If you haven’t seen the British television drama on PBS called Downton Abbey where have you been? The show has won six Emmys and is gaining mega popularity – everyone is talking about it.

The series is set on the fictional estate of Downton Abbey in North Yorkshire, although the manor is a real place and is creating a tourism boom in the U.K.

Seven episodes make up Season One which made its debut Sept 26, 2010. You can watch those episodes via Netflix or you can order the DVD on Amazon. Season Two is currently being broadcast on PBS – tonight is Episode #4. Your best bet is to start taping the current shows now, but start watching from the very first episode so you know what’s going on. (p.s. you might have to search under “masterpiece classic.”)

Downtown Abbey follows the upstairs/downstairs drama at an English estate just before and during World War I.  The heir to the estate has died on the Titanic, and the current Earl of Grantham and his family must find peace with the future middle-class heir.

Downstairs you find butlers, housekeepers, valets, maids, footmen, and cooks. You can tell the two vile characters immediately. They are the ones engulfed in cigarette smoke, who continually eavesdrop and scheme.

Upstairs you’ll find Earl of Grantham Robert Crawley, his wife Cora (she’s American), Lady Mary Crawley the eldest “strong willed” sister, and her two younger sisters: Edith “the ugly chicken” and Sybil “the rebel.” The sisters take turns treating each other kindly and cruelly but all the upstairs characters are redeeming. Other upstairs characters include the Honorary Countess Violet (Robert’s mother), Matthew Crawley (3rd cousin, once removed, the new heir to the estate), and Matthew’s mother Isobel Crawley.

Using real research I thought it might be fun to see what Downton Abbey teaches us about happiness. For decades psychologists have focused on what helps people who struggle with anxiety, sadness, and addiction. However, in the last decade psychologists hit paydirt in their discoveries about the other side of the coin — what makes people happy. It turns out only ten percent of our happiness is determined by our circumstances, 50% is genetic, but 40% is within our ability to change.

  • Money doesn’t make you happy. All sorts of studies have found the millionaire is only slightly happier than the blue-collar worker. Once your basic needs are taken care of ($75,000 for a family of four), money does not increase happiness. One only has to watch DA ten minutes to realize there is no more happiness upstairs than down.
  • Marriage doesn’t make you happy (an equal percentage of single people and married people say they are happy).  However cuddling and having sex in a committed marriage relationship does make you happier. That’s because of a hormone called Oxytocin. Maybe Mary is right in not wanting to be paired off with someone so quickly.
  • Social engagement is key to our happiness. This is why travel agents, teachers, clergy, and firemen are so happy. At Downton Abbey people are always surrounded by people and that is quite nice.
  • Leisure doesn’t make you happier. In one research study, people were randomly beeped and asked what they were doing, and how happy they were. The happiest people were not lying around. They where doing something challenging that used their skill set. Just because the countess looks happy here doesn’t mean she is.
  • Youth does not make you happier. Studies show that peak life experiences may not happen until our seventh decade of life. The honorary countess Violet seems miserable but her little wisecracks let you know she is having the time of her life.
  • Volunteering and helping others  Those who work to help others tend to be happier and healthier, experience fewer aches and pains, and even live longer. In fact neurobiological research shows that people who volunteer activate the same frontal regions of the brain that are activated by awe, wonder, and transcendence. The fact that the wealthy aristocrats find themselves working to help wounded soldiers during war doesn’t equate with them becoming more miserable. In fact, they seem very happy being able to offer a cup of tea or a song.
  • Beauty – Experts have found the ability to savor beautiful and positive experiences is one of the most important ingredients for happiness. Those who are inclined to notice a beautiful moment are less likely to experience guilt, stress, depression, and shame. And those who are able to rekindle the joy of past events are best able to buffer stress. The folks at DA are surrounded by exquisite beauty: art, architecture, flowers, jewelry, food, and clothing.
  • Optimism – Optimism is the belief that things will turn out well. It is the expectation that good things will come your way and that you have the ability to control the direction of your life.  Optimists experience significantly lower risks of fatal cardiovascular events and a reduced risk of death from all causes. I choose Lady Cora Crawley as the eternal optimist. Who do you choose?
  • Play – The great paradox of play is that it is purposeless, yet there are immense psychological, social, and physical benefits. play teaches us how to be more flexible and adaptable; it teaches us how to role-play, react to stress, become resilient, blow off steam, problem-solve and imagine. It is key to helping us learn to regulate our emotions. There are plenty of ways to play at Downton Abbey. Here riders, horses, and dogs head for the hills.
  • Meaning – There is a lot of research showing people who have a strong sense of meaning, even in their suffering, also had a feeling of well-being. Happiness researcher Martin Seligman describes a meaningful life as one where you are using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than yourself.  Universally, meaning is found in concern for others – the desire to reduce their suffering and improve their lives. Doesn’t it seem like the upstairs residents are a whole lot happier the second season, when they have people to help?


Lucille Zimmerman is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, CO and an affiliate faculty teacher at Colorado Christian University.

She is also the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World. Through practical ideas and relatable anecdotes, readers can better understand their strengths and their passions—and address some of the underlying struggles or hurts that make them want to keep busy or minister to others to the detriment of themselves. Renewed can help nurture those areas of women’s lives to use them better for work, family, and service. It gives readers permission to examine where they spend their energy and time, and learn to set limits and listen to “that inner voice."