The pursuit of happiness

21 09 2014

It shouldn’t be a surprise that true, lasting happiness comes when we give, when we look outside of ourselves, when we are kind. So, what makes happiness a worthy goal? Well, research has shown that happiness results in longevity, better immune system, more creativity, better negotiation skills, better academic performance, more productivity, being more trustworthy etc., among others.

It makes sense because happiness is a state in which we have our minds open, we have positive emotions and feelings, we worry less and hence have more energy to deal with life.  Happy people:

  • have fulfilling relationships
  • are often spiritual or religious
  • savor the pleasures of the moment
  • have meaningful life goals
  • practice optimism about future
  • feel more gratitude
  • tend to help others more
  • make physical activity a habit

Sonja Lyubomirsky says that there are two main ways positive emotions help us:

  1. They open us. Literally widens the boundaries of our awareness and thus help us look at the big picture. (Directly relates to being more creative, problem-solving etc.)
  2. They transform us for the better. In fact, they bring out the best in us.

She moves on and emphasizes that a positivity ratio (no. of positive emotions/no. of negative emotions) of at least 3 is essential to experience happiness. Of course, we need to track this ratio on a daily basis for a while, say two weeks or so, to be able to comment upon our general degree of positivity. She has put up a free website to enable people to know and track their positivity ratio: How nice of her. It’s disturbing to realize that ratios lower than 3 are very common.

And we need to consciously strive to become happier. This brings us to the question  – how to go about it? Or in the first place – is it possible to become happier? The pessimistic arguments include:

  • We all have a set-point or baseline of happiness that we are born with (determined by our genetics)
  • Happiness is a life-long personality trait, something which cannot be changed easily
  • We succumb to the phenomenon of “hedonic adaptation”, which means that we all adapt to things which give us happiness and after a while they don’t make us happy any more.

While there is ring of truth to these ideas, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues believe that there are intentional activities we can pursue to counteract our set points and hedonic adaptation. According to them, the determinants of happiness are:

  • 50% – genetic disposition
  • 10% – circumstances
  • 40% – intentional activity

While these percentages are approximations, she draws our attention to the small role of our circumstances in determining our happiness. She also alerts us to the fact that the 40% intentional activity may increase or decrease our set-point. So, we must be really careful about our actions.

Some of the things that hinder the process of achieving happiness include certain mental habits, which include our inability to correctly judge what is going to make us happy and how long will it make us happy. A phenomenon, referred to by Dan Gilbert, a happiness expert, as affective forecasting suggests that we are bad at predicting how a life event will affect us. We usually revert sooner than we think we will. Our psychological immune system works better than we think it does. Hedonic treadmill also adversely affects our pursuit of happiness.

The point is we should not look for happiness in wrong places. As Daniel Kahneman deduced, above a certain point ($75k per annum), increase in income level does not result in increase in level of well-being. Another psychologist, Tom Gilovich has found out that people derive greater happiness down the line from the money spent on an experience in contrast to the money spent on a material good.

To conclude, let me put down the three essentials that contribute to happiness.

  • Moderate levels of Physical exercise
  • Sound sleep
  • Sense of achievement

But trying to become happier is like trying to lose weight. You need to work on it consciously, steadily, and with perseverance. And we were given our first happiness practice. It’s called “Three Good Things”.

Instructions: Each day, write down three things that went well for you that day. Be as detailed as possible. Focus on positive feelings. Explain what you think caused it.

This is a good start. What do you say?

Part 2 of Science of Happiness series.

Part 1



10 responses

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