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The New Science of Happiness

The New Science of Happiness

Ask most people what they really want in life and the most frequent answer is ‘to be happy’. If they don’t answer directly with happiness, people usually say things such as more money, improved health or better relationships. Probe them further as to why these things and the answer will generally come back to the same thing – ‘I’ll be happier’. Despite happiness being so important to so many people, what constitutes happiness is somewhat elusive to the majority.

Research findings suggest that subjective well-being or happiness for most people is a combination of pleasure, life-satisfaction, and having meaning or purpose to what you do. Although most people build their lives around pursuing pleasure, out of these three elements it is actually the least consequential to happiness. It’s this discrepancy between what people think will make them happier long term and what actually makes them happy that contributes to many not being able to raise their own long-term happiness levels.

In recent years, a new and blossoming field of psychology – positive psychology – has begun to uncover fascinating, evidence-based answers to many questions about happiness and provides suggestions as to how base level of happiness can be enhanced.

What is Happiness?

Happiness can be defined in many different ways and has many different components which differ in importance for different people. Many people may find it difficult to say what makes them happy. For those who think they know – the top answer is money, followed by better health or relationships. In recent times there has been a move away from the idea that happiness is associated with hedonism and it is now more accepted that happiness is more about the satisfaction with life as a whole and finding meaning in the things we do. Over the past couple of decades science has found that most of the things people believe will make their lives happier, really won’t – at least not in the long term. Take money for example, research has shown that once our basic needs are met with a good basic salary, additional income does little to raise sense of satisfaction with life. Of course, happiness levels will always fluctuate and even the happiest people will feel blue sometimes; a constant state of euphoria is simply not realistic.

Sustainable Happiness: Why It’s All About the Day-to-Day

It’s one of the great paradoxes of life that we all want to be happy, yet so few of us seem to know exactly where happiness comes from. Research findings show that around 50% of our base line happiness level is genetic programing and out of our control. Life circumstances or ‘demographics’ such as age, financial status, education level, marital status, religion and where we live surprisingly only account for 10% of baseline happiness. Although these circumstances to influence happiness, evidence shows they don’t play a huge role and and the happiness they provide is not long-term as people adjust very quickly to new circumstances – such as a pay rise or new house. When the ‘hit’ wears off people simply adapt to the new circumstances and revert back to their base level of happiness. Ironically although these account for only 10% these are the things people think are most important to  happiness and are usually the main focus that people want to change; generally speaking, these factors are difficult to change.

So if we can’t change our genes and we can’t, broadly speaking, change our life circumstances, what can we change? Luckily there’s still a sizeable 40% remaining for behavior and attitude and that’s under your control. This other 40% comes from the things we do every day which Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2007) refer to as ‘intentional activity’. They argue that the activities we take part in have the potential to move our happiness levels within the range determined by our genetics and our life circumstances. The first time we try something stimulating that we find enjoyable, it is likely to increase our happiness levels considerably. Whether it’s that first parachute jump, the first kiss with our partner or just a new and exciting book we’re reading. New experiences tickle our pleasure centres and we feel good. Unfortunately, when presented with that very same stimulus again and again we soon become used to it. This is what psychologists have called ‘hedonic adaptation’. The amount of pleasure we can get from the same experience tails off with repeated exposure. Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and Schkade (2005) suggest that the activities we choose should have three characteristics:

  • They should fit our needs and our personalities. E.g. If you don’t crave excitement parachuting is unlikely to fit with your needs. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be perfect for someone else.
  • Their content should vary. Do you always run around the same circuit? Fly your kite on the same hill? Or walk the same route through the forest? Varying the routine is likely to minimise the effects of hedonic adaptation.
  • Their timing should vary. This also helps to avoid hedonic adaptation.

Change of priorities?

As the genetic contribution of happiness is fixed, our sustainable levels of happiness are down to our life circumstances and our everyday activities. The research showing that our everyday activities contribute to our happiness four times more than our life circumstances has implications for our priorities in life. Is it better to be at work trying to get a promotion to get a pay raise to increase your life circumstances or to be spending precious time doing the things and seeing the people that make you happy?

Remember, you’re in control of your destiny and MYND is all about giving you the tools, resources and support to help you take control. MYND will address how to squeeze every last piece of that 40% to make your base line happiness level as high as you can possibly make it!