Happiness—The Real Science Behind It

If I were to ask you the question, “Would you like to be happier?”– most of you would say yes.  But do we really know how to become happier?  I am sure many of us think we would have some ideas.  But what are our ideas based on? The media and Western culture in general bombard us with flashy and persuasive messages on how to achieve this goal, making it easy to believe sustainable happiness can be found at the mall, the gym, with that certain someone, or on a beach somewhere.  Meanwhile depression rates have soared, divorce rates are still high, and people are in search of ways to improve their sense of well-being.  But how do we know what really works?

Let us begin with defining happiness.  When psychologists talk about happiness, they mean the experience of frequent positive affect, infrequent negative affect, and a sense that life is meaningful and worthwhile.  Happiness also includes low-intensity positive emotions (e.g. tranquility), high-intensity positive emotions (joy, euphoria), and everything in between.

Research does indeed show that genetics do play a factor in determining how happy we are.  It is true that some of us are born with more happy genes than others.  This is really good news for those of us who were blessed with those “happy genes”.  But there is also good news for those of us who were born with fewer “happy genes”.  WE CAN BECOME HAPPIER AND STAY HAPPIER!  And the research has proven this.  We just need to learn and incorporate the right tools.

Let us imagine that our sustainable happiness ratio is in the shape of a pie.  On average 50% of that pie is our “happiness predetermined genetic set point” (the part of the pie that we really have very little control over—our DNA).  Ten percent of this pie would be our circumstances—meaning that 10% of our sustainable happiness is affected by our day to day circumstances.  Examples include our health, recent moves, trauma, winning the lottery, getting married, etc.  Some of these circumstances we have control over and some we do not. One would think that circumstances would account for a higher percentage of the pie, but research shows that as humans, we adapt to our circumstances.  For example if we won the lottery we may be happier for a period of time but over time we return to our baseline.  We adapt.  If someone we loved passed away, we would be terribly heart-broken for a period of time, but research indicates that over time we adapt and return to our baseline.

So far we have accounted for approximately 60% our happiness pie.  I want to highlight the remaining 40% of the pie.  This is the part of the pie we actually have control over.  This is where we can increase our happiness ratio approximately 40%.  This piece of the pie accounts for our “intentional daily activities”.  These intentional activities are in the form of behavioral (exercise, eating healthy, spending time with loved ones, gratitude journal, etc.), cognitive (reframing situations, learning optimism, etc.) and volitional (striving for goals that represent our values, searching for meaning, etc.).

So the point being made is –we can become significantly happier than what our predetermined set point of happiness is by changing some of our day to day activities.  The beauty in this is that the research shows that these changes do not need to be big.  It is truly about the little changes we make in our daily lifestyle.

However, we need to be purposeful and consistent in our intentional activities.

Some key points to remember are:

1. As humans, we adapt—so our intentional daily activities should stay fresh (be creative, have fun, be random and variable with your activities).

2.  Be consistent with your intentional activities.   In order for our brains to develop new neural pathways that promote happiness, we need to do these activities consistently (research shows that our brains actually begin to change after introducing the ritual for approximately one month)

3.  Focus on striving for self-concordant goals (your goals in life should be consistent with what you really value).  If you are unsure about what your values are, take the free viasurvey.org questionnaire on line.  It is also important to quiet our minds to journal, pray or meditate so that we may hear our “inner voice” –which so often guides us to our true authentic selves/values.

4.  Start with just one or a few small activities a day so you do not set yourself up to fail.  You can always add more activities once you have been consistent with your initial activity.  For example, you may want to just start with 20 minutes of exercise a day (but the exercise must be fun for you and mix it up—maybe one day is walking, the next day is gardening, etc.).

Positive Psychology focuses on the science of happiness, and the research indicates that happy people report strong social support, and they spend time and effort nurturing and maintaining their relationships.  They also report engaging in prosocial behavior (going out of their way to help others) and expressing gratitude.  They find life meaningful and are committed to their goals.  They are optimistic about their futures, they do physical exercise and they try to live in the moment.  Happy people tend to be more resilient allowing them to possess the ability to cope with life stressors.  Research shows that all of these characteristics can be learned, which is very exciting and hopeful.

I have included a Happiness Questionnaire from Positively Happy:  Routes to Sustainable Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Jaime Kurtz.  Take a moment to complete the questionnaire to see where you fall on the happiness scale.

Assessing Happiness

    Subjective Happiness Scale

For each of the following statements and/or questions, please circle the point on the scale that you feel is most appropriate in describing you (take careful note of the labels of each scale item).

1. In general, I consider myself:
1        2        3        4        5        6        7
not a a very happy                very happy person

2. Compared to most of my peers, I consider myself:
1        2        3        4        5        6        7
less happy                              more happy

3. Some people are generally very happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything. To what extent does this characterization describe you?
1        2        3        4        5        6        7
not at all                                     a great deal

4. Some people are generally not very happy. Although they are not depressed, they never seem as happy as they might be. To what extent does this characterization describe you?
1        2        3        4        5        6        7
a great deal                               not at all

*Scoring the Subjective Happiness Scale—Add up the four numbers that you have circled and divide by 4
Your score should range from 1 (very unhappy) to 7 (very happy). For the sake of comparison, the average score on this scale ranges from 4.5 to 5.5. College students score on the lower end of this range; older people score on the higher end. So, take this difference into account when determining where you fall. But do not worry so much about where you compare to the average. The take-home message here is that you can use the strategies in this book to raise your happiness above this number!

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