It’s hard to define and even more difficult to measure. Until recently psychologists and researchers wouldn’t even use the word. Instead, terms like subjective well-being or positive emotion were substituted.
You would think that humans could agree that a basic goal of life is to experience more happiness and yet on podcasts, in the media, and in everyday conversation I regularly hear people making statements like “it’s not healthy to be happy all the time” or “creativity is born from discomfort, if I was happy I would lose my edge”.
While it may be true that some people use anger to ignite action I think many people would be surprised by how much more creative, successful, and flourishing their lives might be if they allowed themselves to prioritize positive emotions.
The science of positive psychology explores optimal human functioning [that] aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive according to Dr. Martin Seligman. When I think of thriving I include an entire spectrum of positive emotions appropriate to different situations as listed by Barbara Fredrickson in her book Positivity
Her list includes:
We know from research that approximately 50% of our potential for happiness lies in our genetics. If your parents were depressed, anxious, or tended to ruminate on the negative, you might inherit this potential. The reverse is also true; if your parents were happy-go-lucky types who see the glass as half-full, you may have a greater natural inclination toward happiness. The chemicals released by our brain when we encounter any stimulus (a large dog jumps out at you barking when you run or you smell freshly baked chocolate chip cookies) are not standardized across all people. Some brains are primed to pump out more of the happiness chemicals where others distribute these more sparingly. Some brains have an overly active fight or flight system compared to others. This is the first 50%.
A tenth of your happiness involves life circumstances like having shelter, food, and safety. This does not mean that people born into extreme poverty or living in dangerous situations cannot experience happiness. If you have ever seen children playing in the slums of India or two terminal cancer patients falling in love you know that happiness is possible even in extreme situations however there is an impact on the ease of experiencing happiness that accounts for about 10%.
What’s exciting about the research is the 40%. This bit of happiness potential is entirely up to YOU. It is impacted by the thoughts you think, the people you surround yourself with, the food you eat, and the beliefs you choose. Taking regular time to reflect, to incorporate happiness-boosting activities like gratitude, mindfulness, and even smiling more into your day can change this number.
I think of happiness as being in constant motion. It’s like a spiral. At any time yours is either spiraling upward or downward. The trick to using your 40% to it’s greatest potential is this:
- Learn to recognize when you start a downward spiral.
- Have a toolkit of simple things you can do at that moment to turn your spiral around.
- Spend more time trending up than spiraling down.
It’s quite simple really. It takes effort that is conscious and consistent at first, but eventually, it becomes second nature like driving a car or riding a bike.
What do you do to turn your downward spiral around? Happiness increases when your share so please comment with any useful habits or tips you might offer.