“I just want to be happy!”
Young and old, male and female, rich or poor, we utter these six simple words. If you ask parents what they most want for their kids, they say the same thing— “I just want them to be happy.” Why is this precious human emotion so available to some and so elusive to others?
Although happiness has been the subject of writings from as far back as the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, it has only been the subject of serious study by psychologists for the past forty years.
What social scientists have figured out so far is that the source of our happiness comes from three distinct arenas—our genetic make-up, from events that occur in our lives, and from the values and beliefs we carry. This helps explain why happiness is indeed more difficult for some people to experience than for others.
Some Happiness Is Hard-wired
In studies of identical twins brought up in different family settings and environments, researchers found that almost half (48%) of our subjective sense of happiness is determined by our genes. That’s a lot of influence, but not all of it.
Psychologists have been long debating about what parts of our personality are due to “nature” vs. “nurture”. We currently know that there are nine aspects of temperament that are inborn. One of the nine aspects that differ from birth is mood. The hard truth is that some babies are happier than others from the start. Ask any parent with several children and they will tell you the difference in temperament from one to the next.
No wonder Winnie the Pooh is so loved and so timeless. The world really is populated with Piglets (the shy, sensitive types), Eeyores (the often depressed, serious, gloomier types), Tiggers (the hyperactive, funny, easily distractible types), and Pooh Bears (the calm, optimistic, adaptable types). Here’s a perfect example:
“There now. Did I get your tail back on properly, Eeyore?” says Christopher Robin. “No matter. Most likely lose it again anyway. It’s not much of a tail, but I’m sort of attached to it.”
Life Events Bring Temporary Happiness
We all tell ourselves stories about what will make us happy when we are not. Here are some of the classics:
- I’ll be happy when I have a girlfriend, make more money, have a job, house, car…
- I’ll be happy when I get to go on vacation, do what I want to do, have more sex…
- I’ll be happy when my kids are out of the house, getting good grades, out of trouble…
- I’ll be happy when my partner stops criticizing me, listens to me, hugs me…
- I’ll be happy when I don’t have homework, get into college, pass my test…
- I’ll be happy when I have my own room, get an allowance, stay up later…
What studies have shown is that while life events do indeed bring us happiness, the positive feelings that we get are quite short-lived. Even when a person accomplishes a goal that’s taken years to accomplish, the happiness generated from that success dwindles after a few months.
Painful, negative events also have an impact on our happiness. Some losses and traumas bring more sadness and last for weeks or months while others are more fleeting. All in all, life events determine about 40% of our happiness quotient at any given time. Significant but transient.
Our Values & Attitudes Create the Rest
Since the happiness derived from life events is fleeting, it’s critical to live according to values that can bring more lasting satisfaction. Value-driven happiness gives us the sense that our lives have meaning and fulfill some larger purpose. People whose satisfaction derives from religious faith, or spiritual or philosophical beliefs and practice remain happier even in the face of hardship.
Think about what provides the most meaning in your life. If you answered things like family, friends, community, and helping others, then you are likely to be on a path towards more happiness. Few people when facing death are saddened by regrets that they spent too much time with loved ones or helping the world become a better place.
Research also shows that unhappy people spend far more time comparing themselves to others. Instead of deriving happiness from within, unhappy people are too focused on what others are getting.
The grass often looks greener (and therefore brings dissatisfaction) when you focus on the other person’s prize, accomplishment, spouse, children, or job. If you want to learn to become happier, get to know yourself better. Lean into your strengths and interests. In this way, you can follow your own bliss— not someone else’s.
Rewarding Work Brings Us Joy
Our relationship to work is crucial to our happiness, no matter what line of work we are in. Since so much of everyday life includes doing things we call work— everything from laundry to dishes to childcare to actual tasks on the job— if we have a negative attitude towards work, it can dramatically affect our happiness.
Rewarding work is not about money either. Once people have enough money to meet their basic needs, having more money does not correlate with increased happiness. According to one recent survey, almost three-quarters of Americans say they would not quit their job even if they suddenly received enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. How does this make sense?
Work, when in alignment with our core beliefs, provides a way to live a life of value. As Franklin D. Roosevelt so wisely reminded us, “Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”
Happiness is Luck— and Then Some
If you look into where the word “happiness” came from, people used to think that it was all about luck. Hap, the Old English and Norse root of the word, means “luck” or “chance.” The Germans gave us the word Gluck, which to this day means both happiness and chance. Clearly the ancients believed that happiness was in the hands of the gods. Although so much of life is out of our control, we now know that we can change our mood states with conscious thought and practice.
In addition to meaningful work, one of best ways to become happier is to bring happiness to others around you in any way you can. For those who are suffering, offer empathy, kindness and compassion. Happiness grows in a circular motion. What we do for others helps us grow. Joy, like sorrow, is contagious. What we give, we receive, and the circle continues.