Professor Laura Kubzansky will codirect a new Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard’s public health school. The center opened last week thanks to a $21 million gift from the Lee Kum Kee family of China. (It’s named after Lee Kum Sheun, who invented an oyster sauce and launched the family’s condiment business.) I caught up with Kubzansky in her office on Monday, just after she returned from an opening celebration in Hong Kong.
Why do you need a center to study happiness?
Medicine and public health “tend to be very problem-focused,” Kubzansky said. “People are trying to fix a disease, fix a problem.” There isn’t much funding for research about optimal health. The center aims to figure out how positive factors in everyday life — such as a meaningful job, or strong family ties — affect our bodies.
What’s the most surprising finding about happiness you’ve come across?
“That optimism cut people’s risk of heart disease in half.” Kubzansky published that finding in 2001 in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. Previously, she said, “people kind of thought, as long as you’re not depressed, you’re OK.” But her study showed optimism has a protective quality — and that “the absence of something bad is not the same as the presence of something good.”
What’s one challenge of this type of research?
It can result in victim-blaming, or unsympathetic commands, such as, “You need to count your blessings three times a day. You need to go to meditation,” she said. “If you’re experiencing high levels of racism or discrimination, [then] to say to someone, ‘If you would just be more optimistic, you’d have a healthier heart’ — that’s insulting, and thoughtless.”
Who’s the happiest person you’ve met?
“My dad was an eternal optimist. He and I wrote a paper together about optimism,” she said. Philip Kubzansky, a psychology professor at Boston University, died in 2002 of cancer. “He remained quite optimistic throughout the whole time.”
How happy are you?
That’s a complex question, Kubzansky said. You can look at it from the hedonic perspective, where happiness is about achieving pleasure and avoiding pain, or from the eudaimonic perspective, where joy requires having a higher purpose. Then she gave a simple answer: “Today I’m very happy, having just received a gift from a very generous donor. I’m also feeling very actively engaged. I have a lot to do.”