BY JONAH PAQUETTE, PSY.D.
photo: maiwind photocase.com
What does the word “happiness” mean to you? What emotions does it evoke, and what images spring to mind when you reflect on it? In your experience, what would you say are the key ingredients of meaningful, true happiness? Take a moment, close your eyes if you’d like, and consider what this concept means for you.
One of the many challenges of happiness research is the fact that the very notion of happiness can be quite difficult to define, making it equally difficult to understand how to be happy. Indeed, happiness is a topic that garners a great deal of attention; yet pinning down exactly what it is can prove elusive. There have been many different opinions over the years on what comprises true happiness. Mahatma Gandhi, for example, considered happiness to be something that occurred “when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” In contrast, the French physician and philosopher Albert Schweitzer once jokingly declared that happiness is “nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” Though these definitions may be interesting, they do little in terms of helping us understand happiness in life from a scientific perspective.
An important contribution of the positive psychology movement in recent years has been helping us gain a common understanding on how to live a happy life. For example, one of the world’s foremost experts in the psychology of happiness, Martin Seligman, initially defined happiness as being comprised of three separate yet interconnected elements:
+ Positive emotions
For Seligman, “positive emotions” refers to experiencing pleasant emotions regarding our past, present, and future, and is marked by the experience of generally positive mood-states across these domains. “Engagement” denotes the idea of flow, a state of mind in which we are so engrossed in the task at hand that time seemingly stops. Finally, “meaning” refers to the idea of being connected to a cause greater than oneself. According to this viewpoint of happiness, true well-being consists of a combination of each of these three components, with a sense of meaning or purpose serving as one of the most important keys to being happy.
Seligman has since expanded this definition of happiness to include two additional components to the three outlined above: relationships and accomplishments. Reflecting these, Seligman’s updated conceptualization of well-being can be remembered by the acronym PERMA, which denotes the following five elements:
+ Positive emotions
Another prominent researcher in the field of positive psychology, Sonja Lyubomirsky, has described happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, or worthwhile.” As with Seligman’s definition of happiness, this one too emphasizes the multiple layers of true happiness and well-being. Rather than consisting merely of pleasant, fleeting emotions, real happiness in life also includes a deeper sense of meaning, satisfaction with one’s life, and purpose.
Throughout this article, in order to help us remain on the same page and have a common understanding of how to find happiness, we will consider well-being and happiness to similarly consist of:
+ A strong presence of pleasant and positive emotional states, both in the present moment as well as towards the past and future;
+ A sense of connection to those around us, as well as to our pursuits, vocations, and activities;
+ A deep, underlying feeling of life satisfaction; and
+ A sense of meaning and purpose that can anchor us even when fleeting positive emotions may not be present.
As you can see, the sort of happiness that’s being described above is a much deeper and richer phenomenon than what we might expect. Whereas the “Hollywood” depiction of happiness focuses primarily on intense positive emotions such as joy, ebullience, or pleasure, happiness, as considered by positive psychologists, is a bit of a different experience. Positive emotions are certainly a part of the picture, but equally (perhaps even more so) important are those deeper experiences of meaning and purpose, satisfaction with our lives, and connection to both people and causes in our lives.
Happiness: A Timeless Pursuit
Although much of the research on happiness is recent—having emerged since the early 2000s since the birth of positive psychology—it should be pointed out that interest in the secrets of happiness dates back centuries. Indeed, the topic on how to be happy has been a concern of philosophers, theologians, and scholars for thousands of years. From Greek and Roman philosophers in the West to Buddhist and Confucian thinkers in the East, questions related to the “good life” have certainly been prominent throughout the years.
Within the field of psychology, the lion’s share of the focus has historically been centered on the reduction of misery and the management of illness. Nonetheless, there have been a handful of pioneers over the years who have attempted to investigate issues such as contentment, thriving, happiness, and flourishing. These individuals include luminaries such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Marie Jahoda, among others. For them, questions related to fulfillment, happiness, and optimal functioning were considered critical to understanding the human condition.
Despite a longstanding interest in the topic, the emergence of positive psychology has proven to be a remarkable turning point in the field of happiness research, and has led to a tremendous boom within both the mainstream and academia. For the first time in history, researchers have begun to approach our timeless interest in happiness by utilizing rigorous methods of scientific inquiry.
Today, we know more about how to find happiness and boost well-being than at any other point in history. Best of all, rather than having to rely on testimonials or theory, we can rely on science and research to guide us in our search for ways to be happy. Recent research has helped us to understand which strategies do and do not boost our well-being in the long term. Above all, the aim of this article is to present these findings to you and to teach you the necessary skills for a happier life.
The Benefits of Being Happy
If you’re like most people, perhaps you considered starting a new exercise regimen, changing your diet, or reducing your substance use. Each of these would undoubtedly be a great place to start, and there’s research to support each of these ideas when it comes to our health.
But it just so happens that there’s another way to improve our health, increase our life expectancy, strengthen our relationships, and even improve our job performance: Namely, becoming a happier person. By doing so, we have the opportunity to vastly improve our mental and emotional well-being, strengthen our physical health, and transform our lives. Best of all, the latest happiness studies suggest that it’s not a case in which people become happier because of these benefits; rather, the reverse appears to be true—people who are happier tend to be healthier and more fulfilled in life.
We all know from personal experience that being happy is a good thing in and of itself. Indeed, for most of us, personal happiness (or the happiness of those we love most) factors heavily into many of our major life decisions. But though it undoubtedly feels good on an emotional level to be happy, it turns out that this is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, as more research comes out related to the psychology of happiness and well-being, the more we understand just how critical it is across a large number of areas in our life.
One of the most exciting findings to emerge from the happiness literature is that happiness doesn’t just feel good—it’s good for us as well. Although happier people perform better than less happy individuals across a number of domains, four areas, in particular, stand out: improved psychological health, better physical health, stronger social relationships, and enhanced cognitive performance.
+ Better Psychological Health
Negative emotional states, such as anger, sadness, or fear, prompt very narrow, survival-oriented behaviors. As an example, think of the “fight or flight” response that we experience when we feel acutely anxious or fearful. Our focus narrows, we perceive threats more intensely, and our mind and body go on high alert. This deeply ingrained tendency is wonderful when it comes to things like survival and spreading our gene pool. Unfortunately, it’s pretty lousy when it comes to our own happiness.
Whereas negative emotions prompt the type of responses outlined above, positive and pleasant emotions have the opposite function in our lives. As psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has shown, positive emotional states serve to “broaden and build” our personal resources. We seek out novel experiences, connect with others interpersonally, and think more creatively.
Psychologically, positive emotional states help buffer against negative experiences, increase our resilience, and can actually help to “undo” the effects of negative emotions on both a psychological and even physiological level. Moreover, this cycle has a way of feeding on itself, such that Fredrickson has dubbed it the “upward spiral” of well-being.
In recent years, there has been a groundswell of research emerging on the psychological benefits of becoming a happier person. By fostering the skills in the pages to come (such as gratitude, compassion, and interpersonal connection), happiness studies show that doing so can buffer against a wide range of psychological problems including depression, anxiety, stress, and more. These skills can be utilized not only to treat these sorts of problems but to buffer against their recurrence as well. Overall, from a psychological standpoint, it certainly pays to become a happier person. But although this is a worthy goal in and of itself, some of the most impressive benefits to boosting one’s happiness lie in other parts of our lives.
+ Better Physical Health
Reflect for a moment on the last time you visited your doctor for a health check-up. You probably remember being asked a number of questions about your health habits, such as how often you exercise, what your diet consists of, how much alcohol you consume, and so forth. This makes good sense because these sorts of behavioral choices can have a tremendous impact on your physical health. But do you know what else makes a huge difference when it comes to your health? You guessed it—becoming a happier person!
There have been a large number of studies to suggest that happiness and well-being not only feel good—they’re good for us as well. Research suggests that happier individuals live longer lives, have stronger immune system functioning, and get sick less frequently than less happy people. In one longitudinal study, it was found that happier people were less likely to fall prey to chronic health conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, and were even less likely to struggle with substance use problems. By actively learning how to be happy and attending to it with the importance it deserves, it appears that we can become healthier too.
+ More Fulfilling Social Relationships
Renowned psychiatrist George Vaillant once famously stated, “happiness is love—full stop.” The sort of “love” Vaillant was describing was essentially close interpersonal connection and the impact that it has on a person’s psychological well-being. In recent years, numerous studies have supported this notion—that our own happiness is inextricably connected to our interpersonal relationships. Moreover, there appears to be a bidirectional relationship between these two variables. In other words, happier people tend to have stronger, more meaningful relationships with those around them; but by also consciously fostering these relationships, we can have a powerful effect on our own happiness in life.
+ Better Cognitive Performance
You may be wondering about whether happiness might have a negative effect on things like job performance and achievement. Indeed, we sometimes run into the stereotype of happy people lacking the “edge” they need to succeed in these realms. But do “happy people finish last,” to borrow an old phrase? Actually, a happiness study suggests that the exact opposite is true: Happier people perform better across a range of cognitive tasks and tend to be more flexible in their thinking as well as being more creative. These benefits are reflected in studies of both students and adults in the workplace, with findings suggesting that happier individuals perform significantly better than their less happy counterparts. Indeed, happier individuals are more likely to obtain jobs, succeed in those jobs, gain promotions, and earn more money. So it pays to be happy, not just figuratively, but literally as well!
Roadblocks to Happiness and How to Overcome Them
Have you ever daydreamed about owning a bigger home, purchasing a shiny new car, or getting a long-awaited promotion at work? If so, you’ve probably done this for a very specific reason: you believed that these supposed “secrets of happiness” would make you a happier person. We all fall into this pattern of thinking and acting, and many of our major life choices are made with the goal of happiness in mind. Indeed, everything from our relationship choices to where we decide to live is influenced by an internal (often unconscious) decision about whether it will make us happier.
The idea that if something good happens to us, then we’ll be happy, is a very common belief that most of us fall prey to from time to time. I call it the “if/then” style of happiness seeking, and it tends to promote the idea that if we achieve some desirable outcome in our lives, then we’ll be happy. For example, we might tell ourselves that if we were to purchase a beautiful new home, or if we were to move to a new city, then we would be happy.
Although the “if/then” style of thinking is certainly seductive when it comes to our happiness, we all know from personal experience that these sorts of external changes rarely lead to lasting and true well-being. It’s not that good things happening to us don’t make us happy, because they do. It’s just that positive changes like those outlined above make us less happy than we expect, and the gains that we achieve last a much shorter time than we expect.
A classic example of this phenomenon can be seen in studies conducted on lottery winners. Just as we might expect, winning the lottery typically leads to an immediate and sizable boost in terms of a person’s happiness. The problem is that these gains are quite fleeting, almost akin to a happiness “sugar high.” Indeed, within a handful of months, most lottery winners return to their original baseline level of happiness and life-satisfaction.
As it turns out there are many examples like this, of positive changes in our lives that we expect to lead to lasting increases in happiness but don’t. Some common examples of things that many people expect to make them happier but don’t, in the long run, include (but are not limited to):
+ Money and Income: Most, if not all, people think that money is one of the essential keys to being happy. Once basic needs are met, additional money makes very little, if any, difference in terms of a person’s happiness level. Some estimates suggest that once an annual income of roughly $75,000 is met, additional money makes no difference when it comes to making a person happier.
+ Geography: Studies show that with the exception of people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, the average person’s happiness is not affected by where they live geographically. Differences do exist when comparing countries, but that is more related to systems of government and/or oppression. Climate and geography, however, do not appear to play a role in happiness.
+ Getting Married: Research suggests that following an initial boost in happiness (roughly 18 months on average), married individuals tend to revert back to their previous happiness baseline levels.
+ Having Children: Although there is conflicting research on this topic, numerous studies suggest that day-to-day levels of happiness and life satisfaction fall among parents following the birth of a child, and are particularly low during the teenage years. Only once a child moves off to college or leaves the home do happiness scores tend to revert back to their original baseline among parents.
+ Physical Attractiveness: Studies show that the people who score the lowest of any profession for happiness are models.
But why do all these seemingly wonderful things have such little (if any) benefit to our long-term happiness? The answer lies in a few key areas, which we will now briefly turn our attention to. As it turns out, there are a handful of factors on how to be happy, making it hard for us to feel lastingly buoyant; three of which we will briefly discuss below.
– Hedonic Adaptation
Human beings have a remarkable ability to adapt to changes in their environment. For example, think of the last time you entered a dark movie theater—at first it was probably quite difficult to see, but shortly thereafter your eyes adjusted and you could make your way to your seat. Or consider the way that a rather unpleasant odor stops being so noticeable after a short while. These examples demonstrate a process called physiological adaptation—in other words, our ability to adapt to physiological changes in our environment.
A similar process occurs when it comes to our happiness and is known as hedonic adaptation. This refers to the idea that we tend to “adjust” to so-called hedonic (pleasant) changes in our environment, and find ourselves back to our baseline level of happiness rather quickly. It helps explain, for example, why lottery winners revert to their previous levels of happiness only a few months after they win an enormous sum of money. But it also helps explain why, for example, accident victims who lose the use of their legs return to their prior level of happiness in a somewhat similar time frame.
A key take-home message regarding the psychology of happiness is that hedonic adaptation is neither good nor bad. In fact, the same process that drags us down after something wonderful happens helps bring us back up following tragedy. So just as financial windfalls and strokes of good fortune fade over time, so too do the painful emotions associated with loss and setbacks. But due to its tendency to “undo” the benefits of positive changes in our lives, hedonic adaptation serves as a powerful barrier to lastingly increasing our happiness. And it helps explain why so many of the factors that we normally think will make us lastingly happier (such as more money, a change in appearance, entering a new relationship, and so forth) lose their luster after a short while.
– The Genetic Lottery
Our genes play a powerful role in many areas of our lives, from our personalities and our appearance to our risk of certain illnesses and diseases. As it turns out, our genes also play a powerful role when it comes to our happiness levels. Through researching both fraternal and identical twins, as well as non-twin siblings, scientists have come to find that a large portion of our happiness is genetically influenced.
How much of an influence do genes have in this area? Estimates vary, but most studies seem to suggest that our genes account for as much as 40-50% of our level of happiness in life. If you’ve ever known someone, for example, who seems to take setbacks in stride, or always seems to see the glass as “half full,” there’s a strong likelihood that that individual may have hit the genetic lottery when it comes to happiness. Conversely, we all know people for whom being happy seems to be an uphill struggle, and those individuals may have been less fortunate when it comes to a “genetic” predisposition to happiness.
Although our genes play an important role in determining our happiness baseline or “set point,” it’s crucial that we don’t take this message too far. Indeed, it’s better to think of it being akin to weight: Some of us may be naturally heavy or thin, and in the absence of proper diet or exercise we may drift towards where our genes predispose us. However, this does not mean that we’re doomed to be mere reflections of our genetic “set point,” and we are all able to transform ourselves based on the choices and behaviors we engage in, whether in terms of weight or happiness.
– Our “Negative” Brain
Have you ever felt as if a dozen good things can happen to you in a day, but a single bad experience is all you can think about when you get home that night? If you are having a hard time figuring out how to become happy in a difficult situation, you’re not alone, and in fact, we can thank another key barrier to happiness for this sort of experience: our very own brain. When it comes to our happiness, it’s worth remembering that our brains developed over the millennia not to be happy, but rather to survive. And sometimes the very things that helped us to survive as a species also make it hard to feel lastingly content, peaceful, and happy.
Life was quite difficult for our early ancestors, with constant threats of famine, warfare, and natural disaster surrounding them at all times. In order to help us to survive, we became highly attuned to threats and danger, and to focus on the negative aspects of our environment rather than the positive ones. And although our world has changed in many ways since that time period, it’s a drop in the bucket from an evolutionary standpoint. As a result, we are still operating with much of the same basic “machinery” that our ancestors did hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Our brain has a built-in “negativity bias” in order to help us survive. This means we remember bad outcomes much more easily than good ones, and negative events impact us much more strongly than positive ones. This negativity bias has been shown to be so strong, that some studies suggest we need to experience several positive events during our day to overcome just a single negative one. The neuropsychologist Rick Hanson has described our brain thusly as being like “Teflon for good, and Velcro for bad.” This negativity bias leads us to feel unhappy and stressed much of the time, especially if we are not actively working on shifting out mindset towards the positive.
What’s Really Under Our Control?
Although the barriers to true happiness listed previously are formidable, they are not insurmountable. And despite all the factors that make it difficult to become happier (such as hedonic adaptation, our genes, and the negativity bias), it is absolutely possible to become lastingly happier. We just need to look in the right place and foster the right kinds of habits.
If the bad news (for some) is that genes account for up to 40-50% of a person’s happiness level, the good news (for all of us) is that our circumstances around us account for only a small portion of our happiness—as little as 10%. Keep in mind, these sorts of external circumstances (how much money we earn, whether we are married or not, where we live, etc.) are where we tend to look to become happier. Yet these things (which can be very difficult to change in the first place), account for only a small portion of our happiness level.
The best news of all is that we are left with an entire 40-50% entirely in our control, and determined by the choices we make, the mindset we cultivate, and the habits we engage in. There are 10 core principles that have been shown to create lasting increases in our happiness levels. Each has been researched extensively, backed by numerous scientific studies, and each has been linked to meaningful changes in a person’s happiness over time and with practice. Best of all, none of these principles are fixed; rather, they are all learnable, and changeable, with effort.
What Are the 10 Keys to Lasting Happiness?
If you need more tips on how to become happy in life, these practices have been strongly linked in many research papers to lasting well-being:
Studies show that fostering a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the positive aspects of our lives has a powerful impact on our own happiness level, making it one of the major keys to happiness. By shifting our focus towards the good in our lives, research suggests we can become much happier.
2. Kindness and Compassion
Another crucial element of well-being comes through expressions of kindness and caring towards others. Indeed, numerous studies show that giving to others, whether through formal volunteer work or other means, is one of the most powerful ways to be happy.
Around 80% of people tend to be harder on themselves than they are on others. Unfortunately, this sort of self-criticism takes a tremendous toll on our well-being. Self-Compassion—learning to treat ourselves with kindness and caring—has been shown to have powerful benefits on our mental and physical health.
Some studies suggest that we spend roughly half of our waking hours mentally detached from the present moment; in other words, we may be physically in one place, but mentally we are somewhere else. This same research suggests that the more our mind wanders, the less happy we tend to be. Mindfulness—the ability to be non-judgmentally aware in the present moment—has been shown to have immense benefits to our happiness and well-being, along with our physical health.
We’ve all heard it said that it’s best to see the glass as “half full,” but recent research underscores the importance of optimism to both our mental and physical well-being. Indeed, optimists tend to be both happier and healthier than pessimists across many different areas.
6. Interpersonal Connection
We live in a world of infinite connection these days thanks to technology and social media. Unfortunately, some studies suggest that the quality of our interpersonal connections has deteriorated as the quantity has gone up. This is unfortunate because much research shows that one of the best ways to finding happiness is to enhance the quality of our closest interpersonal relationships.
When we are hurt, anger is a natural response. But holding onto anger for months, or even years can have a toxic effect on our mental and physical health. One of the secrets on how to live a happy life is learning to let go of this anger can free us, and the practice of forgiveness has been linked to a number of powerful benefits to our health and happiness.
8. Using Our Strengths
Learning to identify and harness our own personal strengths is one of the many ways to be happy. In fact, it has been shown to have a number of benefits when it comes to boosting our own level of happiness and achieving a greater sense of meaning and purpose in our lives.
9. Savoring Positive Experiences
Sometimes good things can happen in our lives but we quickly move onto the next thing. Similarly, because negative experiences have a much more powerful effect on us, it’s easy to lose sight of the good experiences that might occur each day. The skill of savoring is one of the main keys to happiness as it helps us to amplify and draw out positive and pleasant experiences, to better allow them to “sink in” from a happiness standpoint.
10. Caring For Our Bodies and Health
Among the many ways to be happy is by taking good care of yourself. During times of stress, it’s particularly easy to lose sight of self-care, and our health is one of the first areas to suffer. By attending to our sleep, exercise patterns, and even the food that we eat, we can lay the groundwork for increased happiness and well-being.
This piece is excerpted with permission from The Happiness Toolbox: 56 Practices to Find Happiness, Purpose and Productivity in Love, Work and Life by Jonah Paquette.