What exactly is happiness? Is it a feeling? A state of being?
It’s actually more of an emotional state that is characterized by pleasant feelings like contentment, pleasure, satisfaction, and joy. Some might argue that it’s a combination of three characteristics: enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning. Scientists refer to happiness as “subjective well-being” or “flourishing”. A term that includes two components: Experiencing a balance of emotions; both pleasant and unpleasant- with an emphasis on experiencing more pleasant emotions than unpleasant ones and also life satisfaction. How satisfied am I with my work, my personal life, and other areas of life that are important to me?
We all have a slightly different mental model of happiness. What’s yours?
For our purpose, I’m going to stick with the terms “well-being” and “flourishing”.
Prior to 2000, the field of psychology was focused primarily on psychopathology and all of the various mental illnesses that humans struggle with. The focus was on identifying the collection of symptoms that make up the 300 or so diagnoses that exist in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). We are now on the revised 5th edition. Since the inception of the DSM, it has grown from 32 pages in 1952 to its recent edition of over 900 pages. It is a valuable resource for those of us in the mental health field but focuses on illness, not wellness. It’s important to understand illness and how to alleviate suffering but I would argue just as important to understand health and how to thrive by cultivating the best versions of ourselves.
We can thank Martin Seligman and his colleagues in the late 90’s for introducing the concept of positive psychology. Rather than focusing on the problems, positive psychology focuses on the positive elements of life- like what builds resilience and what makes life more meaningful and worth living. In his book, Authentic Happiness (2002) Martin Seligman shared the happiness formula. The question behind this research is – Is it possible for happiness to go up and stay up? Seligman gave us the first formula for happiness.
Happiness is the sum of your biological set point (S), life circumstances (C), and factors under your control (V).
The Formula: H=S+C+V
- (H) stands for your enduring level of happiness (not momentary level of happiness)
- (S) stands for your biological set point
- (C) stands for the circumstances in your life
- (V) stands for voluntary variables
(S) Set Point
The set point accounts for about 50% of happiness. Some researchers have indicated that this percentage could be higher. Our set point is determined by genetic wiring and early childhood experiences. You may be genetically wired to be more gloomy or more perky, more introverted or more extroverted. You could be prone to depression by having a family history of depression. We are still learning how much genetics plays a role in our mental health.
The set point is basically what your level of happiness is after you adapt to a pleasant or unpleasant change.
When we achieve a big goal, like getting a promotion, or seeing our child graduate from college, or winning the lottery. We experience moments of increased happiness, but these elevated levels will eventually return to your set point after a few days or weeks. For the most part, this set point is out of your control. This return to the set point is known as adaptation.
The adaptation principle – the human mind is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels. A lottery winner’s pleasure comes from rising in wealth not from standing still at a high level of income. After a few months the new comforts (new house, new car, new boat) have become the new baseline of daily life. Adaptation is in part just a property of neurons: Nerve cells respond vigorously to new stimuli but gradually they habituate, firing less to stimuli that they have become used to. It is change that contains vital information, not steady states. Variety is the spice of life because it is the natural antidote to adaptation.
(C) Life Circumstances
These are the external factors like race, gender, where you live, what type of job you have, how much money you make, whether you are married or not, etc. These circumstances account for 10% of your happiness.
According to Seligman, some of the life circumstances that make a difference in your happiness include:
- Living in a wealthy democracy, not in an impoverished dictatorship;
- Getting married;
- Avoiding negative events;
- Have an expansive social network (more on this later);
- Being religious. This has a lot to do with the social networks that come with religious involvement.
The life circumstances that don’t have as much effect on happiness:
- Making more money. Once you can live comfortably, money has very little effect on your happiness.;
- Getting as much education as possible;
- Moving to a sunnier climate.
(V) Voluntary Variables or Activities
This is the amount of happiness generated through voluntary activities. This accounts for 40% of our enduring happiness and has to do with the choices we make. Some researchers argue that this number is much lower. But regardless of the percentage, this is the variable we have the most control over.
This includes our ongoing personal development, enhancing our emotional intelligence, choosing how we perceive the world, and finding meaning and fulfillment in our lives. Essentially, how we spend our time. Are you spending your time on the things that matter the most to you?
Seligman also points out that the more positive emotions you have about the past, future and present the happier you will be. How do you change how you feel about your past, think about your future; and experience your present? Well…..this pretty much sums up the work of therapy. And ultimately takes working with a skilled therapist to help us process the emotions and beliefs we have about our past and learn how to be in the present and allow ourselves to experience not just unpleasant emotions but also pleasant ones.
Martin Seligman offers three strategies that you can try out on your own to create more positive emotions about the past.
- Let go of the belief that our past determines our future. Our past experiences certainly inform our present day reality but they don’t define who we are or what we are capable of. We do have agency and control over our actions. Including what we say to ourselves about ourselves. We CAN achieve many of the things we want for ourselves.
- Be grateful for the good things in our past. We have a tendency to remember more of the bad things that happen. This is actually a survival strategy. We don’t tend to remember the good things that happen. So we need to help our brain with this negativity bias and see the whole picture including the pleasant experiences from the past. Gratitude journals and small activities like reflecting on the positive experiences we’ve had during the day, the week, or the month, help the brain learn to focus on the pleasant events that have happened. One of the ways I do this, is I look back on my photos to help me remember some of my pleasant experiences.
- Learn to forgive past wrongs. Sometimes this can be tricky. But holding on to resentment and anger doesn’t address the issue; it mainly hurts you. The emotion underlying the resentment needs to be understood and processed. In therapy sessions, I help people learn to connect to their bodies, listen to their anger and other emotions, and address the concerns. The emotions provide a compass for our lives. We just need to learn to listen to them. Maybe there is a lesson to learn. Like a need for clearer boundaries in our relationships or maybe a need for more support in our lives.
Next time I’ll cover the second research finding: understanding how our minds work and learning strategies that change our minds for the better.
Dr. Lee LeGrice is a psychotherapist with offices in Denver, Colorado, and Fort Worth, Texas. In her practice, she focuses on two main areas: relationships and anxiety. A specialty of hers is helping people create safe, secure, loving relationships.
Let’s face it, relationships are challenging! Healthy relationships don’t just happen, they take work! She feels passionate about putting attachment theory into practice for herself and her clients. And she wants the same for you.