The New Science of Happiness – 2

The here and now

Some might say that this balance of 10% contribution of life circumstances to 40% everyday activities means that to be happy, long-term plans and goals should be ignored in favour of the here and now. After all, why bother to strive for a better job if it won’t increase your happiness? Surely it’s better to just do whatever makes me happy right now? Long-term plans do, of course, contribute to our day-to-day happiness, but indirectly. A better job, leading to more money can mean we have more freedom to do those day-to-day things which we like. Life circumstances and day-to-day activities clearly interact. However, a common mistake people make is to focus too on their life circumstances to the detriment of everyday pleasurable activities. Psychology research suggests that provided they hold enough variety, it’s the daily pleasures that have the power to make us happy and keep us happy. We often miss the joys of ‘now’ by thinking about what we want in the future.

Intrinsic satisfaction

Many of our goals are extrinsic – they come with a reward attached and are desirable for what they might bring with them rather than for the actual goals themselves. Other goals are more intrinsically satisfying – things you want to pursue for their own sake – these include hobbies and things like spending more time with your children or friends, for example, or riding or running more. You don’t do these things for some reward or other external reason – you do them because you enjoy them and they give you pleasure and satisfaction simply for doing them – being in that moment- rather than looking for a by-product or an end result. It’s been shown that if you live your life focusing on things that are truly important to you, then you’ll be more content and your base line level of happiness can be raised. Take time to discover the things which you find intrinsically satisfying; these will help to raise your base level of happiness and wellbeing more than those with extrinsic rewards.

Of course, life isn’t always as straight forward as focusing on the ‘now’ and on intrinsically rewarding goals. They doesn’t usually pay the rent. We need to think about lots of external things we might not be able to control such as work or visiting the dentist. But it’s about achieving as reasonable a balance as you can; trying to live in the moment more often, and adding more intrinsically satisfying goals into your life.

MYND Activity

Make your own happiness list. Write down the things that make you really, truly happy; things you find intrinsically satisfying.

Remember to include simple things you might otherwise take for granted, such as the people who you most like to spend time with as well as the simple things you like to do own you own such as listening to your favourite music. Make the list as long as you can – at least twenty items is a good goal to start with. Now, think about how many of the things on your list are not really dependent on having large amounts of money, they’re things you can do now. Keep a copy of your list on your phone or in your purse or wallet – try and do at least one, and maybe two or three of these things everyday and really savour them.

Positive emotions and happy circumstances

The association between positive emotions and happy circumstances is highlighted nicely by two seminal psychological studies. Danner, Snowdon and Friesen (2001) observed nuns who were, for the most part, leading virtually identical lifestyles. They analysed handwritten autobiographies from 180 Catholic nuns dating back to the 1930s when the nuns were an average age of 22 and found a strong association between positive emotion in early life in these writings and risk of mortality in later life. As positive emotion in early life increased, risk of mortality in later life decreased; positive emotional content in early-life autobiographies was strongly associated with longevity 6 decades later.

Another important study analysed the smiles of women in their high school yearbook photos to see whether the authenticity of their smiles could be used as an indicator of life satisfaction 20 years later. When surveyed in mid-life, those who were photographed with genuine, “Duchenne” smiles (the corners of the mouth turn up and the skin around the corners of the eyes crinkles; difficult to control voluntarily and on demand) were more likely to be married and report greater well-being than those with the less authentic ‘Pan American’ smile.

These studies are evidence that positive emotions are associated with happy circumstances. Although many assume that happiness causes positive emotions, Martin Seligman a pivotal figure in positive psychology wonders instead, whether positive emotions cause happiness.

This research is wonderfully summarized in Martin Seligman’s ‘Authentic Happiness’ book, this along with his other work is highly recommended for further reading on happiness.