applied Psychology—more important and relevant than ever, we recently Zoomed with the professor for his practical advice on how to make the days ahead more hopeful than the ones we left behind.

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Prof. Meliksah Demir soaks up the sun on Dec. 2 in front of a mural by local artists Haley Titus and Jeremy Stanger. (Portrait by Max Whittaker)

During the pandemic, the global happiness quotient has taken a nosedive. How has the pandemic affected your own happiness and what are some lessons to learn about happiness in the era of Covid?

Like most people, I was very anxious at the beginning. There were some really tense moments. But engaging in some specific practices and activities kept my happiness at a certain level. I have more time to invest in the relationships that I have, and that’s proven to be really important—I hang up the phone and there’s a smile on my face because I connected with a friend in a different part of the country or the world.

Of course this doesn’t mean that I am ignoring the reality. Unfortunately, the positive test rates in Sacramento County and our entire nation are not promising, so we have to learn how to live with this until a vaccine is widely available. But knowing that it is going to be over one way or the other, I’m optimistic. That’s giving me the mindset to focus on things that I can do with this time that I have. One potential happiness-promoting strategy is learning something new or practicing your hobbies.

What else can we do to induce happiness?

There are a lot of things, but I can share some of the most popular ones. For instance, engaging in random acts of kindness. You’d pick a day during the week—[perhaps] Wednesday is going to be your “Be a Kind Person Day”—and you do three or four or five acts of kindness toward others. This has been shown to promote the happiness of individuals, not only in the short run, but also in terms of having a lasting impact on their happiness. Another activity is gratitude. Keeping a gratitude journal or writing about things that you’re grateful for every day before going to bed, or every other day, or weekly—whatever frequency that you prefer.

I’ve tried the gratitude thing, and that doesn’t work for me.

If one doesn’t work for you, that’s fine because we have a long list of these tools that might work for you, that might fit your personality, your interest, your time. Indeed, research has shown that Americans benefit from gratitude, but not those from collectivist cultures like Turkey or South Korea where it’s already part of the culture. So gratitude didn’t work [for me either] because coming from Turkey, expressing and showing gratitude is part of my everyday experience. But acts of kindness do work for me and make me happy. For instance, when I park my car somewhere and see [only] a few minutes left on someone else’s meter or that it’s expired, I add a few coins.

Lately, I’ve been into meditation, which has been shown to facilitate happiness. Another activity is writing about your best possible self. I might say to you, “Imagine that in five years, everything that you wanted in your life has been realized. Think about that and write down your experiences.” This is another happiness-promoting strategy.

So what, ideally, do you hope to have accomplished five years from now?

In five years, I see myself having organized the first happiness conference at Sac State and having accomplished an annual happiness report that talks about happiness at Sac State. I’ll have taken my son to a few countries, starting with Mexico on a small trip, but also on a bigger one to meet his grandparents in Turkey. I’m also trying to get back in shape—I like to play soccer and basketball, and I like to go kayaking. These are some examples of things I want to do.

Even though achieving happiness doesn’t sound like rocket science, it remains elusive for many.

Becoming happier is possible, but it needs some work. And then as you do this work, it is essential to vary what you do. You should add some variety, some spice—like focus on meditation or investing in relationships or character strengths. Those variations will be very helpful in reaping the most out of these activities.

What has surprised you in your studies on happiness?

One thing that surprised me a little bit in my research is that it’s not the number of friends you have that makes you happy—it’s the quality of the friendships that contributes to your happiness. Some people might argue that in the American culture, there is an emphasis on having more of everything. As if more of everything is going to equate to more happiness. It doesn’t work that way, at least in the context of friendships. If you have one high-quality, intimate, supportive friend, that is going to be key in terms of contributing to your happiness.

Assuming the faculty and the student body at Sac State will eventually reap the rewards of this wellness initiative, how will this play out on campus?

We are going to start designing happiness interventions, first for psychology students, and then hopefully for all Sac State students, and then the faculty and staff as well. If people at the school are interested in becoming happy, they can come to our lab. After they answer a few basic questions, we’ll assign them some specific happiness practices. I also hope to have happiness booths around campus that will give our students a five-minute break. We’ll assess what they can do in those five minutes if they want to relax and feel happy: “Here, have some coffee. Listen to some music. Why don’t you text your best friend? Why don’t you call someone you haven’t had the time to before?” These are just some examples of small interventions. It doesn’t take much to feel just a little bit happier.

What role do genetics play in happiness?

That’s a great question. There have been studies that estimate between 40% and 60% of the variance in happiness is based on our genes. There are some studies suggesting lower or higher estimates as well, but genes do play a key role in happiness. The important point, though, is that genes do not account for everything. That’s why happiness interventions have the potential to make a difference. When I was growing up, my mother was mostly happy, [whereas] my dad was in the Turkish Navy and was rather serious and stern. But he’s gotten more jovial, loving and compassionate with age. I also understand that, because of my training, it’s important to be a role model for your kids very early in life when it comes to expressing your emotions. That’s what I’ve been paying attention to. My son is a goofy kid. I’d like to believe that he’s happy. He expresses that, most of the time.

Can you articulate what happiness feels like?

Each person will have their own definition, but to me, happiness feels like walking on the beach at sunrise holding hands with my son. And then our legs are in the water and we hear the waves and maybe there are birds chirping in the background and green trees everywhere. I was born and raised in southern Turkey, in a town called Antalya, right on the Mediterranean Sea. So I guess I’m thinking about those beaches when I think about my happy place.

Comedians often talk about the pressure to be funny all the time, so as a happiness professor, do you feel pressure to be positive all the time?

Not necessarily. While being happy is important, it is also important to appreciate and experience other emotions as well. What matters is the frequency of the negative emotions. Negative emotions are OK—it’s part of who we are and our everyday experiences—but what matters is experiencing more positive than negative, which is going to make you a happy person in the end.

What’s going on in the brain and the body when we’re feeling happy?

There is this impressive theoretical framework called the “upward spirals of positive emotion.” According to this model, when you start experiencing happiness, it leads to cognitively higher levels of creativity because you are going to feel relaxed, comfortable and happy. And then this has the potential to—in an upward spiral way—promote your problem-solving tools. Another change we see when people become happy is they are more concerned with the well-being of others. They are more likely to engage in positive behaviors—volunteering, donating money and so forth. It is also good for the body as well. Research shows that happy people experience a better immune system, which in turn contributes to your overall longevity and health.

You mentioned being concerned about the well-being of others. How does compassion boost one’s own happiness? 

There are two types of compassion. The first one is self-compassion. The other one is compassion for others. And then there is this dilemma, of course, when you see the sadness, the negative things other people go through, but when you relate to them, it might give you a sense of a common humanity. It might give you a sense of power to help improve their well-being, and that sense of being useful in the life of another human being. Compassion is positively related to happiness. And self-compassion is related to happiness as well. We have to be nice to ourselves. We have to be patient with ourselves.

Was there an instance where self-compassion helped you?

Yes. In the academic field, one of our tasks is to publish our research results. Then you write up your scientific article, and you send it to a journal. And not every paper is accepted for publication. Sometimes it is rejected. Before I was practicing self-compassion, I was really hard on myself: “Oh, my goodness, dude, you should have paid attention to this. The reviewer is right. You didn’t write a good theoretical introduction.” But then I thought, “It’s just part of the process. I’m going to take this into account and do better [next time].” So that helped me address those rejections. You learn from rejected manuscripts. You learn from a lecture that did not go well. You learn from a project that did not go as planned. Failures and mistakes teach you a lot and provide you with opportunities to make specific and reasonable plans to achieve your goals. It’s OK to fail. Accepting this idea contributed to my happiness overall.

It sounds like dealing with struggles is also an important part of happiness.

Yes and no. Of course, some people might be dispositionally happy and cheerful, no matter what. But at the same time, you could argue that experiencing struggle and failure is going to help you appreciate and reap more benefits from your achievements. For instance, we know that romantic relationships contribute to individual well-being and happiness. Perhaps someone in the past was not very successful in maintaining relationships, but then something happened, and now that person has been in a relationship for five or 10 years. The struggle will help you appreciate what you have even more.

So happiness is a process.

Absolutely, it’s a process. Some things are going to work out, and some things aren’t. You have to be patient.

Do you have a happiness motto or memory that helps you out of a bad mood or a rut?

I have a few events surrounding my favorite Turkish soccer team, Fenerbahçe, that I like to think about. We have been struggling lately, but I remember back in 2008, when we made it to the quarterfinals in the [Union of European Football Associations] Champions League. Every time I remember that, it makes me happy.

Speaking of games, shall we play a lightning round? I’ll say a word, and you say the first thing that pops into your head. 

Oh my goodness. OK.

Professor of Happiness.













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