Do you know how much of your happiness is actually within your control?

Hosta at Blue Sea by Alexandra Burns

Hosta at Blue Sea by Alexandra Burns – Happiness Activity No. 9: Savouring Life’s Joys by being open to beauty and excellence

Scientific research has validated what you might have learned from experience or have heard from a wise elder: a large portion of our happiness is within our control and has little to do with our life circumstances.   Science is also showing why happiness should be an important goal for us.

My wise grandmother, Mildred Maclean (“DD”), aged 102, said to me recently:

  “The most important thing in life is to be happy and we must work at that. It doesn’t always come easily.”

I have learned over the years to listen closely to what DD says.  She is truly a wise woman (see my other posts about her and her wisdom).  And, in this case, DD’s wisdom is validated by positive psychology research which shows that 40% of our happiness is a direct result of actions we take.   That means we have a lot of control over our happiness levels.  The research also indicates that, surprisingly and contrary to what our current culture would have us believe, only 10% of our happiness stems from our life circumstances, including where we live, how wealthy we are and what work we do.   50% of our happiness is determined by our biology, what we are born with, so yes, some people are just naturally happier than others.  However, with the knowledge that we can construct more happiness for ourselves, everyone has the opportunity to be happier.   The book that explains this research in detail and also offers a program for us to achieve long term happiness is called The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, by Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, one of the scientists responsible for the research presented in the book.     This book is jammed packed with useful information and tips.  It is not a new book (2007) but it is an extremely significant one.  This striking research is well-illustrated in a pie chart – on the cover of the book it looks like a delicious lemon meringue pie with a huge 40% chunk out of it.  That’s a lot of pie to play with.

Dr. Lyubomirsky’s definition of happiness is:

“the experience of joy, contentment or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile.”  p. 32

(An aside about some definitions… As I have learned more about positive psychology I have found it challenging to understand how happiness is different from well-being.  I haven’t used the term “happiness” much in my blogging since it has so many different connotations.  Dr Lyubomirsky uses the terms interchangeably in the book, so that’s what I will do here too. In the definition, you can also see the overlap with positivity or positive emotions, subjects I have blogged about in the past.)

Dr. Lyubomirsky says:

If we observe genuinely happy people, we shall find that they do not just sit around being contented. They make things happen. They pursue new understandings, seek new achievements, and control their thoughts and feelings. In sum, our intentional, effortful activities have a powerful effect on how happy we are, over and above the effects of our set points and the circumstances in which we find themselves. If an unhappy person wants to experience interest, enthusiasm, contentment, peace, and joy, he or she can make it happen by learning the habits of a happy person. p.63

Becoming happier does take work, like DD has learned and shared with me.  It isn’t something we just find or are given (aside from whatever we got in our 50%).  We have to be very proactive about it on a consistent basis.  Why should we actively work on being happier when our lives are already so busy?  This is why:

“Becoming happier doesn’t just make you feel good.  It turns out that happiness brings with it multiple fringe benefits.  Compared with their less happy peers, happier people are more sociable and energetic, more charitable and cooperative, and better liked by others.  Not surprisingly then, happier people are more likely to get married and to stay married and to have richer networks of friends and social support.   Furthermore, contrary to Woody Allen’s suggestion in “Annie Hall” that happy people are “shallow and empty and…have no ideas and nothing interesting to say,” they actually show more flexibility and ingenuity in their thinking and are more productive in their jobs.  They are better leaders and negotiators and earn more money.   They are more resilient in the face of hardship, have stronger immune systems, and are physically healthier.   Happy people even live longer.”  p. 25

The book includes assessments: 1) to begin to estimate your happiness “set point”  – the 50% you were born with; 2) to track  the changes to your  level of happiness once you start to act on the suggestions in the book; and 3) to see which of the 12 happiness activities are the best fit for you.    A few of these activities (or “interventions”) may be particularly noteworthy for you, as they have been for my clients:

  • No. 1 Expressing Gratitude;
  • No.2 Cultivating Optimism (see my last blog post too on this);
  • No. 3 Avoiding Overthinking (ie. stop the rumination!);  and
  • No. 9 Savouring Life’s Joys (stopping to “smell the roses” does construct happiness)

(Here’s a link to the whole list of activities if you are curious. And here is an excellent review of the book if you want to learn more.)  The How of Happiness  also addresses depression and offer directions for readers who are depressed or believe that they might be depressed.

Sunset at Blue Sea by Ian Burns - Happiness Activity No. 9: Savouring Life's Joys

Sunset at Blue Sea by Ian Burns – Happiness Activity No. 9: Savouring Life’s Joys

You will likely be surprised by how very small actions repeated regularly can make a huge difference to your happiness levels.  Every little bit does count.

Before finishing, I want to also note that many of the happiness activities have a journaling component to them.  As some of you may know, I have a journaling community where you can sign up for your own free, secure journal.   To find out more, click here. I would love to see you there!

So what do you want to do now that you know that such a large portion of your happiness is actually within your control?  What will you commit to?

PS So many of my previous blog posts have talked about managing energy not time – here is a prime example.  Yes, it will take more of your time to start including these happiness activities in your already jammed-packed days and weeks and months and years, but the payback in terms of energy (all four types – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) will be invaluable.

PPS These photos were taken by my children over the last couple of days as we have been basking in the beauty of the natural surroundings at my parents cottage on Blue Sea Lake, Quebec.  I am grateful to my parents for providing wifi so I could make this post from this gorgeous place!

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