A quest for happiness

5 min read

Gift will fund Harvard center to study how to increase everyday joy and health

A gift to Harvard’s public health School will fund a new center to find out exactly how being happier can help make people healthier.

At a signing ceremony in Hong Kong today, the Lee Kum Kee family announced a gift of more than $21 million to establish the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The center will help to identify the psychological, social, and emotional strengths and assets that may protect people against some diseases and enable them to enjoy longer, happier, and healthier lives.

The donors, the Lee Kum Kee family, will name the center after Lee Kum Sheung, who in 1888 invented oyster sauce in the southern Chinese city of Nanshui and established the Lee Kum Kee businesses. In the years since, the Lee Kum Kee Sauce Group and LKK Health Products Group have grown into two multinational companies headquartered in Hong Kong.

Science is still limited in its ability to understand whether and how positive aspects of the social environment — such as close relationships with family and friends, meaningful jobs, regular healthy exercise, relaxing leisure activities, and positive mindsets — may enhance psychological and physical well-being, thereby increasing healthy lifespans. The emerging center will work to understand these relationships better.

Additionally, scientists hope to better understand negative social circumstances, such as poverty, food and energy insecurity, and lack of meaningful jobs or social relationships, that also have a significant impact on how long people live and how they age.

The faculty who will lead the center see the gift as an opportunity to broaden the focus of public health and medical research beyond work focused primarily on deficits or risk factors that lead to disease and the treatments needed to cure or slow disease progression. The center will focus on the positive aspects of health and illuminate factors that promote attaining and maintaining high levels of well-being, while protecting against conditions such as cardiovascular diseases.

The goal of the center is to make discoveries that can inform personal behaviors, medical care, public health programs, and wide-ranging public policies not traditionally associated with health care and medicine.

The center will focus on both new research and assembling what is already known about the role of happiness and other components of well-being in relation to physical health. Much of that research knowledge is scattered across studies conducted in a broad range of disciplines.

The center also will coordinate work among faculty, researchers, and students from across Harvard, spanning disciplines including health communications, psychology, nutrition, exercise physiology, basic biology, medicine, epidemiology, and population sciences.

Initial efforts will focus on several areas:

  • Identifying and developing a measurement instrument—a positive psychological well-being index, or “happiness index” — that can assess psychological well-being in a systematic and scientifically sound manner.
  • Understanding the relationship between psychological well-being and cardiovascular health, healthy aging, and longevity.
  • Determining the effects of interventions promoting psychological well-being, such as mindfulness-based practices on health and happiness. This research will look at the potential of these practices to influence diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disease.
  • Examining the role of communications — ranging from television programming to social media — on engagement, health, and happiness.

“‘Si Li Ji Ren’ (considering others’ interests) is Lee Kum Kee’s core value, so we are very proud to support scientific advancement for the good of people around the globe,” said Sammy Lee, chairman and managing director of LKK Health Products Group. “This new center is dedicated to the science of health and happiness, which is a fitting tribute to my great-grandfather, Lee Kum Sheung. Through the center’s efforts in the field of health and happiness, we hope more people can increase their awareness, take more preventive measures, and eventually become healthier and happier.”

“Would you rather live a long, happy, and healthy life, or a life that is merely without disease?” asked Laura Kubzansky, the Lee Kum Kee Professor of Social and Behavioral Health at the Harvard Chan School and co-director of the new center. “Medical and psychological practice and research have traditionally focused on the diseases and deficits that cause poor health. But there is real value in focusing on the positive side as well — the assets that keep us healthy or help us recover more quickly from disease and injury. More rigorous research is urgently needed to understand these positive assets and how to promote them for millions of people around the world.”

“Happiness is often talked about as if it were a cute catchphrase,” said K. “Vish” Viswanath, Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication at the Harvard Chan School and co-director of the center. “But in fact happiness is a product of how one is engaged with the world. If one is being treated inequitably in society or lives in poverty, there may be physical factors that influence your health such as limited access to nutritious food or health care. In addition, one’s opportunities for engagement with the world and with other people may be limited. This center will enable us to investigate in a systematic and rigorous way the factors that promote engagement, communication, community, and connection with others, and how engagement or lack of engagement can influence happiness and ultimately health.”

“By leveraging what is known together with new research discoveries, we believe the new center will develop evidence-based recommendations and interventions that can demonstrably improve the health and well-being of individuals and entire populations,” said David Hunter, acting dean of the Harvard Chan School. “Our goal is to bring about enlightened public policies and public health programs that can affect the health of large numbers of people, as well as set new priorities in medical practice and personal behaviors that can help individuals live longer, healthier lives.”