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The Scientific Secret to Happiness

Are you happy enough?

Key points

  • Researchers have suggested that happiness is the primary motivator of human behavior.
  • On average, studies have found only one-third of people report being happy.
  • Fifty percent of happiness comes from a genetic set point, 10 percent from life circumstances, and 40 percent from intentional activities.
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Are you happy yet?

When I was just a child, well-meaning adults would often stop me to ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And with all the confidence only children have, I’d reply: “I want to be happy.” It seemed so simple all those years ago, but the older I’ve gotten, the further out of reach happiness has often felt.

I’m not alone. Researchers have suggested that happiness is the primary motivator of human behavior. After all, the measure of a good decision is whether it brings you pleasure, happiness, joy, or contentment. And yet, on average, studies have found only a third of us report being happy.

So, is happiness really a goal we should be chasing, or is it a fool’s errand?

“Happiness is good for you and the world,” explained Robert Biswas-Diener when I interviewed him to commemorate the incredible achievements of his father, Ed Diener, who was one of the world’s leading happiness researchers. “For example, happiness has a direct and causal impact on your health. It also causes you to do better at work, behave more positively with other people, be more willing to help or volunteer, and donate money to worthy causes.”

The good news is that decades of research by Ed and his colleagues have found that despite the reported rates of mental illness and other social challenges, most (yet certainly not all) people are at least mildly happy.

The challenge is that we each have a genetic “set point” for happiness that is our natural “landing place.” Based on the different experiences in our life, the circumstances we find ourselves in, and the choices that we make, our happiness ebbs and flows within this range as life unfolds.

“While significant events may shift your set point range, but for most people, it is relatively steady,” explained Robert. “After strongly negative experiences, we adapt back to our happiness set point, which is what enables us to be resilient. And by the same token, after strongly positive experiences, our happiness levels tend to adapt back.”

So how can we make the most of the happiness we have?

Based on Ed’s research, Robert suggested:

  • Asking yourself, “am I happy enough?” – Instead of aiming for a perfect state of happiness, try to appreciate the happiness you already have. Reflect on the questions “Am I happy enough?” “In which areas do I feel satisfied?” and “What am I enjoying?”

Unhappiness in one area of your life does not necessarily mean that you are, in some global sense, unhappy. It is powerful to consider how much you have in your life to appreciate rather than how much you should change.

  • Being mindful of the nuances that shape our happiness – When it comes to measuring happiness, nuance is important. The frequently referenced “Happiness Pie” suggests that 50 percent of our happiness comes from our genetic set point, ten percent comes from our life circumstances, and 40 percent is down to our intentional activities.

Yet true happiness is more complicated than that. While it is true that these factors all influence our happiness, they are constantly interacting with each other and are not separable, as the pie suggests. We need to be cautious of over-simplifying the research on happiness.

  • Making space for your happiness – Each of us has unique needs when it comes to our happiness. What is it that you can do to carve out space for happiness in your life? Are you craving social connection with others, yet your study or work schedule doesn’t allow it? What are the impacts of denying yourself what you need to be happy to achieve that goal? Is there a way you can incorporate what you need to be happy while still achieving your goal?

Or, you could be someone who craves solitude but has a large family. While you may not be able to carve out time every day, consider it a priority that you find a little time here and there to be alone, to sustain you when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Are you happy enough?

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