So, what makes us happy and what can we do to be happier? Research has shown that greater happiness has beneficial and tangible benefits, including: larger social rewards (higher odds of marriage, lower odds of divorce, more friends, stronger social support, richer social interactions), superior work outcomes (greater creativity, higher productivity, higher quality of work, higher income), more active energy, a bolstered immune system and increased longevity.
Studies have shown that people generally have a chronic level of happiness – a so called happiness “set point”. This level of happiness is largely determined by three factors: (1) your genetics (2) intentional activity and (3) external circumstances.
(Note, with respect to the above pie chart, the percentages are representative of the variance in sources of happiness among individuals, not the relative weight of those sources for a given individual. In other words, at the individual level your current thoughts can make you unhappy (or happy)and override whatever genetic or circumstantial happiness factors.)
Our set points are strong happiness anchors. From an evolutionary basis, it is a survival advantage to become accustomed to the status quo. For example, in prehistoric times if a human was to find himself living in a forest spending all day foraging for fruit and nuts but surviving, it was a positive trait to be satisfied with that rather than want to go off and explore or do something that would risk survival. The converse of that is that when things happen to us we grow accustomed to that situation and return to our base level of happiness. For example, people who win the lottery are initially happier but then return to their prior state of happiness within 2 years. More surprising is that people who suffer disabilities often are less happy initially but return back up to their base level of chronic happiness after a period of time. Thus, it takes work to move our happiness set points.
What can you do to be happier? Effective strategies vary from person-to-person. Common ones that have been shown to be effective include:
- Focus on living in the moment. Take time each day (or multiple times a day) to just “be.” Similarly, avoid too much focus on goals. Do not think that having a goal and achieving it will lead to increased, long-term happiness. Frequent mindfulness meditation can be helpful. The book “Wherever You Go, There You Are” is a great book about living in the moment and developing a mindfulness meditation practice.
- Make time to volunteer. This works partly because doing good helps you feel better about yourself. Also this works is that seeing that you are better off than those around you gives you a sense of satisfaction with your own life. Similarly, avoid comparing yourself to others who seem better off than you are because that usually results in dissatisfaction. Try to avoid having a lot friends that make more than you do. Live in an area where you make at least the median of income.
- Practice moderation. There is actually a negative correlation between materialism and happiness. Buddha taught that craving leads to suffering. Those who are more focused on material things are generally less happy.
- Strive for contentment. Rethink your beliefs about the nature of happiness. Experiences of great pleasure or joy stand out in memory and it is easy to conclude that being truly happy means being in that state most all of the time. Yet, the reason those experiences stand out in our minds is that they don’t happen all the time. Instead of equating happiness with peak experiences, you would do better to think of happiness as a state of contentment and relative lack of anxiety or regret.
- Practice gratitude. Gratitude seems to be incompatible with negative emotions and those that consciously practice gratitude often show an increase in happiness. But don’t do it all the time. Keep a gratitude journal. Here is an article that will direct you to some good gratitude journal apps: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/5-awesome-ios-apps-starting-keeping-gratitude-journal/
- Buy experiences – not things. Studies have found that wealth can increase happiness where it is utilized to create experiences rather than purchasing material goods – which can actually have a negative effect on happiness.
- Incorporate Surprise. If you grow accustomed to pleasurable things they may no longer bring you happiness. For example, you may enjoy three short vacations more than one long one (because with the long one you get used to being on vacation). Even better, you may enjoy a spur of the moment long-weekend vacation the most of all due to the surprise factor. Don’t eat your favorite meal all the time. Vary the timing and frequency of intimate relations with your spouse or partner. The point is that we become immune to too much of a good thing.
Here’s a bit more about happiness and how surprise can increase happiness:
Dopamine, a chemical released in our brains, is primarily responsible for reward-driven behavior and pleasure seeking and can positively influence our happiness. When the brain encounters something new or unexpected dopamine is released. A research study was conducted where volunteers would lie in a fMRI machine, sucking on a tube that alternated drips of water and kool-aid onto their tongues. Sometimes the sequence of the drops was administered in a predictable pattern; other times the selection was random. The volunteers’ brain activity lit up like a Christmas tree only when the delivery was erratic (interestingly, the volunteers didn’t consciously notice whether the pattern was regular or random). Where the kool-aid drops followed a pattern, the production of dopamine dropped off as the brain recognized the pattern. So, novelty may confer an edge to achieving happiness.