What exactly is happiness anyway?

I am determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may find myself. For I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition.
Martha Washington
What is happiness

Happiness is often an unhelpful term we use to describe too vague and too wide a variety of emotions. So how should we think about happiness?

Our ideas and expectations of happiness can actually form a hindrance to experiencing it. A GPS is not particularly useful in directing us to our destination without exact coordinates so wouldn't it help to have a better idea of what happiness is? To take the metaphor a step further we're a car that is always driving and so our expectations of 'arriving' at happiness also cause problems.

Giving happiness a framework

Martin Seligman, arguably the most knowledgeable psychologist in the world when it comes to positive psychology broke down the idea into 3 broad types of happiness.

  1. The Pleasant Life - Fun
  2. This involves maximizing feelings of pleasure. You aim to construct a life with as much pleasure as possible. Think of this type of happiness as 'fun'

  3. The Engaged Life
  4. This type of happiness involves finding ways to utilize our best talents. It's the happiness we derive from being good at something and being able to utilize those talents. It may provide as much fun but it still brings happiness. Think of hobbies, relationships and spare time which we find engaging and feel connected.

  5. Meaningful Life
  6. Similar to the engaged life but instead our talents and skills are used to serve a higher purpose. We find a way to contribute to a cause and community which benefits others.

What is not happiness

In our Western society we've come to expect happiness from 'things'. If we're not happy it's because we don't 'have the things' which will make us happy. But research has shown that our circumstances and environment contribute to only 10% of our overall happiness. Let me introduce you to some very interesting research. Imagine two groups of people. One group is about to win lotto. The other group will fall victim to a tragic accident and become paraplegics. Who do you think will be happiest with their new circumstances? The lotto winners of course and the research shows this is correct. Feeling miserable about terrible things is a perfectly normal response. But would you guess that in 6 months time both groups of people are just as happy as they were before these life changes. That's exactly what research discovered way back in 1978 and it's why psychologist have looked at other sources of happiness. It's called hedonistic adaptation, and basically means a certain amount of your happiness is determined by your brain looking at how well you're doing compared to yesterday.

Happiness is in the left prefrontal cortex

Just how much of my happiness is determined genetically?

Lets imagine identical twins separated at birth. Raised in different worlds with differing educations, income levels, activity levels and everything else you can think of. Apart from their genes they're different people with different lives. What a brilliant opportunity to learn about happiness right? This is precisely how Professor David Lykken's research was able to determine how much of our happiness is governed by our genes. Well it turns out to be around 50%, which is good or bad news depending upon how you look at it. So no matter what happens in your life a big contributor to your overall well being is your happiness set-point, the genetically determined contributor. It why some people just seem to be happy and others are not so lucky. This has been the framework most scientist have used for the last 30 years but don't get too caught up on it just yet. There is some new research showing that our set point may change and its based upon the longest term study of happiness conducted to date. The German socio economic study has shown that up to 30% of people reported changes in overall happiness which are permanent and lasting. While we've been studying happiness for quite a while we don't really have a solid grasp of the genetic contributors. We certainly know it plays a large part and but it now seems there may be ways to change our levels of happiness and make them stick.

Your brain tricking you out of happiness

You've now won the lotto and have $100 million dollars in your bank account. By chance you happen to stumble upon $100. Do you know the research shows you'll find this experience less enjoyable. Seems obvious right, but did you ever think about how winning the lotto could rob you of happiness? I would find other ways to be happy you say. Of course, who would refuse winning the lotto in order to be happy. Money is only the example used to explain the concept of adaptation. Research done way back in the 1950's showed educated soldiers were less happy with a promotion than there uneducated equivalents. The theory is that uneducated soldiers believed themselves to be lucky while the educated were less appreciative because the promotions were more likely to be expected. So far we know in order to be happy we should be uneducated and poor right? No that's not quite it but what we can take from these finding is that a large part of our happiness will be relative and it adjusts back to what scientists call our 'set-point'. Your happiness set-point is the amount of happiness your body is hardwired to experience.

Can I train my brain to be happy?

By looking at the electrical activity of people experiencing happiness we know that the feel good centre is in the top left part of your brain. It's called the left pre-frontal cortex. Here is the brilliant part about this knowledge. The brain responds to training like our muscles to exercise. In fact we can scan the brains of taxi drivers and see they have far more developed memory centres (hippocampus). They're able to visually remember things so well because that is what they've trained. Tetris players do the same thing to their brains, chess players to theirs and so on. Thinking exercises and patterns of though rewire our brain over time. This is precisely why positive psychology works and has a solid basis in science. So how do we train the left pre-frontal cortex and improve our happy muscles? Read our happiness cheat sheet.

So think of happiness like this

So summing up the above: Happiness is a one of 3 types of relative feelings we experience in the left prefrontal cortex of our brains and is influenced by our genes, thinking patterns and to a lesser degree our circumstances.

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