We wasted no time in diving deeper into some of the central questions and themes surrounding happiness and ongoing happiness research in Week 2 of Harvard’s “The Science and Application of Positive Psychology.”
While it may sound like a simple subject, let’s start with just a couple thought starters:
Are you happy? Are you happy “enough”? Are you as happy as you want to be?
If your definition of “success” was simply to be happy, how would you be doing?
Should happiness be the main goal at all? What about the Zen idea of “transcending” happiness, rather than maximizing it?
In attempting to maximize happiness, should we be aiming to maximize pleasure? Minimize pain? Express ours most authentic selves? All of the above?
Are there things in your life that that trump happiness? What are they, and why?
Is overall life satisfaction the same as happiness? How is it related? How is it different?
Why does the more we strive for happiness, the farther it gets away?
While I’ll provide researchers’ attempts to answer a couple of the above questions, I will not attempt to answer all them, nor will I propose there is a definitive answer. In fact, as many scientists researching such themes often refer to it as a science that is “descriptive,” rather than “prescriptive” - meaning one that attempts to illustrate and learn from things like people’s current relationships with happiness, rather than subjectively proposing a right and wrong way to live.
If there is one thing I have learned over the past several months, it is that, as Sonja Lyubomirsky puts it: “happiness must be defined from the perspective of the person,” and this definition is ever-evolving. What I do propose is that by more frequently and mindfully exploring these very questions, we will start to feel more confident in our approach to pursuing a happy and fulfilling life, and attain a greater sense of perspective than we often find ourselves with otherwise just going through the motions.
To begin, when discussing happiness it’s important to acknowledge the difference between state and trait happiness. A “state” of happiness typically involves our current mood and emotions: are you feeling content, joyful, excited? You can think of trait happiness, on the other hand, as more a more stable and enduring characteristic. For example, an ongoing feeling of fulfillment or life satisfaction that withstands the up’s and down’s of bad days and more difficult emotions. I particularly like David Myers definition of happiness as “a pervasive sense that life is good.” When it comes to state and trait happiness, we don’t have to choose one or the other. Arguably they are interrelated, and we can aim to increase both.
Let’s go back to Sonja Lyubomirsky’s model from my previous post to look at what factors affect happiness most.
According to her research, happiness is:
10% life circumstances
40% intentional activity
Without belittling life circumstances too much, as there are many incredibly serious circumstances that certainly deserve our attention, it is interesting to note that while GDP has tripled over the last 50 years, life satisfaction in the US has remained flat. Moreover, depression rates have increased tenfold (Flourish). While I would be interested to understand how growing inequality comes into play in this phenomenon, you still need not look very far to see the countless examples of the people who have benefitted the most from economic advancement that are still completely miserable to underline the point.
Instead, Lyubomirsky’s and colleagues suggest “happy and unhappy individuals differ considerably in their subjective experience and construal of the world” (“The Promise of Sustainable Happiness”). Our perception of our lives is one of the greatest powers we have within our control to influence our happiness.
For example, are you rushing through your day, just trying to check off one task after the next? Or are you savoring your morning coffee? Spending quality time with friends? Noticing the present moment?
Are you comparing yourselves with others, constantly consumed by what you don’t have? Or do you take the time to “count your blessings,” and be grateful for all that you do have?
It’s interesting to note that when it comes to comparison, we to primarily make upward comparisons - those which are just out of our grasp. It takes a lot for us to remember what we have that many others don’t, and personally travel has served time and time again as one of the greatest reminders of just this. To remember that, despite our difficulties, growing up in the US with access to public education, vaccines, plumbing and food on the table are all privileges many in the world still lack, will ground your perspective real fast.
Finally, there are genetics. While it might sound fatalistic at first - you’re born with a certain amount of dispositional happy - in fact, the evolving field of epigenetics is challenging many of our assumptions about how nature and nurture interact. For those of you unfamiliar, epigenetics is the study of how factors such as changes to our environment can actually change the way our genes get expressed - or, in simplistic terms, what can turn them “on” and “off.” In fact, scientists are learning that everything from diet and lifestyle, to - yes - even thoughts, perceptions and beliefs can change the way our genes get expressed (I aim to explore specifically how thoughts affect brain chemistry in a future post). There is even some evidence that these changes then go on to become inherited as such (an interesting addition to the discourse on “ancestral trauma” that I also may speculate on in a later post).
Note that epigenetics is still a very nascent field and I have not personally explored any research as simple as “if you practice gratitude you can turn your happy gene on,” (beware of oversimplified claims and interpretations of complex scientific concepts like this in general), and I would go as far as to also caution lest we forget the slippery slope of ethical implications we witnessed amid the popularity of eugenics. However, my overarching point here is that based on new research, we now have a much different understanding of the potential interplay between nature and nurture. As I heard it explained recently, rather than thinking of it as 50/50 or 80/20, we might think about it as a sort of “loop.” Our biology can affect our behavior, and in certain situations, our actions can go on to physiologically impact our biology.
SO, if we can change our happiness, what are some ways we can go about doing it?
In 1969, Norman Bradburn showed that rather than simply existing on a single continuum, pleasant and unpleasant emotional states are somewhat independent. Essentially happiness is not just the absence of negative emotions or unhappiness - we have to actively pursue thoughts and activities that will increase our happiness. In doing so, oftentimes we can actually rewire our brains to build and strengthen the neural pathways associated with happiness, or those associated with “happy” chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin.
Here are just a few evidence-based activities that have shown to increase happiness or subjective well-being:
Practice acts of kindness
Keep a gratitude journal
Write down 3 good things that happened every day and why
Get out in nature
Do something in which you find a state of “flow”
Visualize your best possible self
Socialize with friends
Forgive someone through a letter
Find the bright side in a situation
Practice optimistic thinking
And the list goes on. You might be surprised at how small and simple some of these techniques are. Sure. But ask yourself honestly how much of your attention or what percent of your day you currently put toward any of them. In fact, perhaps if we started focusing more on the little things, rather than waiting for the job or the vacation or the partner to make us happy, we’d realize that to be happy we actually need look no further than right here and right now.
It is also important to know that “person-activity fit” have a significant effect on results from person to person, meaning different people will resonate with some activities more than others, which is why it can be helpful to do some deep reflecting on your own strengths and values, or even work with someone on finding what works best for you. It also means that you don’t have to check them all off! Find something that is inherently interesting and rewarding to you so that it becomes self-reinforcing and feels like little effort.
Finally, it’s ok and can actually be important to vary the intentional activities you pursue to boost your happiness. In the same way that we quickly adapt to our life circumstances, such as a raise or a new car, we can also habituate to a lot of the activities we involve ourselves in. Researchers call this phenomenon hedonic adaptation, or the “hedonic treadmill.” I myself have struggled with evolving interests or feeling guilty when losing a spark I once had in a particular passion. However recognizing and leveraging this can be a powerful tool. We can moderate this effect by intentionally injecting variety, or many would even argue that the essence of mindfulness can counter our sense of mindless habituation in the first place.
So allow yourself to stay open and curious and continue to experiment. Don’t forget that the quickest way to kill happiness is to seek it too hard, or to focus too much on what you should be doing.
With that, I’ll leave you with one final thought provoker: While we might be able to have a significant impact our happiness through our own thoughts and actions, how are some of the larger “macro systems” impacting our happiness? How does society and the media influence the “subjective” definitions of happiness we internalize and ultimately measure our overall sense of life satisfaction by?
Perhaps happiness can be a little more complex than you thought… ;)
*Disclaimer: I am not a licensed clinical provider, nor have I yet completed a degree in psychology. From time to time on this blog I include my attempt to reflect on and consolidate research, opinions and information from a wide variety of sources and disciplines. While I have tried my best to be as accurate and judicious as possible in what I share and how I share it, I apologize in advance for any misuse of concepts, terminology, or representations.