Studying happiness takes serious cash

By Julie Jacobson

A Victoria University lecturer has been awarded a $600,000 government grant to research how being happy makes us happy.

Dr Paul Jose, a senior lecturer at the university's school of psychology is one of 93 academics awarded $44 million in this year's Marsden Fund round.

US-born Jose has a PhD from Yale University and moved to Victoria University five years ago.

His project "How do positive events lead to greater happiness and wellbeing?" will look at how people experience happiness and how happiness leads to more happiness.

Established in 1995 to fund "cutting-edge" research - and the only government fund that allows untargeted, or "blue-sky" research - it has been criticised in the past for the way it allocates its taxpayer-funded money, for the projects it supports.

The scheme was evaluated in 2005 after $6 million of its then $36 million budget was awarded to members of its own council. A successful panelist the previous year had been Dr Peter Davis, the husband of Prime Minister Helen Clark, who was given $600,000 for a project modelling social change using census figures by the social sciences panel, which he also sat on.

More criticism followed when three Auckland researchers were given almost $500,000 to investigate "the hustler, the modern orgasm, and the sexual culture of Auckland", and it was revealed that 20 per cent of the funding pool had again gone to panellists.

Now a "rolling" panel list means researchers can no longer apply for funding from the panel they sit on but can apply in years they are not sitting.

Jose said his research, with a former Loyola University colleague and positive psychology proponent Dr Fred Bryant, would look at definitions of positive events and "savouring", a behaviour used to derive pleasure from a happy event.

Separate studies would compare how savouring and other positive processes such as optimism, self-efficacy and gratitude, lead to joyful living, and whether there were age and sex differences, he said.

"While I am trying not to go into it with any preconceived ideas I suspect, given what we know, that most people will say a positive event is a positive event because it has a positive impact on me," he said. "And one of my predictions is that people who savour are people who derive more wellbeing and happiness from positive events in their lives than others."

Similar studies overseas, including one by Bryant, have shown that thinking of happy times for just 20 minutes a day can make more people more cheerful than they were the week before, and that while very happy people are positive most of the time, they also have occasional negative moods.

Jose said the results of the project could be applied across various fields to help make people's lives more enjoyable.

Other projects to receive funding this year include a study on overcoming feather wear in migratory birds ($170,000), the importance of buoyant kelp ($708,000), why song dialects are important to kokako and other songbirds ($655,000), and the idea of peace in the Age of the Crusades ($242,000).

Dr Garth Carnaby, Marsden chairman, said all the projects were in the top 5 per cent of research activity internationally. The funding was an investment in New Zealand's "brightest and best" and enabled them to explore their ideas and contribute to innovation and research.

National Party science and tertiary education spokesman Dr Paul Hutchison, who has criticised the funding process, said while he "freely admitted the mind boggles" at some of the titles it was important to understand the underlying significance of the research.

"I accept that some of the humanities and social science projects sometimes require a stretch of the imagination to discover their relevance. And the happiness one is certainly a variation on a theme, but there is no doubt that the majority of the projects are pretty heavy duty, conventional science investigations.

"And if [Jose] could crack how to make people happy it would be wonderful for the whole of society.

"It is very important to have our brightest minds able to explore projects that are not necessarily directed, but which they think may have application in the future that others don't think about," he said.

Insider's Guide To Happiness

The topic: How do positive events lead to greater happiness? Although most people take it as self-evident that positive events lead to happiness, we know that many people cannot derive joy and satisfaction from the happy events in their lives.

The study: Three studies on individuals looking at how and why men and women of different ages derive happiness and joy from positive events. They will investigate if the dynamic of savouring (reminiscing about past positive events; enjoying a positive experience in the moment; and anticipating future positive events) is key to increasing happiness.

The outcome: The project aims to tell how much and under what circumstances savouring or other related positive processes lead to joyful living.

Further, one study will allow us to describe how men and women aged 17 to 70 use these techniques in their lives.

The results will affect recommendations for personal growth, and may also be used in government, business, education, medicine and other clinical fields, and other domains of human life.

Give Me The Money - Past Marsdens

* 2006: The secrets of honey bee queens, $780,000

* Towards a new cultural history of sex, $465,000

* 2005: How does the songbird know it is singing? $710,000

* 2004: Bloke culture and the media, $140,000

* 2003: How fungi have sex, $420,000

* How long have New Zealand stick insects gone without sex? $50,000

* The sexual brain and bird song, $825,000

* 2002: New modes of communication in ancient frogs, $510,000

* 2001: The evolution of mating calls and species histories in New Zealand cicadas, $315,000

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