“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” ~Dalai Lama
One of the biggest challenges in life seems to be the attainment of happiness. Everyone wants to be happy (or so they say). But what does happiness truly mean, and how do we not only find it, but embrace and maintain it?
Researchers have come to the conclusion that happiness has three separate elements. First, there’s the amount of happiness you are genetically predisposed to have, which accounts for about 50%.
Studies were done on identical twins who were raised together and on some who were raised apart. The researchers discovered that their happiness levels were extremely similar despite complete differences in rearing and environment.
In her book, The How of Happiness, Author Sonya Lyubomirsky calls this the “happiness set point.”
The second element of happiness is life circumstance, which makes up about 10%. These are the things that occur that you cannot control, including such things as gender, age, where you grew up, ethnicity, relationship status, occupation, neighborhood, and health.
Studies have shown that life circumstance only accounts for 10% of our happiness, which means whether you are a garbage man or a millionaire developer, it won’t really impact your happiness level all that much.
In fact, you would probably be surprised to hear that many African societies that live in extreme poverty are some of the happiest. They’re happier because they have a sense of community, and a sense of community is not tied to material wealth, status, or possessions.
The third element of happiness is what we do and how we think. This element accounts for 40% of our happiness, and is really the only element we have control over. What this means is that our intentional activities and strategies we take to achieve our goals can seriously influence our happiness.
The biggest problem we face with intentional activity and thought is a little thing called hedonic adaptation. Humans are fickle, and unfortunately, when wonderful, amazing things happen to us, the newness of it slowly wears off and we become immune to whatever it was that brought us that new form of happiness.
For example, if you buy a new home with stunning views of the ocean, and every morning you wake up and sit on your patio having a cappuccino or watching the dolphins frolic in the water, slowly the scene won’t appear as beautiful. You will become accustomed to the sites and sounds, and sitting outside every morning won’t bring the same pleasure.
We can’t change our set point any more than we can change the color of our eyes or hair (not withstanding contacts or hair dye!), and life circumstances will usually be dependent on our upbringing, so it can take time to change them.
However, we can fight hedonic adaptation and increase our happiness levels by making proactive choices for joy every day.
If you don’t wake up and choose to remind yourself that you are lucky to have spectacular views, then the joy you get from that activity will fade. On the other hand, if you choose to wake up every day and think, “Wow, I’m lucky” it creates a positive reinforcement in your mind and will help increase or maintain your happiness levels.
Everyone is different and there are a number of things you can do to increase your happiness. Here are four that seem to work for me.
1. Stop worrying; focus on the now.
Eckhart Tolle believes that one of the main causes for unhappiness is the fact that we live in or obsess about the future or the past. He says:
“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.”
“It is through gratitude for the present moment that the spiritual dimension of life opens up.”
“The power for creating a better future is contained in the present moment: You create a good future by creating a good present.”
How many days and weeks and hours have you spent ruminating about what could have been or what might be, all the things you need to do, or all the things you should have done? If you’re at all like me I’m sure that answer is way too many.
This is wasted time, wasted life, and wasted energy. The only moment that matters is right now.
When I left my job and started working on my own business I began obsessing about the outcome. Would I get clients? Would I be any good at this? What if I suck? What if no one cares what I have to say? What if I run out of money?
Luckily, I had a life coach who helped keep me on track, and eventually I realized I was wasting my thoughts on things that may or may not happen, but that did not influence me in the present. The only thing I could control was what I was doing at the moment. If I am moving toward my goal and taking little steps forward, then I needed to stop worrying and let it be enough.
Nearly everyone extols the benefits of meditation, and I have to agree. Meditation can help you stay in the present and calm your mind, even if only for a few minutes a day.
Meditation is renowned for reducing stress, improving concentration, slowing aging, encouraging a healthy lifestyle, and increasing self-awareness. Meditation is a very centering practice. It allows you to focus on the core of who you are and what you believe without all the conflicting, self-effacing thoughts that can run through the mind.
If you have problems with concentration, try guided meditations. There is no right or wrong way to meditate. Take it slowly and do what works for you. What is most important is making it a part of your daily life as much as you can.
3. Develop strategies for coping.
We live in a stressful time in so many ways: politically, economically, and emotionally. We are connected and disconnected at the same time. If you focus on all the bad that is going on, you certainly are going to be a bit stressed and depressed.
Start off by focusing on what you can control and let go of those things you can’t.
As we speak they are demolishing the building across from me, which requires eight hours of jackhammering and bulldozing, six days a week.
It is extremely stressful, noisy, and discomforting, but they are huge developers and there’s really nothing I can do unless I want to pay a massive amount of money to get out of my lease. So, I have to find ways to cope with the stress of this activity rather than just become frustrated all the time.
One of the ways I cope with stress is to write. Writing is a huge source of stress relief. Some people like to garden. Some enjoy working out or reading or hiking, or social activities like playing pool or even just taking a bath and relaxing in a hot tub.
Everyone is different. Think of something that will take you away from the stress and strains of your day and will help you cope. If you are unhappy with your job it won’t do any good to keep complaining about it. What will help is creating an exit plan and starting to research and apply for new jobs, or maybe considering going back to school
Focus on those things you can change and what you can do to make your day, your life, and your existence less stressful. Can you carpool instead of commuting? Can you ask your husband to take the kids for one night so you can have girl time? Do you need a “guy weekend”? There is nothing wrong with asking to get your needs met.
4. Invest in real-time connections.
As I mentioned earlier, some of the happiest places in the world are those that live and exist within a community. Each is a member of a whole and they seek to help one another. I believe having connections with other human beings is one of the main reasons we exist and is a huge factor in the derivation of happiness.
Researcher Brené Brown says, “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Brené has spent her life studying vulnerability and connection, and she believes that in order to gain a deeper purpose and more meaningful life, we need to become vulnerable with others. I tend to agree with her.
In order to be vulnerable you have to connect, and I don’t mean trading pithy comments on Facebook; I mean truly connect. True connection means to understand, accept, and hear someone and to allow yourself to be understood and heard and accepted.
How can you do this? Start with people who are already in your life that you think you can forge a deeper bond with, or join a new social group that revolves around an activity that you like. Take up bowling or attend meditation classes. Seek out those who are interested in similar pursuits and it will be easier to form an initial connection. What you do from there is up to you. The world is open.
These may sound like generic answers to a really big problem, and maybe they are, but they’re a good start.
Take out a pen and paper or start typing. Make a list of a few things you can do every day to apply this advice—what might help you stop worrying, when you can make time to meditate, which strategies help you cope with stress, and how you can invest in real-time connections. Then do what you’ve written.
Try these four things for thirty days and see if you feel any differently. If you don’t, try another thirty days or move on to a new strategy. What matters isn’t whether you win or lose or succeed or fail but that you showed up every day and you did your best. Life is a journey, not a race to the end.