Happiness can be hard to come by, which seems strange because it’s one of the few things we all want, regardless of our culture, age, background, etc. We spend much of our lives seeking and hoping for it, yet we only seem to experience it in short spurts.
So how do we experience this state for more than just a few rare moments, hours, or days at a time? Is it even possible? I want to begin by sharing with you five findings from neuroscience, psychology, and economics research that may change the way you think about happiness.
The Five Findings on Happiness
1. The return to the baseline:
Would winning the lottery make you the happiest you’ve ever been and help you stay that way? Would losing a limb mean you’ll experience your lowest of lows and never recover? It might feel that way for the first few months. However, Harvard psychologist, Dr. Daniel Gilbert, has found that we are terrible at predicting what makes us happy or unhappy, how intense those feelings will be, and for how long they’ll last. Generally, our predictions are exaggerated: we think positive events will make us much happier than they actually do, and vice versa for negative ones.
According to Dr. Gilbert, the research shows that most events will not affect our happiness beyond three months, after which point we return right back to our baseline. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. 10,000 years ago, we’d end up dead if we spent all our time celebrating that new hut we just built or grieving over the friends and family we lost to famine. For better or worse, we inherited this hyper-adaptable brain. Rapidly adjusting to our circumstances, whether positive or negative, allows us to find new ways to grow and new opportunities to seize, but it can also keep us from seeing all the good things in our lives. In fact, the research shows that three months after winning the lottery, the winners are no happier than the average Joe.
Three months after winning the lottery, the winners are no happier than the average Joe.
2. The negativity bias:
What do you think about after receiving feedback on a project? You probably focus on all of the criticisms while brushing aside the compliments. What about when you watch or read the news? You probably hone in on all the new COVID cases and deaths while forgetting the stories about survivors. Business as usual for the human brain, which is hardwired for negativity. It’s the bad things that we notice, remember, and ultimately base our decisions on.
Again, this is the result of evolution. Back in prehistoric days, those who focused on the apples on the tree rather than the rumbling in the bushes got eaten by the lion. Those who noticed the rumbling and interpreted it as a threat ran away immediately, survived, and passed on that ever so useful gene for the negativity bias. Of course, the daily threats of today are rarely life-or-death, and most of us have plenty to be grateful for. Still, our brains push us to see and act on mostly negative thoughts and experiences. Though focusing on the negatives can motivate us, more often than not, the excessive negativity is draining us. Reminding ourselves of our negativity bias and remembering to shift our perspective to gratitude can help us address this. More on this here and later on in this post.
3. Frequency over intensity:
We often think that big events, such as taking a nice vacation or getting a promotion, is what makes us happiest. While they may produce the most intense feelings of happiness, as we learned earlier, we return to baseline relatively quickly. Further, we can’t spend our entire lives waiting for the next big thing to happen. It turns out that the frequency of our positive experiences is a much better predictor of our happiness than the intensity of the experiences. The current scientific literature finds that someone who has ten slightly positive experiences during their day is probably happier than someone who has one amazing experience. The trick here is to create these small positive experiences for yourself throughout your day. More on this later in the post.
The frequency of our positive experiences is a much better predictor of our happiness than the intensity of the experiences.
4. The 50-10-40 rule:
In an attempt to understand differences in the levels of happiness between individuals, positive psychologist, Sonja Lyubomirsky, found an interesting framework based on her research. She asserts that if you take two people with different levels of happiness, 50% of that difference is due to their inherited genetics, 10% to their circumstances, and 40% to their own choices and practices. For the sake of transparency, this framework has faced some criticism and it does indeed seem a bit reductionist for an individual’s happiness to be neatly divided into a three-piece pie chart. However, for the sake of practicality, let’s focus on the 40% figure – we hold a substantial piece of that happiness pie in our own hands, and what we do with it is our choice!
We hold a substantial piece of that happiness pie in our own hands, and what we do with it is our choice!
5. Happiness comes after success? Think again:
We often tie our happiness to our successes. We think to ourselves, “When I land that dream job or buy that fancy house, that’s when I’ll be happy!” Dr. Lyubomirsky’s research shows that the reality of the success-happiness relationship is far more complex, and in fact, happiness often engenders success. An array of studies found that people with more positive affect tend to be more sociable, creative, helpful to others, and are better at handling conflicts and solving complex problems. Given that happiness can lead to all of these benefits, it’s no wonder that happier people find more success in their work and relationships. So let’s stop waiting around for that next big bonus or luxury vacation, and instead, work on what we can control in this moment.
Happier people find more success in their work and relationships.
How To Cultivate Happiness
Cultivating happiness requires us to build appreciative joy. Whereas happiness is an emotion that is based on changing circumstances, appreciative joy is a skill that we can intentionally practice and improve upon. With time, we can rewire our brain to habitually incline towards appreciative joy, which will ultimately lead us to longer lasting happiness.
In today’s complex and fast-moving world, we find ourselves using the thinking and analytical aspects of our brains far more often than the sensory aspects. This cognitive imbalance promotes negative affect and chronic stress. When we take a moment to be present to our experience and just sense our breath, body, or surroundings without judgments or labels, we can find the joy in simply being present and not having to think or rush to our next task or appointment. You can do this by simply taking three mindful breaths at any time during your day, or you can try one of my guided meditations here for free. The awareness of breath, body scan, or open awareness are especially good for helping you be present.
Pete Best, the original drummer for The Beatles, got dismissed from the band a year before they went on to gain world-wide fame. To many, this would seem like the biggest disappointment in the world, sort of like being one number away from having the $100 million winning lottery ticket. Today, however, Best doesn’t see it that way. In fact, he says, “I’m happier than I would have been with The Beatles.” One of the keys to happiness is the ability to shift our perspective and reframe even the saddest happenings of our lives into positive experiences. This goes back to the point I made above: we each have an incredible ability to adapt to our circumstances and make the best of a bad situation.
Last but not least, this practice can have an immediate impact on our mood, and if practiced regularly, can truly bring us to a consistent state of happiness. The research on this one is robust: most studies have found gratitude to lead to positive outcomes across multiple psychological measures. However, most people believe that a gratitude practice ends once we think up a few examples of things that we are grateful for. While this can help to an extent, the greatest benefits are experienced when we give this practice a little more time. Start by pausing for a moment and taking a few mindful breaths. Then, think about one or a few things that you are grateful for. Now, most importantly, take a moment to truly sense that gratitude and feel it in your body. In this way, we are connecting more deeply with that gratitude. At the same time, the feeling of gratitude in the body signals to the brain that my life is OK right, I don’t have to be looking for threats. This practice overtime, rewires our brain for happiness.
You can watch the live session below. Additionally, check out my past few blog posts on strategies that can help you cope with the stress and uncertainty of COVID. Below, you’ll find a video recording of a live session that I do every Friday over Zoom (you can join in for free this Friday). The guided meditation starts at around 17:00 minutes in this video – feel free to follow along.
Thank you for reading! Post any questions or comments below!