The Science Behind Happiness

February 13th, 2012

This week, I will continue on the topic of happiness, following the one-day screening of the Happy movie/documentary that took place last Saturday. As many other movies of its kind, they don't have all the commercial power of a Hollywood production, so they are not so widely distributed and viewed around the world, but I find that their content and human message needs to be widespread.

For many years experts have studied depression and other mental disorders, but it wasn't until de 90's that scientist finally started looking at the other side of the coin: happiness, and the science behind it. Nowadays there are lots of studies and extensive research done on this topic, and there is even a recent branch of psychology called Positive Psychology that is focusing on the happiness factor.

Here below are 2 important points I took out of this documentary:

1.-Happiness is a skill

What researchers have found is that even though there seems to be a genetic component to happiness that accounts for 50%, there is more to the picture. External Events, contrary to what most of us would think, only account for 10% of our happiness, and the remaining 40% is determined by our own personal choices and actions!

Here is what the happiness share looks like:


So, what does this mean for us?
First of all, it is important to note that a genetic predisposition reflects an inherited tendency that may or may not develop. As for external events (like winning the lottery, getting married, etc.) although they may give us a sense of happiness, it is often short lived. The key part here is the fact that 40% of our happiness is determined by our personal actions and choices. This means that we can choose to be happy regardless of what is going on. This discovery puts the power back into our hands, for our actions and choices are something that we have control over.

Just like learning to play piano or dance salsa, we can learn to be happy, it is a skill we can all develop if we devote time and effort to it. Now, what could be more important than devoting time to this particular skill?. If you think of it, what drives most of our actions is the pursuit of happiness. The main problem is that most of us are looking for happiness in the wrong places, with the wrong values, and that makes this pursuit that much harder, which leads me to the next point.

2.-We need to focus on true values:

One thing that has added to the confusion in our search for happiness is that many societies around the world have placed their values in the wrong places, and have thus created generations of human beings that are confused as to what will make them happy.
What I mean by this is that many people look for happiness in external, material and ego based pursuits, such as: material wealth, self image, and recognition; but none of these can really offer long lasting happiness.

On the other hand, modern societies have lost or neglected true values that, to a great extent, hold the key to happiness and security. These are:

  1. Close Relationships
  2. Self Growth, and
  3. Compassion and Connection

Lets look at these more closely:

a. Close Relationships

  • In the past, a family was formed by the grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings, etc, and they all lived a few miles from one another, which allowed them to grow up together, to support one another, to learn from and live with different generations, etc. Although this extended family support network still exists in some parts of the world, it has been lost in many others, and to a great cost. The constant presence of extended family gave people a great sense of security and belonging, from a very early age. Nowadays a "family" is very nuclear and isolated: parents and children, and this puts an incredible amount of stress on both.

  • On the other hand, the fast pace, stress, and mobility of modern life, on top of the lack of family support, has made it very hard to build strong and close friendships over time and even if we have built them, more often than not, they are not a regular part of our lives, as they live far away or we can't find enough opportunities to spend quality time with them, let alone have unscheduled and spontaneous encounters with them. So, the network of very close friends that are "like family" is very reduced or nonexistent for many people.

b. Self Growth

This is the capacity to look inwards and find who we really are and what our true talents are, before the influences of the outside world come in. It is important to accept and love ourselves and pursue our true calling, this is about spending time understanding our own self. Modern societies and their institutions tend to encourage people to follow existing "models" and fit into a set of "expectations" that we come to believe are our own, but more often than not, they aren't, we have just been brainwashed for too long.

We are in a constant race to study everything around us and follow certain models for success and happiness. We should instead be encouraged from early childhood to find our own and unique talents and purpose in life and accept ourselves for who we are, allowing our destiny to bloom into shape, instead of trying to be someone else or doing something we are not passionate about.

c. Compassion and Connection

Compassion and connection refers to our capacity to see everything around us as part of ourselves, feel compassion for others and act on it, practice love and kindness towards others whether we know them or not. This is about feeling connected to the whole human family and respecting every person regardless of their color, race, culture, religion, class, profession, looks, etc. this is about understanding that this life is greater than us. Here again, modern societies tend to encourage an individualistic and competitive spirit rather than a cooperative and more altruistic one. Compassion and connection also refers to respecting and living in harmony with nature and other species.

So, how can we start our path to true and lasting happiness?

To the risk of repeating myself (from last week's article), here are some daily practices that can help you start on the path of developing the happiness skill:

  • Practicing gratitude, write down or focus on 3 things that you are grateful for, choose different things everyday. This will train you to scan your brain for the positive FIRST, and tune into what is good in your life, not what is lacking.
  • Journaling about a good thing that happened in your life (it doesn't matter when). This allows you to relive a happy memory and bring the emotion back.
  • Exercising every day, whether it is a 20 minute brisk walk or an hour of swimming, anything goes. Exercise takes your mind off from problems and forces you to focus on the task at hand.
  • Avoiding mental toxicity as much as you can, you may want to read my posting on this topic.
  • Practicing meditation daily, I also had a posting on Meditation that you can check out. This will allow you to begin to see your true self and avoid cultural ADD.
  • Practicing random acts of kindness, helping somebody on the street, sending a praising email to a co-worker, calling somebody just to tell them how much you appreciate them, etc.

Another important thing that you can do is review your value system, are you driven by achieving wealth just for the sake of wealth? are you always looking for recognition from others? (your parents, co-workers, peers?), do you care a lot about your looks an image? If any of these aspects run your life, consider looking at true values instead:
*How many close friends do you have? how often you see them/call them? where does your family live? what is your relationship with them? how often do you see them?.
*Do you take time to look inside yourself and find your true self? Do you stop and clear your mind in order to let your soul emerge?.
*Are you doing something for the betterment of this world? are you giving your time (not just money) to it? would you volunteer at a soup kitchen? a shelter? a senior care facility? etc. the possibilities to practice compassion and connection are endless!!!

For more ideas, I highly recommend you check out this: Ways to integrate Happy into your own life (PDF), and this: 15 Things You Should Give Up To Be Happy.

So, stop for a minute, get out of the crazy race and think about where you are going... because if you are not going in the direction of happiness, you will eventually hit a roadblock.

Have a great week!


* Improve your Creativity: a Silva Life Seminar, February 18-19, Washington DC area

* 21 Day Meditation Challenge starts February 20, a wonderful free resource from the Copra Center.

* The WISH Summit 2012 starts on March 8th. A great display of wisdom for free!

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