Sonja Lyubomirsky from Stanford University wrote “The How of Happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want,” a book in which she refers to extraordinary research about happiness that was done in the early 2000s.
The research found two very surprising things. First, it discovered that happiness is heritable and extremely stable over the course of people’s lives, and second, that people have a remarkable capacity to become inured to positive changes in their lives. According to this research, while circumstances and intentional activities play a role in determining happiness, everyone has a set point for happiness, which is the main factor in determining how happy they are throughout their lives.
The set point for happiness is similar to the set point for weight. Some people are blessed with fast metabolisms and they easily maintain their weight even when they are not trying. By contrast, others have to work extraordinarily hard to keep their weight at a desirable level and the kilos creep back the moment they slack off even a bit. This finding about happiness implies that, like genes for intelligence or cholesterol, it is the magnitude of our innate set points — that is, high (a six on a seven-point scale) or low (a two) or in between (a four) — that governs to a large extent (about 50 percent, according to the study) how happy we will be over the course of our lives. This set point is determined by our genes.
The most counterintuitive finding is that about 10 percent of the variance in our happiness level is explained by differences in life circumstances or situations — that is, whether we are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, and so on. If we could put all people into the same set of circumstances (the same house, the same spouse, the same place of birth, the same face, the same aches and pains), the differences in their happiness levels would be a mere 10 percent.
Besides our genes and the situations that we confront, there is one critical thing left: our behavior, which accounts for 40 percent of our happiness. Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic make up (which is impossible) or our circumstances (seeking wealth or attractiveness), but in our daily intentional activities. Our untapped potential for increasing our happiness is hidden in our intentional activities. Lyubomirsky systematically observed, compared and experimented on very happy and unhappy people. The thinking and behavior patterns of the happiest participants in her research are below:
The happiest participants in the studies devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships. They are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have. They are often the first to offer a helping hand to coworkers and passersby. They practice optimism when imagining their futures. They savor life’s pleasures and try to live in the present moment. They exercise weekly or even daily. They are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (such as fighting poverty or teaching their children their values).
Additionally, the happiest people do have their share of stresses, crises and even tragedies. They may become just as distressed and emotional in such circumstances as everybody else, but their secret weapon is the poise and strength they show in coping in the face of challenge.
Why be happy? According to a growing corpus of literature on psychology, becoming happier does not only 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 have richer networks of friends and social support. Furthermore, they show more flexibility and ingenuity in their thinking and more productivity in their jobs. They are more resilient in the face of hardship, have stronger immune systems and are physically healthier. Happy people even live longer.
Reading books about happiness or self-help makes people focus on the good things in life. This book does the same thing, so I suggest reading it.