Your Happiness: Is It Yours or Someone Else's?

New research suggests we need to take a closer look at the pursuit of happiness

Posted Jul 03, 2014

Sometimes I feel like the luckiest person alive. Once or twice a year I have the extraordinary opportunity to meet with an inspiring group of happiness experts. The group, called "Project Plus," has included luminaries such as Mathieu Ricard, Jennifer Michael Hecht, and Ed Diener just to name a few past participants. It is an interdisciplinary group drawing on anthropology, philosophy, economics and other disciplines. When we meet I am always challenged to expand my thinking where happiness is concerned. It is a terrific reminder not to rush to closure on happiness, as if we hacked this elusive state once and for all. 

It is precisely this issue-- rushing to closure on happiness-- that has me concerned these days. In a recent article on "positive psychology interventions" a respected colleague used the phrase "happiness seekers" and this caught my attention. I would not be the first to observe that, in the modern era, people are generally more affluent and better able to fullfill basic needs. This means that many of us are able to seek out a wider range of fulfilling activities and engage in more naval gazing than at any time in history.  This dovetails with an age in which scientific attention to the topic of happiness has yielded some preliminary findings with regards to simple activities (such as writing down aspects of life for which you are grateful) that appear to boost happiness. What's more, stronger research has yielded an understanding that there are many legitimate benefits of feeling good not the least of which is a healthier immune system. 

Taken together, this means that people no longer need to think of happiness as a natural by-product of daily activities. Instead, they can artifically go out and pursue it. Think about that: In the days of yore people were likely to have sex, play cards, work hard, visit the countryside and all sorts of other experiences that might pay off joy, pleasure, or fulfillment. These days, by constrast, people can shortcut that route to happiness by simply writing down aspects of life for which they are appreciative. To be fair, I am not suggesting that anyone is trying to swap out actually living a life in favor of artificial happiness-inducing interventions. Still, though, there are people who are actively and intentionally looking for the emotional pot of gold at the end of the rainbow instead of simply enjoying the journey with all of its ups and downs.  

My fear is that people interested in self-growth will interpret research findings on happiness as the end of the story instead of as a chapter in an on-going narrative.  

If you keep up-- even in passing-- with happiness and positive psychology you are likely aware of a few major research theories and findings. For instance, you probably know about Sonja Lyubomirsky's "pie chart" in which she argues that 50% of the variability in happiness is due to genetic factors while 10% is due to circumstances and the remaining 40% attributable to personal choices. This is a popular theory, based on research, and many fans of positive psychology accept it uncritically. They are principally attracted to the heartwarming notion that at least some of our personal fulfillment appears to be under our control. 

Here's the problem: Let's look at another extremely popular finding in positive psychological research. What is the one variable that researchers return to time and again as being among the most important for a person's happiness? The answer: social relationships. People with strong, supportive social relationships tend to be happier than those who don't. How does this widely accepted finding jive with the pie chart? If external circumstances only account for 10% of the variability in happiness are we making too much of our bonds with other people? Should we be focusing on genetic interventions? Some people will rush to the defence of the pie chart by saying that social relationships largely fall under 40% personal choice category. While some of your relationships are affected by choices you make I think it is conceptually bizarre to suggest that your friends and family are best thematically described as being your choices. 

My intention is not to swipe at the pie chart, or suggest that you are doing happiness wrong. Rather, I want to point out that there are tough issues with regards to the pursuit of happiness and one of them is how we attempt to balance genetic influences on happiness (a large influence) with personal choice. At the heart of many of these types of sticky questions is the issue of whether there is better utility in trying to promote happiness by changing our external circumstances (get married, make some money, take a vacation) or by changing our internal circumstances (appreciate small things, accept our limitations, forgive others).  

To date, positive psychology researchers have created a wide range of simple, happiness-promoting interventions. They have found that counting kindnesses, spending money on others, recording gratitude in a journal, savoring experiences and forgiving others all seem to promote happiness. Interestingly, these strategies can be roughly divided into changing one's mind (cultivating gratitude and forgiving others) and changing one's circumstances (building relationships and helping others).  

By looking at positive psychology in this way we might open our eyes to the potential of changing our circumstances. There is, currently, a bias among lay people toward changing thoughts in order to change feelings. There is an intuitive sense that life circumstances are just too out of our control while the contents of our heads are within our dominion. I am certainly not arguing against trying to change your mind. I think that acceptance, forgiveness, and savoring are wonderful. I would just caution against the "buck stops here" mentality that says all happiness is simply a choice that happens inside me. 

Once you free yourself from this mindset it opens the door to a really intriguing new question: whose responsibility is happiness? If you think that you are ultimately in charge of your own well-being it can sever the connection you have with others because it implies that they all should equally watch out for their own well-being. In fact, a variety of studies are emerging suggesting that pursung your own happiness can leave you feeling lonely. What if, instead, you thought of yourself as having an obligation to promote other people's happiness as well as your own? 

My colleagues and I at Project Plus frame happiness in terms of "co-responsibility." Not only should you employ internal strategies to make yourself happier but you ought to work on external circumstances to improve the happiness of others. By doing so you can set the stage for a loop that pays off happiness dividends for everyone. It's what Barb Fredrickson calls an "upward spiral." In the next stage of positive psychology research I would like to see scientists give more attention to a focus on others. To be sure, recent studies have emerged on the potential happiness benefits of being kind to others and spending money on others. But, what about surprising others, pleasing others, supporting others, humoring others, and so forth? Perhaps researchers can get ideas for future studies by hearing what you do to take responsibility for the happiness of others. What do you do in your pursuit of happiness co-responsibility?

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is a research and trainer. His book, co-authored with Dr. Todd Kashdan, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon , Barnes & Noble , Booksamillion , Powell's or Indie Bound.