Are the happiest people blessed with luck that bestows a better life and fewer worries? Or, should we attribute their emotional fulfillment to character strengths and mind power?
Happiness research, a field known as “positive psychology,” is chockfull of relevant findings. Some of the latest research suggests that people who focus on purposeful living are more likely to enjoy good mental health and longevity, as compared with those whose primary goal is achieving happiness.
If you’re highly satisfied with your life, you’re less likely to suffer from psychological or social problems, physical illnesses, stress and work issues.
Everyone, at one time or another, experiences bad luck and the problems life throws at us. But is it possible that some individuals are genetically wired to be happier? And if you’re not among them, what can you do to improve your level of satisfaction?
Hardwired for Happiness
It turns out that mood and temperament do, indeed, have a significant genetic component. In a 1996 study, University of Minnesota psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen surveyed 732 pairs of identical twins and found them to be closely matched for levels of adult happiness, regardless of whether they’d grown up together or apart.
While everyone experiences ups and downs, your mood revolves around innate emotional baselines, or “set points.” Current research suggests that 50% of our capacity for happiness is genetically predisposed.
Still, more than 40% of how we experience satisfaction and well-being depends on our motivations, goals and behaviors. Even with an inherited range of happiness, we can do a lot to become more satisfied with life.
Surprisingly, only about 10% of the variance in happiness levels is explained by differences in life circumstances (rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, etc.).
The richest Americans – those earning more than $10 million a year – report levels of personal happiness only slightly higher than those of the office workers they employ.
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”?
We Are Poor Forecasters
What we think will make us happy is usually off-base. While we may work hard to achieve pleasure and fulfillment, we often misunderstand the factors that influence our positive experiences. We assume certain events and milestones will do the trick:
- A promotion at work
- A clean bill of health
- A hot date
- Victories by our favorite political candidates or sports teams
We routinely overestimate the degree to which material goods will bring us happiness. Money may contribute to happiness (at least a little bit), but the feeling won’t last.
Meanwhile, as we pursue a variety of dead ends, we ignore the more fruitful ways to increase happiness.
The Little Things 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 uber-happy experience.
5 Character Strengths
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 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. You can become more grateful, optimistic, zestful, curious and loving if you’re willing to make the effort.
5 Ways to Boost Your Happiness
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, provides five scientifically validated keys to increasing happiness in The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin Books, 2007):
- Positive Emotions. Frequent positive feelings – joy, delight, contentment, serenity, curiosity, vitality, enthusiasm, pride – are the hallmarks of happiness. Moments of pleasure broaden your horizons, stimulate creativity, and help build social, physical and intellectual skills.
- Optimal Timing and Variety. Pay attention to timing and variety. Otherwise, keeping a gratitude list gets stale and becomes ineffective. Perform five acts of kindness in one day instead of spreading them out.
- Social Support. It’s easier to break habits (drinking, overeating) with others’ help, which explains the success of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers. The same rule applies to happiness. Get the support you need from an accountability partner or coach.
- Motivation, Effort and Commitment. You won’t automatically become happier by stating your goals. As with anything worth pursuing, you have to be motivated, engage in efforts and commit to repeated behaviors.
- Habit. Positive thinking and happiness exercises can help you form habitual patterns of thinking, acting and speaking. Happiness levels will rise with established routines.
Online happiness surveys can help you develop greater self-awareness and enhance your ability to experience satisfaction. Consider working with a professional coach to learn how to harness your strengths.