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In Pursuit of Happiness

Aired September 21, 2014 - 07:30   ET


ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: "CNN NEWSROOM" continues at the top of the hour. But for right now, keep it right here for SANJAY GUPTA, M.D.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Today, we're taking a closer look at something we arguably all want in our lives, happiness. Over the past decade, doctors and researchers from all over the world have conducted dozens of studies specifically looking how happiness impacts you and me.

And what this remarkable new science tells us is that not only is happiness feeling good, but it's also leading to a healthier and longer life.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lift up. Hold it for a few seconds. Breathe out.


GUPTA: There's a lot to get to today. Including how faking laughter for just a few minutes a day can lower your stress levels, even boost your immune systems.

Plus, I also want to show you something else. That's how your brain, even your heart, physically reacts when you're happy versus sad.

But, first, let's go to Denmark to see what we can learn from people who are already happy.


GUPTA: So we get to start off by going to the happiest place in the happiest country on earth. It is a maternity ward in Denmark. Take a look.

Hey there.



GUPTA: Congratulations. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you so much.

GUPTA: How are you feeling?


GUPTA: Tired.

(voice-over): Tired is expected. They're the proud new parents of Stina Sophia (ph), just six hours old.

(on camera): Do you mind if I pick her up?

I'll wash my hands here. I've done this a few times. I have three girls of my own. So, we'll see if the old skills are still there.

Oh, you are cute. There are thousands of babies born all over the world right now, but Stina Sophia is lucky enough to be born on the happiest country on the earth.

They have low unemployment rates here, people trust their government, they smile a lot. And mom and dad didn't pay a penny to have her here in the hospital. That makes everybody pretty happy.

Look how good she is.

(voice-over): The happiest place on earth isn't a title Denmark dubbed itself. It's earned the top spot on the European Commission's euro barometer for well-being and happiness every single year since 1973. And when the United Nations went on the hunt to find the world's happiest nation, their final report ranked -- you guessed it -- Denmark number one.

(on camera): So what makes a country happy? Sure, it's things like life expectancy, gross domestic product, low corruption, but also things like generosity, social support, and the freedom to make life choices.

(voice-over): Choices, like following your passion, or just laying low. You see, the Danes don't put much value on job titles or status. A street musician, and a lawyer hold the same social clout in Denmark.

As a society, their motto is this, "you are no better than anybody else."

(on camera): As we explored happiness in Denmark, we realized it's not so much the temporary emotion and elation that we're talking about, it's something much deeper, something much more profound, something we undoubtedly we all want -- a sense of happiness in life.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your happiness as far as life satisfaction?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A little over eight. Not 10 completely, because there's always something you can complain about, but generally eight- plus. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's pretty high up there. I don't know, eight,

nine, something like that.

GUPTA: Ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I was thinking eight.

GUPTA: Eight?



GUPTA: How would you rate your happiness in terms of life satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10?


GUPTA: Nine?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. Every day. Happy.

GUPTA (voice-over): Here's something we learned that may surprise you. With happiness comes trust. And there's a lot of it here in Denmark.

Trust to leave your bike unlocked. Trust to leave your baby in a stroller unattended while you're inside a store. Trust in each other.

In fact, 96 percent of people say they know someone they could rely on in times of need. This sense of security helps keep stress levels down, and happiness levels up.

(on camera): One thing we've discovered here in Denmark is that for mothers, their lives aren't just about family and kids. Almost 80 percent of women return to work after having had a baby. They spend a lot of time with friends and social circles. Also, it strikes that great balance between work, life and family. And all that leads to happiness.

(voice-over): They tell me the key to striking this balance is actually simple. They don't overwork themselves. The average Dane works just 33 hours a week, only 2 percent of workers put in more than 40 hours a week -- which is a minimum in many other countries, including my own. This frees them up to spend more time with family, do volunteer work, or participate in other community programs.

And you may be wondering how can they afford all that. Well, remember, money and status aren't the priority here in Denmark. A simple life is.

Instead of gadgets and things, the Danes prefer to take full advantage of all the outdoor green space. A new government policy mandates that residents in Copenhagen be able to walk to a park in less than 15 minutes. Cars aren't a priority either. In fact, the most popular mode of

transportation, bicycles. With about 250 miles of bike paths through the capital city, it's an easy, cheap, and environmentally friendly option for residents.

(on camera): Half of all commuters here in Denmark travel to work or school by bike every single day. It's part of what gives Danes a happiness boost. That's because these feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, they release in the brain, it happens with daily exercise of just about 20 minutes a day.

(voice-over): We decided to continue our search of what makes Denmark the happiest country in the world at one of the oldest amusement parks in the world, Tivoli Gardens.

It's located in the middle of Copenhagen, home to about 2 million people. Built in the 1800s, it inspired Walt Disney to create another well-known happy place, Disney World.

But in true Danish fashion, Tivoli Gardens has remained simple, but charming. It was built for the Danes to enjoy, a place for families to make memories.

(on camera): You know, it's fun to see the experiences are quite important for the Danes. They don't always pay as much attention to possessions. And admittedly, they tell me they can't always afford fancy vacations. But they spend a lot of time with family, laughing, building memories. They said people who focus on experience versus things, they tend to have a higher level of satisfaction, long after the moment is passed.

When you look at your daughter, what do -- what do you see? What do you hope and pray for?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We want all the best, you know? That's what parents want, right?

GUPTA: And what about happiness?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, of course. That comes as a bonus.


GUPTA: I have to admit, I couldn't find any Danes who had too much to complain about in their own lives. They really do appear to be quite happy. But can everything really that rosy? We're going to take a deeper look.

Also, is your glass half empty, or half full? How changing the way you think can improve your health.



GUPTA (voice-over): Happiness isn't just a pleasant thing you feel. Science proves it's much deeper than that. Feeling happy actually helps you live a longer, healthier life.

But how? The large part of our happiness is tied to our social connections. In fact, if you don't have at least one close friend, you're less likely to be happy.

Each of us have these things called telomeres, tiny caps on our DNA chromosomes that measure our cellular age. It turns out it also determines how many friends we have. No friends equals shorter telomeres. By being social, you can slow down your biological age, living longer, and happier.

Another way to boost your level of happiness is by meditating. Research shows as little as 20 minutes a day can lower your level of stress hormones.

Have you ever heard of an American Buddhist monk named Barry Kirzen (ph)? Barry meditates with such focused attention he says he can generate his own bliss. People believe him.

But doctors wanted scientific proof, so they did an MRI scan of his brain. And they showed while he meditated, he activated the are of the brain where happiness lives, the left prefrontal cortex.

Time for a pop quiz. Is this glass half empty or half full? If you said half full, you're on your way to feeling happier, and healthier.

A Harvard study found that optimists are 50 percent less likely to have a heart disease, a heart attack or stroke. Keeping an overall optimistic attitude actually offers protection against cardiovascular disease.

Science doesn't fair as well for pessimists. They not only have lower levels of happiness compared to optimists, but research shows that people with negative thoughts are three times as likely to develop health problems as they age.

So, what do you do if you're not a naturally happy person? Well, experts say the key is to act as though you're an optimist, even if you're not.



GUPTA: They say Denmark is the happiest country on earth. Based on what we've seen so far, it's easy to see why.

We want to find out just how happy is the typical Danish family. And why are they so happy? And what can all of us possibly learn from them? Let's go meet them.


GUPTA: Hey there, how are you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you. GUPTA: Nice to see you. Thank you for having us to your house.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our home. Come in, please. GUPTA: Hey, Marie. Nice to see you. Sanjay. How are you?

UNIDENTIFED FEMALE: Nice to meet you.

GUPTA: Nice to meet you.


GUPTA: Jonas, nice to see you. Nice to see you.

(voice-over): It didn't take very long to feel at home with the Winterbrune (ph) family.

Tom has helped break the ice, sharing with me his favorite local beer. He works as a 3D draftsman for an engineering company. His wife Dorothy (ph) works as an executive secretary. They live in this home 30 minutes outside of Copenhagen, for about ten years now. The four children range from 18 to 34. Dinner is served.

(on camera): Were you surprised Denmark is the happiest place on early?

UNKNOWN: We are content on many questions, we are question. And that is I guess the basis of happiness.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a privilege to be living in a place where they try at least to control most things going on.

GUPTA: She's talking about the Danish government. In a world where in many other countries residents fight for low taxes and little government control, the Danes seem to feel the opposite. In fact, they told me that feeling, quote, "tucked in" by their government makes them happy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's security. There's somehow a net underneath you. I think that a lot of people don't mind paying high taxes, because they are aware of the fact that they do get whatever they need. It's almost like a right, if you get unemployed or if you get sick. Then someone will fix it.

GUPTA (on camera): So, about 56 percent in taxes is what I read. But you get free health care, you get free education, you know, provide books. Mostly those things are free.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Danes are quite concerned that the Danish as citizens, they're quite concerned that it is fair. So they don't mind paying the taxes. But it must be fair.

GUPTA: So, how do you define fairness? Is it more important for everyone to be pretty much equal, and treated equally? Or to have, you know, lots of different variation within a society? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's different from your society. You have a

large portion of people who are really poor, which we don't. So fairness is just a regular -- it's just a thing. It's not something that we think so much about.

GUPTA: It was interesting, because in this report about happiness, one of the things they said the countries that were least happy, there was a percentage of people in those countries who couldn't name one person that they could depend on. You know, one person they could call --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's really sad.

GUPTA: It's sad, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think what we've been trying to teach our children is that relationship comes before everything else. And depending on someone, and being OK with the fact that someone depends on you, and holding the standard, taking a stand for someone, protecting someone, and being fair.

GUPTA: What is it that you think doesn't work, that you would change about Denmark?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Focus on freedom of choice, and freedom of speech and things like that. But freedom of being successful, and not being looked to with a frown, that you are actually doing good, and maybe being a bit boastful about it. So, that's actually my hope for the Danish mentality, to be more open, to the idea to have success.

GUTPA: Freedom of success.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Freedom of success. And then still be a fair citizen, that volunteers and helps out -- but without the mediocre way.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm fascinated by being -- people being eccentric. And there's not much room for them in Denmark.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It leads to some kind of complacency. And complacency leads to doing nothing about it. So, actually, you should cherish what you already have. And then go for it even more.

GUPTA (voice-over): Spending a day with the Winterbrunes (ph) brought fresh perspective, to how I view happiness. If you can get to a point where you feel content about your life, your happiness levels will rise. But the risk is the complacency. And for some people, complacency can bring the opposite of happiness.

It's different for you, different for me, and different for the Winterbrune (ph) family.


GUPTA: You may be thinking, look, I'm not a happy person. I wasn't born that way. So what about me? Well, you're correct, first of all, that genetics do play a role when

it comes to being happy. But research shows your genes are only part of it. Regardless of our environment, each and every one of us can boost our daily levels of happiness by taking the time to find small things throughout the day that bring us pleasure. Really taking that time is so important. And research also shows that laughing keeps you happy.

I'm really going to show you why it is the best medicine. And don't worry about this, pessimists, this is one exercise where you can fake it until you make it.




GUPTA (voice-over): These people are laughing for though reason at all. Why? Because research shows that laughing doesn't just signal happiness, it produces it.

(on camera): They say the average child laughs 500 times a day, and the average adult just 40 times a day. We don't know why it makes such a difference in our health, or why we laugh it all. But, obviously, for these people, it seems to be doing something.

I'm going to give it a shot.



GUPTA (voice-over): Thomas Flindt laughs for a living.

FLINDT: We're going to have 30 minutes laugh session. It's breathing, it's clapping, stretching, and of course, laughing.

GUPTA: He's led laughter yoga classes here in Denmark for more than 10 years.

FLINDT: So this -- don't be afraid.


GUPTA: The concept of laughter yoga is based on this scientific fact -- your body can't differentiate between fake laughter and real laughter. This means you get a health boost even if you fake it.


GUPTA: I have to admit, I was a little skeptical at first. But it didn't take me long to start laughing.

And once I started, I couldn't stop. (LAUGHTER)

GUPTA: You're probably laughing, just watching this.

FLINDT: So, this next exercise is about letting go of fear, worry and stress. So, that's all in the mind.

So, we're going to laugh at our worried mind. You put up your fingers like this, and then we just laugh at our own worried mind, like this.


GUPTA: Flindt says most of us forget to laugh, because of tension, stress, pain, worry. So he taught us to laugh at our own negative thoughts. I quickly learned it doesn't really matter how you start to laugh.

It's just important that you do.

FLINDT: And now, give yourself a good stretch.

GUPTA: Studies show when we laugh, our stress hormones decrease, and our endorphins rise. Endorphins are the chemicals associated with the runner's high.

Laughing is also good for your heart. And study found that only 8 percent of heart patients were made to laugh daily had a second heart attack within a year. That's compared with 42 percent of non- laughers. And get this -- just the anticipation of laughter might elicit some of these same benefits as well.

FLINDT: OK. This is for you. OK?


GUPTA: Now, it's your turn. Come on, just start laughing.