CAN YOU MAKE YOURSELF HAPPIER?

[Happiness & Well-Being Series, Part 1]  by Audrey Berger, Ph.D. – Life Coach at Turning Point Life Coaching

[This article is Part 1 in a recurring series entitled “Happiness & Well-Being.”  Look for future articles in this series by clicking on the “Happiness and Well-Being” topic category in the side bar.]

Happiness Word Cloud

“At every moment in my life I have a choice. Moments add up to a lifetime; choices add up to a life” Tal Ben-Shahar

Most of us believe that our happiness has a lot to do with our life circumstances, since that seems only logical. And, because of this belief, we often pursue happiness by trying to alter our circumstances. But, as counterintuitive as this may seem, researchers have concluded that only around 10% of our happiness can be attributed to our life circumstances (Lyubormirksy, 2007).

HOW IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE THAT LIFE CIRCUMSTANCES HAVE SUCH A SMALL IMPACT ON HAPPINESS?

Based on twin studies, researchers have concluded that around 50% of an individual’s happiness level is genetically determined. Just as people appear to have a genetically determined set point for weight, it is now believed that people have a similar kind of set point for happiness – a characteristic baseline level of happiness to which they return after experiencing a shift (up or down) in happiness.  There is no doubt that people do experience boosts in happiness from events such as getting a raise, moving to a new location, getting married, changing appearance, and so forth, but they are at best generally short-lived increases. Very few of the things that we normally think will make us happy cause lasting changes in our happiness.  In a famous study by Brickman, Coates & Janoff-Bulman (1978) for example, 22 lottery winners reported a boost in happiness initially, but less than a year later they were no happier than people in the comparison group who hadn’t won the lottery.

There are a few reasons for the short-term impact of changes in life circumstances. First, we adapt physiologically to all kinds of things, such as temperature, odors, sensations, etc., and it appears that a similar process occurs with our emotional reactions to life experiences. Second, there is the phenomenon of rising expectations: the more we have, the more we want or think we need, leading us to become less satisfied over time.

There are some potential advantages to this mechanism of emotional adaptation. For instance, if people perpetually remained in the “falling in love” stage of a romantic relationship, it would interfere with their ability to accomplish things in life. Adapting to positive changes also allows us to better enjoy the special events that occur. In addition, since we also adapt to situations that cause a decrease in our happiness, adaptation buffers us in the face of negative life events; this contributes to resilience and allows us to continue to push forward with our lives in the face of adversity.

IS IT IMPOSSIBLE THEN TO MAINTAIN AN INCREASE IN HAPPINESS?

Earlier I mentioned that about 50% of happiness is genetic and around 10% is a function of life circumstances, which of course only adds up to 60%. So, what makes up the remaining 40%? According to Lyubormirksy and other psychologists that study happiness, the remainder consists of what we do and how we think. They argue that around 40% of our happiness is in our control, but that we often look for it in the wrong places. We tend to focus on changing our circumstances, and often don’t recognize the things we can do that would truly contribute to lasting happiness.

Even though our “happiness set point” is largely genetic, recent research shows that it can, in fact, be changed (Achor, 2010; Biswas-Diener & Diener, 2008; Seligman, 2002). There is growing evidence that anyone can increase their happiness and maintain it, but remaining at a higher level requires knowledge, on-going effort, and commitment.

WHY BOTHER TO EXERT THIS KIND OF EFFORT TO BECOME HAPPIER?

Most people in the world cite being happy as a major goal for themselves and their children. This may be primarily because it just feels good to be happy, but it is also true that happiness has a significant positive effect on many aspects of our lives (Anchor, 2010; Biswas-Diener &  Diener, 2008; Frederickson, 2009; Lyubormirsky, 2007; Lyubormirsky, 2013; Seligman, 2002). Research has shown that being happy can improve health and lengthen lifespan, raise work productivity (by up to 50%), improve learning, test performance and problem solving, increase creativity, and contribute to greater career success. Increases in happiness also lead to greater resilience, self-esteem and self-confidence, to higher levels of social support and to larger networks of friends. When we have experienced a negative event, positive emotions help to counteract negative emotions. Despite all the benefits we receive from being happy, the goal is not a total absence of negative emotions, because that would be unrealistic and even maladaptive. Beyond a certain level, happiness carries some risks (e.g. if you’re so happy that you become cavalier about health concerns that need to be addressed), and negative emotions are necessary for our survival when we’re in danger.

Barbara Frederickson (2009) has concluded that there is actually an “optimal ratio” of positive to negative emotions. Since the physiological impact of negative emotion is so intense, people seem to require 3 positive emotions to counteract the impact of just 1 negative emotion. Consequently, if your positive-to-negative emotion ratio is lower than 3:1, you are at risk of impaired health and reduced well-being. Frederickson has found that, on average, most Americans have a positive-to-negative ratio of 2:1, which has led her to conclude that most of us need to increase our positivity.

Next in the Happiness & Well-Being Series – Part 2:

REFERENCE LIST AND SUGGESTED READING

Achor, Shawn. (2010). The happiness advantage: the seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Biswas-Diener, Robert; Diener, Ed (2010-01-22). Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth. Wiley Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Brickman P., D. Coates, and R. Janoff-Bulman. (1978) Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 36(8):917-27.

Frederickson, B. (2009) Positivity:  top-notch research reveals the 3 to 1 ratio that will change your life. N.Y.: ThrHanson, Rick (2013-10-08). Hardwiring happiness: the new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence. Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Lyubomirsky, Sonja (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Lyubomirsky, Sonja (2013). The myths of happiness: what should make you happy, but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy, but does. Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Seligman, Martin E. P. (2002-10-02). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Free Press. Kindle Edition.ee Rivers Press.

Originally Posted on March 1, 2014 at www.thetransitionnetwork.org