The field of positive psychology (which partners closely with the fields of neurology, biochemistry, eastern medicine and others) is built on the scientific premise of neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change.
This means that greater levels of happiness are attainable through practices that change how your brain functions.
Although this may sound like a “duh” observation with our culture’s growing emphasis on happiness, it was not that long ago that scientific research accepted that the brain was unchanged by life experiences and that field of psychology emphasized medicating malfunctions in the brain that produce negative emotional states.
So what does the research show that can help us be happy … in a world of conflict, overload, unpredictability, uncertainty, and injustice?
1. Raise Your Set Point
You have much more power over your happiness level than you probably realize.
Each of us is born with a happiness “set point” around which our happiness level tends to settle, regardless of what happens to us. Research suggests that genetics determine about 50 percent of this set point and environment determines the other 50 percent.
Other research shows that only a small amount of your environment is out of your control (things like the weather and the stock market).
This means that you have control over 40% of your happiness level. Own this fully. Intentionally make choices that make you happier.
When you make positive changes in your self and your environment, you raise your disposition toward happiness.
2. It’s as Much About What You Don’t Want as What You Do Want
Many times people make the question of what makes them happy so big that they get stuck. I’ve seen people freeze when asked, “What do you really, really, really want?”
If exploring this question feels too big of a quest for you right now, ask yourself, “What don’t I want?”
You likely will find your brain a willing partner in creating this list. Once you have listed all of your “I don’t want…” items, create a second list of what the opposite would look like.
“I don’t want a messy house” may become “I want a clean, organized home that makes me feel my best, filled with things that I love and that energize me.”
When you learn to avoid the things that lower your happiness set point, it will naturally rise.
3. It’s About This Moment
Focus on happiness here and now, not some day in the future.
We are not good at predicting what will make us happy or how long that happiness will last.
Studies show that there is a gap between what we believe will make us happy and what actually does – a big one. We tend to overestimate how things will affect us, thinking we’ll be much happy when we get something we want.
Major life events (positive or negative) lose their impact on happiness levels, often as quickly as a few months. For example, lottery winners settle back into their pre-winning level of happiness and paraplegics become happier after they process their loss.
Take these findings to heart next time you hit a new low. Your happiness is not that far down the road. You will naturally stabilize toward your set point – and there are many things you can do to get there more quickly.
It is only possible to live happily ever after…on a daily basis.
4. The Bigger Picture
Dr. Martin Seligman, a pioneer in positive psychology, uses a three-zone model of happiness. The first level is the Hollywood view of happiness, which includes getting as much positive emotion as possible.
The second level of happiness comes from discovering our signature strengths (Seligman’s list of 24 strengths include traits like honesty, kindness, forgiveness, creativity, and love of learning).
The third level consists of using your strengths in the service of something larger than yourself.
If you have not yet discovered volunteering or helping another as a powerful tool to bring yourself more happiness, now is the time to add this to your tool box (another perk…research shows this also helps you live longer).
As with any lasting improvement, the magic is in the daily practice. There are many happiness-raising tools and I look forward to sharing some in a future article.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear what tools you find most effective to raise your happiness set point. And don’t be surprised when investing in others by your sharing of self…well, makes you just a bit happier J