What makes you happy?

Have you ever stop to think about it? Retailers like to convince us that stuff will make us happy. That our overflowing closets full of the latest trends will somehow make our lives more complete. Those of us that fall for this (which is most of us for at least one good or service at some point in our lives) soon realise that the path to long-term happiness is not best paved with fancy consumer purchases and credit card debts. We learn this as soon as we gather one item and experience the gratification of owning it we often move on to another- and another. Only to learn that for every item we gather a new and enticing one appears. Our moment of gratification through consumerism usually often only translates to fleeting happiness because marketing entices us to need or want the next new thing. Which means that while shopping can create happiness, most of us would agree that there are more gratifying activities in life that translate to longer periods of happiness than what the swipe of a credit card and the rustle of a shopping bag can evoke.


A World of Happiness.

If you are curious about what happy is, does, looks like, and how it can be fostered there is a wonderful documentary currently streaming on Netflix. Happy looks at the science behind happiness, how people across the Globe foster happiness in their lives, and what we can do to encourage more happiness in our lives. While the documentary is a little old (hello reference to MySpace) the study of happiness and it’s pursuit is something that we as a collective consciousness have been interested in as long as humanity has existed.


Inside Happy.

Oddly enough the monsoonal rains, long days, and hot pavements are only a small price to pay for a child’s smile. In Kolkota Slum in India Rickshaw operator Manjo Singh is as happy as the average American despite living in a open air sefl constructed home with plastic for walls and only being able to eat rice and salt for dinner on occasions. For Singh the reward’s in life are evenident when he comes home from work to his family:

“When I see my child’s face I feel very happy. I feel that I am not poor, but I am the richest person”

Surrounded by loved ones and a tight knit community Singh is not alone in finding happiness through these connections, which is something that the documentary addresses later.While we have all been fascinated with happiness on an individual or family basis but the study of the psychology of happiness is relatively new. For most part psychologists were interested in ridding patients of their problems. But of recent (mostly gaining traction in the 1990’s), there has been a focus on making peoples lives, rich deep, and full of happiness and the field of positive psychology was developed.


Your baseline happiness may be genetic.

Through the study of identical twins researchers have identified that approximately 50% of the differences in our happiness levels are determined by our genes. This is baseline for happiness is our ‘genetic set point’. According to Professor of psychology Sonja Lyubomirsky most of us are born with set-point level of happiness and whatever highs or low occur we generally end up back at this ‘set-point’ happiness level. Unbelievably your circumstances (such as income social status, where you live etc.) only account for 10% of your contributors to happiness. The remaining 40% is unaccounted for and can be influenced by your intentional behaviours to raise happiness levels.


Influencing your forty percent.

While the idea that around 60% of your happiness is dictated by genetics and circumstances might be a little bewildering it’s good to keep in mind that you can influence the remaining 40% without having to spend a dime. Researchers suggest the following for raising the joy barometer in your life:


  • Variety is the spice of life: Believe it or not mixing up your schedule, even in the most simple of ways, can bring happiness to your day. Whether it’s taking up a new hobby, changing careers, or simply walking a different path home from work, a change is as good as a holiday. Intentionally mix it up!
  • Make time for what makes you happy: When we are young we have more feel-good chemicals. Dopamine (the chemical that brings you pleasure and happiness) production slows with age, so it’s important to make time to do things that make you happy to stimulate this important chemical (too little can result in Parkinsons disease). It’s a case of use your happiness muscles or loosing them as you get older, so exercise your happiness. One sure-fire way to release these happy chemicals is through aerobic exercise especially when exercising in novel ways.
  • Find some flow: Remember a time when you got lost in the activity you were doing? Be it yoga or simply washing the dishes, any time you get totally absorbed in an activity you increase your happiness. Why? Because it creates a moment where you are free from the stress of the past or future and can simply ‘do’ and ‘be’. People who experience flow on a regular basis are happier.
  • Get Social: We humans are social creatures. When we work together or cooperate we get a release of natural feel good drugs (dopamine). The high that we get from connecting with others is the equivalent of the high one would get from recreational drugs. When we work in a community we realise (through comparison) how good our lives are and want to help others and share. Through connections we need something bigger than ourselves to care about. Then through connection we often develop compassion, caring, gratitude and spiritual understanding. Joy comes from our connections with others.
  • Fake it til you make it: Sometimes we don’t have the opportunity to connect with others. This is where visualisation and reflection can come into play. Compassion and loving kindness meditation practice can help increase happiness and is even said to yield better results than medication for depression. An easy way to get into the gratitude habit is the count your blessings by writing them down. It’s also a good idea to commit acts of kindness. When you care about things bigger than yourself you can live beyond the fear for death.


Ask yourself ‘What really matters’?

For Roy Blanchard Sr. from America this is marvelling in nature. When he feels down he watches nature and listens to the stillness of the world on the water near his home. His philospohy is:

‘Nature…especially like this, it’s good medicine’

According to Daniel Gilbert PhD what we think about happiness might actually be incorrect. Often we do really good when things are bad. Richard J Davidson PhD Professor of psychology continues to expplain that while there is a general concensus that all adversity is bad research doesn’t support this. While this seems a bit confusing it’s all to do with the contrasts in life. There is no pleasure without pain. If things went well all the time it would be hard to have a baseline to judge your happiness from. Tim Kasser PhD states that:

‘We are told in our society that the way to be a compietitant person, the way to be a good person is to make a lot of money’

However the trend is that wealth is on the rise but happiness has stagented, remaining much the same as it has been. We have more stuff and larger houses but much the same amount of happiness. Once basic needs are met happiness is much the same. Shopping your way to happiness is not really a sustainable venture because each time you shop your pleasure is fleeting until the next visit, you are on hedonistic treadmill:

‘Whatever level of wealth or material goods you have you adapt to it and always want more- that’s what the hedonic treadmill is’.

While extrinsic accomplishments and pursuits like money, fame and power can bring happiness, it’s been show that achieving intrinsic goals like personal growth, relationships and community feeling tend to bring a longer lasting and more sustained type of happiness. Different societies have different ways of fostering success. In Japan, the least happy of wealthy industrialised nations, there is a dangerous and telling trend of people working themselves to death. Death by work is called Karoshi and has become a part of the Japanese workers risk factors to success.  Bhutan on the other hand has been working to accommodate happiness as part of their governmental measures of success. Fostering a culture of happiness within self and connection with environment. Dasho Kinley Dorji Ministry of Info and communication the Government of Bhutan shares that:

‘We believe that this contentment, this happiness lies within the self. There’s no external source. The faster car, bigger house.. you know…. more fashionable clothes, is not going to give you that contentment, it might give you fleeting pleasure but not contentment’


Why worry about happy?

When it all comes down to it you don’t have to be happy to survive. There are plenty of miserable people who get along in daily life without dropping dead from unhappiness. However there are som serious benefits from fostering a joyful life. The first one is that happy people function better and live longer. Which makes sense when you think about it. It’s easier to get along on your day if you take the time to make it enjoyable and care for yourself and others. Secondly happiness (just like misery and sadness) is infectious. If you take the time each day to cultivate happiness, compassion and altruism then happiness will return to you. Happy people make others happy. It’s important the remember that you have a baseline for happiness, and some may trend naturally to the positive side of life. Regardless of your baseline you can affect your 40% by working on it! Play, gather new experiences, make time for friends and family, do things that are meaningful, and appreciate what you have. So while shopping your way to happy is a possibility, why not avoid the short term high of retail therapy and adapt yourself to shop your own life for ways to incorporate happiness into your day without it having to cost a cent!

How do you define happiness? Do you believe it can be bought? Have you seen this film? Got something to discuss? Share it below.

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