Happiness Part 2
Feel Good factors
In the previous module we saw that when we look at all the things that cause people to be happy, they can be classified broadly into three major categories
- Life circumstances
- Behaviours and activities
We started to look in some detail at the effects of life circumstances and saw that, contrary to popular belief, these factors contributed, on average, less than 10% to our general levels of happiness. Factors like having more money, being more physically attractive or even healthier actually contributed relatively little.
It’s that life paradox, wanting to be happy but not knowing precisely what to do to make yourself happier long-term – how to raise that base level of happiness up a few notches.
In this module we’ll see why that is, and we’ll look at the second factor – our genetics.
Feeling better, adapting and going back to normal
The problem with many of the things that give us pleasure, gratification, or happiness is that the feeling doesn’t last that long. We adjust very quickly to new circumstances – getting that pay rise, that new job, having our hair and makeup done, getting a new car or even a new house and so on.
When the ‘hit’ wears off we simply adapt to our new circumstances and revert back to our base level of happiness. What happens next is we want more and find that what worked before doesn’t quite give us the same high, so we seek something better – we buy a more expensive car, go on a more expensive holiday or even have an extra-marital relationship; trips to the beauty salon become Botox sessions, and then cosmetic surgery, and so on. We adapt to a new normal. What happens then is that the high wears off quickly and we seek something else, and so the cycle continues
These instant ‘pleasure hits’ wear off, and that’s why you see people, particularly those unaccustomed to money – a sports star making a big contract or a novice singer getting that massive deal – trying to buy lots of things to make them happy, adapting to their newfound wealth, and then needing something bigger and better to achieve the same happiness high…This often leads to excesses of alcohol or drugs – the obvious highs – and the downward spiral quickly begins.
But even taking normal life events like getting married for example; on average, marriage gives a happiness boost for about a two-year period before the couple adapts and revert to their base level of happiness – or worse. That is unless there’s a conscious effort from both partners to develop their happiness.
Surprisingly even people winning the lottery, a dream for most, adapt and revert back to their base happiness level within six months or less. Why is this? Because money can’t actually take away all of the life problems and hassles you had before – whether that’s health, relationships, general well-being and so on.
We’ll look more into the adaptation effect later on, and see why it’s a sensible idea to try different activities on a regular basis, and change our happiness habits in terms of how often and for how long we do them. It’s like a song we love to hear – if we listen to it over and over again we can become bored of it and the effect wears off, but if we put it away and revisit it sometime later we can experience the same sense of joy we had when we first heard it.
Filtering and error thinking
You may have heard of ‘thinking errors’. There’s a section of the Mynd App devoted to them. Why? Because we all do it.
We overestimate how good or bad we think we’ll feel when something happens to us. We also tend to overestimate how long that good or bad feeling will last. For example, when people are asked how they think they’ll feel three months after a relationship break up, they will tend to have an extreme and pessimistic view – “I’ll feel dreadful”.
But often, the effects of a major event are much milder and wear off much quicker than we expect or predict – I’m not saying these events don’t make us feel unhappy, of course, they do, but they don’t make us feel as bad as we might think or for as long as we might predict.
So why are we so bad at predicting? The two main reasons are, firstly that we underestimate how well we can cope with situations and secondly that we focus too much on the event itself and don’t think about other things that will be going on at the same time.
Take a moment and think about what you feel about getting a massive pay rise at work, or even winning £1 Million on the lottery. Now think about how you think you’ll feel in six months from now?
There’s a very good chance that you’ll think that you’ll still be ecstatic in six months’ time. And you might be! But research over the years suggests you probably won’t. This is because, (as we return to those questions about the pay rise or the lottery win) to picture that moment six months after a great event, you still have to think about that great event having happened.
To think ‘what will it be like six months after I win the lottery?’ you have to think about winning the lottery.
What you probably hadn’t thought about was all the problems you might still have; your elderly parents needing attention, your child who is having trouble at school, the bad back you have, not feeling confident in certain social situations and so on. The point is – you’ll still have all those problems that money can’t fix.
And it’s the same thinking about how you might feel six months after a negative event. With the exception of the loss of someone close to you, the effect of most negative life events is much briefer than you might imagine. Again, this is because in order to picture that moment, six months on, you have to think about the terrible thing that happened. What you’re probably not thinking of, is all the other things that might have happened to make your life better over the six months. Life moves on, and circumstances change. For example, if you lost your job you might think it was a disaster – chances are, in six months’ time you’ll have another job and you might even wish you’d changed earlier – you could end up in a nicer place to work, you could have made new friends and might even be earning more money – so many things can happen. You might still feel bad about losing your job but not as much as you might think now.
So the big message here is to never underestimate how well you’ll cope with problems. We have a great ability and capacity to cope with some pretty bad situations – look no further than those who survive disasters, lose limbs or loved ones, only to go and become admired in our society for their efforts and achievements and their positive attitude to life. Sometimes it even takes a disaster to make us realize and appreciate what we do have, and appreciate life in general.
So life circumstances, one of the three big factors for happiness, and everything we’ve discussed so far accounts only for only 10% of your happiness level. Let’s now explore the second factor – genetics.
Thanks mum & dad
Research findings show that around 50% of our baseline happiness level is genetic. That’s a significant portion. The fact is, some people are born happier than others – the way they respond to events in life do vary according to their genes. Some babies are definitely more happy and bubbly than others.
Knowing that such a large portion of your happiness is hereditary might lead you to blame your parents for every negative feeling or thought that you’ve ever had! It’s nice to think it’s not down to you. But look at the bright side, many good feelings and qualities you have are just as likely to come from your genes too!
Think of the genetic aspect as your baseline level of happiness. When good things happen you might feel better for a while, or when bad things happen you feel worse, but after a period of time you revert back to your base level.
The good news about the genetic factor is that many of the attributes you inherit can still be changed and we’ll be speaking about that in later modules.
So, if life circumstances account for 10% of your baseline happiness, and genetics 50%, then together they make up 60% of your basic happiness. Importantly, chasing life circumstances won’t have that much of an impact on how happy you are, long-term, and there’s not a lot you can do about genetics. However…
In the next module
We’ll see that having 60% of your baseline happiness tied up in life circumstances and genetics means there’s still a sizeable 40% remaining for behavior and attitude, and that’s all pretty much under your control.
We’re going to look at how to squeeze every last piece of that 40% to make your baseline happiness level higher, as high as you can possibly make it!
Next time we’ll start to take a look at just that – how you can best use the 40% behavioural factors to increase your base level of happiness.
Your MYND exercise
Try and think of one good and one not so good event that happened to you, and how each made you feel at the time.
Looking back to both events, were they as good or bad as you felt at the time and did the effects last as long as you thought they might