The Work of Happiness

Do you ever wonder why some people are just happier? They smile; they are not easily annoyed or frustrated. They seem to go through life with a somewhat annoying good-nature (and when I say somewhat, what I actually mean is ‘totally’). Well, scientist must be equally curious (or annoyed) because they have put a great deal of research into questions like: What is happiness? Why are some people happier? and How can we be more happy? The questions have been here since the beginning of time, but solid scientific research on the subject exploded in the late 1990’s and has been veraciously studied ever since.

What is happiness?

Unfortunately, the first question you will need to discover on your own. And I don’t mean that in a light, obvious, skip over it kind of way. I mean how often do you actually take note of what makes you happy? Do you even know? Do you stop and notice that you have happy feelings when…?

Probably not, and you’re not alone. Most people don’t actually know what makes them happy. Most people have an idea of what they believe will make them happy, and I’m sorry to report, that they are usually wrong. Scientists have found that people rarely actually know what authentically makes them happy AND they spend a lot of their lives pursuing these misguided beliefs of what will make them happy, only to find it unsatisfying and very fleeting. If you don’t know what you’re looking for you can’t find it.

Why are some people happier?

Well, a convenient truth (and excuse for the rest of us) is that some people are actually biologically predisposed to a happier life. You are born with a certain brain chemistry and happiness set point. We have a kind of happiness ‘default setting’. This is where you tend to work from, a jumping off point. It’s like a thermometer set at 60 degrees…you can make it cooler, or you can make it hotter…but when you are not paying attention it goes back to 60.  So although this is good information, it doesn’t change the fact that we have control over much of our life happiness, joy, and fulfillment. We can’t just claim ‘nature’ wins and do nothing. In fact, our responsibility has been conveniently quantified: 50% of our happiness potential is said to be our biological set-point. 10% more is credited to our life circumstance—upbringing, socio-economic situation, and situation. This leaves a solid 40% of our life happiness clearly our direct responsibility. 40% is on you, and you can’t blame your overbearing mother or the state of the world!

Happiness is a choice. It is your personal choice.

So, how can we be happier?

How do you do anything well in life? You practice! It is dismally simple and yet evasive. The thing with any learning process or training is to take baby steps and just keep going. Here are some simple practices that seem to work:

  1. Notice. Keep a little log during the day. Just start noticing if there are moments that you feel happier. Paying attention to things that bring you joy will have two benefits. Firstly, you will begin to understand what authentically makes you happy rather than just assuming you know. And secondly, research has found that if you focus on something and become mindful of it, your brain will actually learn the pathway. It becomes easier for you to attain that particular state. CAUTION: this works both ways. A focus on a negative feeling or situation equally constructs a neuro-pathway of easy recall. What you focus on you will see AND it will become easier to find and clearer the more you focus on it.
  2. Find. Don’t wait for joy to find you. Look for it. Don’t be passive in your life. We manage to get up every morning to go to work. We take care of our families, our homes, our hygiene (well, some of us), our relationships, our cars…try taking literally 5 minutes each morning to consider new ways to enjoy your life. Do you like being outdoors? Then go outside for five minutes on your break and walk. Do you like reading, writing, cooking, playing…what ever it is…Discover it! Remember, you may not like the things you thought you did, or wished you could. Just find and pay attention to what you actually enjoy and give yourself permission to revel in it.
  3. Practice. Practice makes perfect they say! You DO have time. You have time for whatever you value. EVERYONE can find 5-15 minutes a day to focus on something they enjoy (or just think about the possibilities of what you might enjoy!).Create a pattern of discovery, mindfulness, and action. A few minutes a day add up to expertise over time!