Happiness is a goal we all share. The idea of pursuing happiness is not only amazingly ubiquitous, affecting basically every single human on the planet, but it’s often our most prioritized goal across many points of our lives.
And yet, most of us have a fairly estranged relationship with it. We don’t necessarily have the best grip of what happiness is, what actually drives it, or how we can derive more of it. We’re not born with this knowledge. We’re not taught it in school. And society definitely leads us astray just as much or more than it steers us in the right direction.
And so we’re mostly left to navigate it on our own. We struggle with it. We never quite become experts in the same way we do our vocations or our hobbies. It feels strange to practice it. We might even feel stigmatized to even think about it. (“Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.“ – John Stuart Mill.) Let’s change that.
The good news is in the last 20-30 years, the newly-burgeoning field of positive psychology has provided a lot of definitive answers on this topic. In this article,
- We’ll dig into what the current science has to say on the matter.
- We’ll talk about the types of happiness or well-being.
- We’ll cover whether or not we have the ability to change them.
- Where they can be changed, we’ll talk about methods and habits for how.
Of course, there’s a LOT of information there. We’ll only be able to scratch the surface. But through our program, and through other resources on our website and elsewhere that we’ll point to, a more well-rounded education can be achieved.
But first, let’s start with a definition of happiness.
What is Happiness?
Most philosophers define the term in one of two broad senses (Haybron, 2008). “Happiness as a state of mind: It denotes a preponderance of positive emotions and positive attitudes toward one’s life and its diverse components. The second usage of happiness, on the other hand, refers to a life of well-being or nourishment, a life that is good for a person, benefits the person. It is more about “doing good” than “feeling good”.”
Or to put it another way, the two theories of happiness are “hedonic” and “eudaimonic” happiness. The first focuses on pleasure attainment and pain avoidance. The latter emphasizes the process of living well.
These two theories are distinct. One can exist without the other. The most desirable life presumably requires high levels of each. That being said, the two are very much correlated, a point that isn’t lost on many philosophers including Aristotle, for whom happiness was acting virtuously and feeling good because of that. Finally, focusing on engagement and meaning are more strongly associated with improving well-being than a focus on pleasure.
How Do We Measure It?
How do we know all of this? In the last few decades, positive psychology has categorized “well-being” into various types, including “subjective well-being,” which is to say, simply asking a person how they feel. They subjectively provide the answer, and this becomes the baseline.
From there, you can then run experiments in the same way you test chemical reactions. Expose a test group to one behavior, action, etc., expose a control group to another, then ask them both for their subjective well-being before and after. From this, you can derive all sorts of really definitive answers about well-being – what drives it in the short term vs. longer term, what helps or hurts it, and how that effect translates against all sorts of classes of people and cultures. And that’s exactly what the field has been doing for nearly half-a-century.
What Makes Us Happy? Do We Have the Power to Make Ourselves Happier?
A person’s happiness level is determined by three factors:
- Genetically determined set point for happiness; (This explains about 50% of variation in happiness.)
- Life circumstances; (e.g., age, gender, education, culture; This accounts for only around an additional 10%.)
- Factors under one’s voluntary control, such as the activities and practices one chooses to engage in. (That leaves 40% to intentional activities!)
In other words, sure there are some factors that are outside our control, but each one of us has significant room for increasing our happiness levels through personal effort. (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005; Røysamb & Nes, this volume)
So Then How Do I Cultivate Happiness?
A great place to start is by developing some healthy habits. These habits should fall along the lines of the 4 pillars of a fulfilling life:
- [Self Awareness] Know yourself and know how to treat yourself;
- [Perspective] Have the right outlook on life;
- [Connection] Develop healthy relationships with others and the universe around you; and
- [Contribution] Find your place in the world through your unique virtues.
Or to break them down into healthy and actionable habits:
- Healthy habits of the body – e.g. Eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep absolutely impacts your well-being (e.g., Conner, Brookie, Carr, Mainvil, & Vissers, 2017; Mujcic & Oswald, 2016; Reed & Buck, 2009; Steptoe, O'Donnell, Marmot, & Wardle, 2008).
- Healthy relationships with ourselves – e.g. We need to have self-compassion/self-acceptance to be happy (Neff, 2003).
- Healthy habits of the heart and mind – Virtue is “the only reliable bet for a happy, flourishing life” (Hursthouse, 1999). We must find a path through which we can dedicate ourselves and to provide good in the world. This path should be unique and true to ourselves.
- Healthy relationships with others – Cultivating close relationships characterized by mutual trust, caring, and understanding is essential to well-being (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Diener & Seligman, 2002; Reis & Gable, 2003).
- Healthy connection to a larger beyond – Transcending connections to something larger than the self (e.g. God, universe, nature) act as a powerful source of meaning and purpose, and are critical ingredients of well-being (Haidt, 2006; Leary, 2004).
We cover each of these topics, and their related sub-topics in our program, navigating our way from a beginner’s perspective to mastery.
Misguided Theories of Happiness: “If I Could Only Get Everything I Want, and Get Rid of Everything I Don’t Want, I Could Be Happy.”
We’ve all had some version of this thought at some point. We might even be a little embarrassed that we did. It’s called Desire Fulfillment Theory, and it can be dangerous.
- For one, it’s not very realistic.
- Secondly, not everything we desire is actually good for our well-being!
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this kind of circumstantial happiness actually accounts for a fairly limited amount of what makes you happy (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).
Happiness is less a matter of what happens to us and more a matter of how we see the world and respond to it. Not external causes, but state of mind and how we react. This notion has wide support from the research in the field of positive psychology (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2008; Lyubomirsky, 2001).
As a result, there’s a growing movement in positive psychological interventions to focus on training people to “notice positive things more frequently and interpret things in a more positive light” (Quoidbach, Mikolajczak, & Gross, 2015).
That’s why in the first month of our program, we help our members “take notice.” It’s a great place to introduce yourself to well-being mindfulness.
Won’t My Efforts Just Wane Over Time?
This theory is referred to as The Hedonic Treadmill Theory – that basically our emotional systems adjust to almost anything that happens in our lives, good or bad (e.g., Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978). Related to that, Set-point Theory basically says that major life events like marriage, unemployment, illness, etc. will affect a person’s happiness only temporarily, after which their happiness level will regress to the default determined by heritable factors. (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996).
In other words, no matter what happens, we’re just going to be about as happy as our DNA has wired us to be. So… does that mean we can’t change our baseline level of happiness?
In short, no. While there are still some credibility to those theories, a recent consensus in the field is that people do not adapt quickly and/or completely to everything, and a person’s happiness level can be permanently altered (Lucas, 2007; Sheldon & Lucas, 2014; Tay & Kuykendall, 2013). Further, it can be permanently altered by purposeful intervention. For example, interventions that cultivate character strengths will increase well-being (e.g., Niemiec, 2017; Quinlan, Swain, & Vella- Brodrick, 2012).
So yes, you can consciously permanently change your well-being.
In fact, there are a whole bunch of other benefits we can expect when we choose to consciously improve our well-being. We can expect better health, better work performance, better social relationships, and more altruistic behavior. The happier we are, the happier we make others (De Neve, Diener, Tay, & Xuereb, 2013; Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). This of course dovetails into extrinsic vs. intrinsic goals. Focusing on wealth, fame, or an attractive image vs. personal growth, affiliation, community, etc. is linked to poorer well-being.
You can absolutely take positive actions and make yourself happier! Doing so requires that you take care of yourself, have the right perspective in life, build healthy connections, and contribute meaningfully in the world. If you do that, the effect won’t wane over time – you’ll develop truly lasting happiness!
Our program will be your guide.
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