A Serious Series About Happiness
Exploring the Determinants, Benefits, Measurements, Myths and Formulas for a Happy Life
Part 2: What makes you happy and how can you be happier?
What do you think happiness is and what do you think determines your happiness?
In Part 1 of "A Serious Series About Happiness" I said that happiness is experiencing positive emotion like joy, love, pride, hope, contentment, interest, compassion, fulfilment, gratitude, inspiration or awe and having a sense of satisfaction about your life and how you are progressing towards your life goals.
Happiness is not the succession of pleasurable experiences – I think that is the most common misconception about what actually makes people happy. On top of that many of us assume that happiness is something that we are born with – we either have or don’t.
It’s time to dispel those myths and inspire you to take control of your happiness.
What determines happiness?
If you decided that you wanted to lose weight you would adopt a healthy exercise and eating plan. If you wanted a promotion in work you would dedicate more time and focus to completing tasks. If you wanted to run a marathon you would train very hard.
Boosting your happiness is no different and can be enhanced through scientifically supported strategies or activities. The determinants of happiness are not all fixed!
There are three primary factors affecting your happiness, and it's most likely not what you think.
Up to 50% of your happiness is controlled by genetics; this genetic set point refers to what a person was born with or their genetic predisposition. Our level of happiness will revert back to this set point after we experience something like getting married, winning the lotto or breaking up with someone.
Our circumstances accounts for up to 10% of our happiness. This is where we tend to invest most of our time and energy into – I will be happier when I get a promotion, I won't be happy until I am married, I will be happy after I lose 10 kgs.
However, what you do in life can determine up to 40% of your happiness. This means that you can increase your happiness through intentional activity, happiness enhancing strategies or simply put ‘what you do’.
Imagine feeling almost twice as happy as you currently do! Imagine waking up in the morning and going to bed at night with clarity and hope - you can enhance your happiness by up to 40%!
How can you become happier?
What we think happiness is and what we do to boost our happiness are often pretty different, aren’t they? Most of us know that authentic happiness can't be found in a new pair of shoes, fancy car or watch yet we still rely on this "retail therapy" to make us feel better.
We take shots of espresso for a caffeine boost. We take shots of wheatgrass for an energy boost. We even take shots of almost every kind of alcohol.
What do you take to boost your happiness when you are feeling sad? More often than not we pursue pleasure (like retail therapy, chocolate, glass of wine) to boost our happiness when in fact all this does is offer a quick fix.
Happiness is a long-term commitment and with the right knowledge and habits you can become happier. Instead of relying on momentary pleasurable experiences to boost your mood you should develop systems to help you cope with stress, recall a positive memory or develop a tool to avoid making social comparisons.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Humans adapt! We can adapt to smells, tastes and possessions etc. This same tendency also applies to our happiness and is called hedonic adaptation. This adaptation refers to the tendency of humans to quickly return to relatively stable levels of happiness despite major positive or negative experiences (remember the genetic set point?).
In other words, after something really awesome has happened to you, like getting married, being promoted or winning the lotto you will revert back to the similar levels of happiness once the events has passed. Because of this, it’s really important to avoid placing too much value on one thing – spread the love and develop numerous hobbies, passions and goals.
The more we rely on just one thing to make us happy, the more we stand to lose. Keep it fresh!
What are some happiness enhancing strategies?*
Here is a list of 12 happiness boosting activities that are scientifically supported to boost your happiness.
1. Counting your blessings: Expressing gratitude for what you have (either privately –through contemplation or journaling – or to a close other) or conveying your appreciation to one or more individuals whom you’ve never properly thanked.
2. Cultivating optimism: Keeping a journal in which you imagine and write about the best possible future for yourself, or practicing to look at the bright side of every situation.
3. Avoiding overthinking and social comparison: Using strategies (such as distraction) to cut down on how often you dwell on your problems and compare yourself to others.
4. Practicing acts of kindness: Doing good things for others, whether friends or strangers, either directly or anonymously, either spontaneously or planned.
5. Nurturing relationships: Picking a relationship in need of strengthening, and investing time and energy in healing, cultivating, affirming, and enjoying it.
6. Doing more activities that truly engage you: Increasing the number of experiences at home and work in which you “lose” yourself, which are challenging and absorbing.
7. Replaying and savouring life’s joys: Paying close attention, taking delight, and going over life’s momentary pleasures and wonders – through thinking, writing, drawing, or sharing with another.
8. Committing to your goals: Picking one, two, or three significant goals that are meaningful to you and devoting time and effort to pursuing them.
9. Developing strategies for coping: Practicing ways to endure or surmount a recent stress, hardship, or trauma.
10. Learning to forgive: Keeping a journal or writing a letter in which you work on letting go of anger and resentment towards one or more individuals who have hurt or wronged you.
11. Practicing religion and spirituality: Becoming more involved in your church, temple, or mosque, or reading and pondering spiritually-themed books.
12. Taking care of your body: Engaging in physical activity, meditating, and smiling and laughing*.
The happiness movement has really opened my eyes to what authentic happiness means. I no longer feel defeated by a bad day and I don't feel bad about the days where I am not outwardly happy - I know this means I am experiencing a different kind of happiness like flow, hope or fulfilment.
Understanding what I can do to boost my happiness at the same time as adding to my long term happiness is a great feeling - totally inspiring and uplifting knowledge!
*FROM Lyubomirsky, S. The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Press