What Does Science Say Makes Us Happy?

Happiness & Well Being | 0 comments

We all know that happiness is one of the things that everyone seeks most in life (just look at how many books have been written on that very subject!) Because of our common search to find peace and meaning, we hear messages about what will increase our happiness all the time. Educators say it’s the pursuit of knowledge. Advertisers say it’s their product or service. Religion says it’s God. We’ve all heard those ideas and many, many more. So what does the research have to say about happiness?

It turns out, many of the suggestions on how to be happy that are fired at us from all sides actually do have some merit to them! But the interplay of internal and external forces that shape our happiness turns out to be a little more complicated. We’ve all heard the saying: “Happiness is a choice,” or some variation of it anyway. To some extent that’s true. But everything from your surroundings to the way your individual brain is built definitely has an effect on how happy you are. We’ll explore a few of these factors here

Your Brain

If you’ve spent time trying to lose weight, you’re probably familiar with the digestive system’s internal ‘setpoint.’ Basically, this is your body’s idea of its ideal weight. It’s influenced by both internal and external factors, and in a world that’s full of fast food and cheap calories, that setpoint is often higher than is healthy. Getting around this powerful benchmark can be a real challenge (especially when it seems like no matter how hard you try, your body is convinced it needs those extra pounds!) Luckily, this setpoint can be changed, but it takes a lot of time, effort, and willpower to succeed.

Recently, research has begun to show that, much like your stomach, the brain has a ‘setpoint’ too. Only, instead of being concerned with how much food you should eat, it’s concerned with how happy you should be on average. The brain’s ‘happiness setpoint’ can range from a low level of average happiness to a high level of average happiness. Because those with higher happiness setpoints in the brain find it so much easier to be happy, Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia, called this “winning the Cortical Lottery.”

But, your happiness setpoint isn’t uncontrollable. Much like a weight setpoint, it takes perseverance, patience, and deliberate action to change, but it can be done!

Your Genes

You may be shocked to learn how much of our happiness is genetic. In fact, one study suggests that between 50-80% of the variation in levels of happiness among different people can be explained by their genes (Lykken and Tellegen, 1996)! But what about the things and people around us? And perhaps even more importantly, what about our own decisions and outlooks on life? Do they matter? The answer is a resounding ‘yes!’

The Things You Do

While it’s true that our genes have a lot more to do with happiness than many people think, there are other factors that have quite an impact too. And, luckily, they’re much more controllable! One of those factors is the things you decide to do. Building a great career, raising children, getting involved in a cause you care about, finding a fun hobby, spending time with those you love, and many other things as well can all be extremely effective ways to boost your happiness – whether you’ve won the “Cortical Lottery” or not!

With the many obligations we all have in life, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to do only the things we want to all the time. Many people find their work to be engaging, challenging, and fun. Many people don’t enjoy their work at all. Whichever category you fall into, setting aside time to do the things that are fulfilling to you can go a long way. Along with that, looking for the things that bring a smile to your face, make you chuckle a little bit, or warm your heart can add to your happiness. Especially if they’re in places that you wouldn’t expect to find them.

Looking for the good in the world might be even more effective than you might think! In a study by positive psychologist Martin Seligman, participants were asked to journal about three good things that happened to them – and why they happened – at the end of each day. By the end of the week, the happiness of the journalers had increased by 2% compared to those who didn’t write about three good things that had happened to them. In fact, the people who journaled that week liked the exercise so much that many of them continued to do it on their own even after the study had ended! You can do this yourself, and it’s a fun and easy way to train your brain to focus on the positive.

The Quality of Your Relationships

It’s no secret that our social networks have a huge effect on our lives. Humans are highly social creatures, and we need to have positive interactions with others in order to stay mentally healthy. But much like the other factors we’ve talked about, the amount of social interaction needed differs from person to person. Someone who’s naturally more introverted may want to spend less time with other people – and socialize in different ways – than someone who tends to be more extroverted. But whether you’re shy or outgoing, bubbly or reserved, pensive or a party animal, friends and loved ones probably play a major role in your life.

While it can be fun to have a wide circle of acquaintances and casual friends, research has found that it’s even more important to have a few people we know we can always turn to – our ‘best friends,’ as it were. Again, every person is different, but for the most part, it’s the quality and not the quantity of your relationships that matters most.

The things we’ve talked about here are things that have been proven to have an effect on happiness. However, there are as many paths to happiness as there are people. Some things that have no appeal to one person might mean the world to another. But in the vast majority of cases, what matters most are your thoughts, attitude, actions, and relationships.

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What makes you happy? Leave your answer in the ‘comments’ section below!