How to Be Happier
Why are some people happy, and others not?
Is happiness associated with a better life, greater luck or fewer worries and upsets?
Is it a question of character?
People who are highly satisfied with their lives are less likely to have psychological or social problems, less likely to get sick or be stressed out, and more likely to do well at work.
Luck and problems happen to everyone, so is it possible that some individuals are genetically wired to be happy?
Hardwired for Happiness
Current research reveals that mood and temperament do have a large genetic component. In a 1996 study, University of Minnesota psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen surveyed 732 pairs of identical twins and found them closely matched for adult happiness, regardless of whether they’d grown up together or apart.
Such findings suggest that while we all experience ups and downs, our moods revolve around the emotional baselines, or “set points,” with which we’re born.
Even if we have an inherited range of happiness, tools are available to help us become happier and more satisfied with life. And while some research indicates 40% of our capacity for happiness may be genetically predisposed, more than 60% depends on our own motivations, goals and behaviors.
As we attempt to understand and quantify our happiness quotient, a new question emerges: How many positive vs. negative experiences must we have before we can consider ourselves genuinely “happy”?
The Little Things That Count
Researchers generally agree that we’re happiest when we combine frequent good experiences with a few very intense ones. To feel happy, we must focus on the frequency – not the intensity – of positive life events.
Learning how to take pleasure in little victories, recognizing their importance in our lives and working hard to minimize negative events will accomplish more than waiting around for a single, one-time happy experience.
The Control Factor
Attaining happiness also requires you to believe that you contribute to events and play a major role in their outcomes. A sense of mastery over both positive and negative events in your life is essential to your overall sense of well-being.
Positive-psychology researchers Drs. Nansook Park, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman have been studying 24 character strengths to determine their role in creating subjective feelings of happiness. One key study, with more than 4,000 participants, revealed that five of these strengths are most closely related to life satisfaction:
- The ability to love and be loved
It’s important to note that each of these strengths can be learned. Each of us can become more grateful, optimistic, zestful, curious and loving if we’re willing to make the effort.
Dr. Seligman, one of the leaders of the positive-psychology movement, conducted a controlled experiment in which 575 participants were given either a constructive exercise or a placebo (an innocuous task having no effect). Participants’ perceived feelings of happiness and life satisfaction were measured after one week, one month and three months.
The results point to three specific interventions that can make us lastingly happier, even reducing depressive symptoms:
Intervention 1: The Gratitude Visit
Volunteers were asked to write and present a letter of gratitude to someone they have never properly thanked.
Intervention 2: Three Good Things
Each night, over a full week, those tasked with writing the letter would write down three good things (great or small) that happened to them during the day. Next to each entry, individuals addressed the question: “Why did this good thing happen?”
Intervention 3: Top Strengths
Participants were then asked to take the Values in Action Signature Strengths Survey, (www.authentichappiness.org) and write down their top five strengths. Each day, for one week, they also received detailed instructions on how to use these strengths in new ways.
At evaluations conducted one month and three months after the interventions, those who participated in the exercises reported significantly greater happiness and less depression.
Coaching for Happiness
Online happiness surveys can help you develop greater self-awareness and enhance your ability to experience satisfaction.
To make these tools even more effective, consider working with a professional coach to learn how to harness your strengths.
Resources on Happiness
Frisch, M.B. (2000). Improving mental and physical health care through quality of life therapy and assessment. In E. Diener & D.R. Rahtz (Eds.), Advances in Quality of Life: Theory and Research (pp. 207-241). Great Britain: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Furr, R.M., Funder, D.C. (1998). A multimodal analysis of personal negativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1580-1591.
Lewinsohn, P., Redner, J., Seeley, J. (1991). The relationship between life satisfaction and psychosocial variables: New perspectives. In F. Strack, M. Argyle, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Subjective Well-Being: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (pp. 141-172). Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Park, N., Peterson, C., Seligman, M.E.P. (in press). Strengths of character and well being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.
Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Veenhoven, R. (1989). How Harmful Is Happiness? Rotterdam: Universitaire Pers Rotterdam.