We want to be happy. No one wakes up in the morning thinking, “My goal for today is to see how miserable I can be.” No, something deep inside us yearns for happiness and joy. This longing is a natural part of our being, and people from every part of the globe claim happiness to be among their most prized goals.
For some time now, I’ve had an interest in the science of happiness. I look around and see some people who seem to be naturally upbeat and positive almost no matter what life deals them. My father was one of these people. He was a multi-millionaire who lost his entire estate in the latter years of his life. And for twenty years he lived in almost constant pain from angina as well as a couple of broken vertebrae in his back. But he was happy.
We are learning a lot about happiness from the social sciences. For example, research on identical twins raised separately from birth has proven that fifty percent of our happiness is hard-wired. Many social psychologists call this our happiness “set point.” Imagine a ten point scale. Some, by the good fortune of their genetics, are high on the scale and don’t have to work so hard at being happy. It’s part of their DNA. Others are lower on the scale. They have to work harder if they want to be happy. Bummer.
Science also tells us that about ten percent of our happiness is due to circumstances—where we live, how much money we make, state of our health, and so on. Only ten percent! That is amazing to me. Most of us think that this is what happiness is all about—accumulating more wealth, fame, status, beauty, talent, and power. The more we accumulate and achieve the happier we’ll be. But I repeat, it’s only ten percent. The outward appearance (facts and circumstances) of our lives is not the gateway to bliss that we assume it to be. Whether rich versus poor, beautiful versus plain, or famous versus unknown makes little difference in our happiness. The science says that people who experience good or bad fortune (winning a big promotion, moving to a new home, versus losing a big client or even suffering an accident) return near to their set point after six to twelve months.
I get this. I lived in Bolivia for two years, one of the poorest nations in the western hemisphere. I saw lots of poverty and unhappiness. But I also saw gratitude, love, and joy among these poor people. I realized back then that happiness is not, fundamentally, about affluence and life circumstances.
So, if genetics and circumstances account for sixty percent of our happiness, what about the other forty percent? Many psychologists who study happiness (Martin Seligman, Shawn Echor, Sonja Lyubomirksy) have given this forty percent a name. They call it intentional activity. These are mental strategies and conscious choices that lead us to happiness. People who are happier are not so because life treats them differently but because they make better choices. They have better mental strategies for dealing with life.
So for me, intentional activity is not as simple as “choosing to be happy.” In fact, happiness is really less about mood and more about the discipline to practice strategies that result in a long-term sense of contentment, meaning, and well-being.
So my question is are you willing to take “ownership” of your happiness and commit to practicing new ways of seeing and thinking that will empower you to become a happier person?
Good. My part is to carry on with my research and my own practice of happiness so I can continue to share science-based strategies to help you exercise your forty percent and, thereby, become a happier person.