TL;DR: Click here to download the summary of all learning and action items from this article on happiness.
What makes happy people happy? What if there was a single key to unlock happiness? One solution that everyone could use to gain unlimited joy. Wishful thinking when researchers for centuries have been searching for this key. The reality is that happiness has several shades and hues. It is often defined as “a state of well-being and contentment.” If there was an exact system to becoming happy then everyone would be happy. Right? Wrong. I wish it were that easy.
I first studied happiness in business school. Yes, business schools try to teach people more about happiness. The scientific mind trying to reverse engineer happiness. An attempt at bringing structure to something that didn’t exist before. I confess it did fascinate me. Research has since advanced and a lot has changed about what the world now knows about happiness.
So I asked myself the question “What makes a person happy?”.
This is what I learned.
To understand happiness I need to first need to introduce you to the prefrontal cortex. It is a part of the brain located at the very front of the frontal lobe. It turns out the prefrontal cortex does a lot of things. One of the most important things being that, according to Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, it is an experience simulator.
This simulator allows humans to have experiences in their heads before they try them out in real life. Super cool right? Think of it this way. If you had two scenarios to choose from:
a. Living the life of a billionaire or
b. Living the life of a homeless person.
Your experience simulator leads you to choose Option a. even if you have never experienced either.
The next thing is what Dan calls the Impact Bias – the tendency for the simulators to work badly. When it works badly the simulator makes you believe that different outcomes are more different than, in fact, they really are. What researchers found is that when people suffer a traumatic event like losing their limbs their happiness levels are nearly identical six months after the event as they were the day before the event. Why?
Learning #1: Because there are two kinds of happiness: Natural happiness and Synthetic happiness. Happiness can actually be synthesized. You tend to best synthesize happiness when you feel “stuck” or “trapped”.
We synthesize happiness every day and do not realize it. We are programmed to believe that happiness is a thing to be found.
So what are these two kinds of happiness?
Natural happiness is what we experience when we get what we want.
Synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we want.
A great example of this is the story of Moreese Bickham. Moreese spent 37 years in jail for a crime he did not commit. He was released on good behaviour halfway through his sentence. When asked about his experience in jail this is what he said –
“I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.”
Glorious is an odd word choice here. But it isn’t all that weird now that we know what synthetic happiness is. It turns out that freedom is the friend of natural happiness. Because it allows you to choose from among several appealing futures. You pick the one that you would most enjoy. But freedom to choose, to change and make up your mind, is the enemy of synthetic happiness. So what we should keep in mind is this:
Learning #2: Your brain can synthesize happiness even when events don’t go your way. Honour your preferences, but don’t worry about the difference in outcomes.
Pleasure and emotions
Humans are born pleasure-seekers. A baby loves the taste of sweet and hates the taste of bitter. They love to touch smooth surfaces rather than rough ones. We are all born with a lot of innate pleasures. And according to Dr Sigmund Freud, the human emotion system has both a positive and a negative system. Our negative system is sensitive.
This sensitive negative system led cognitive researcher Nancy Etcoff, to say, that
Learning #3: The formula for a happy marriage is five positive remarks, or interactions, for every negative one. Life-saving advice aside, the actual learning here is that at least 50% of our happiness is because of our genes.
We are born with it. Genes, unfortunately, don’t care much about whether we are happy. They do care, however, about whether we replicate and pass them on. So if you look at the reproductive systems there is lust (want for sex), desire (romantic attraction) and attraction (long-term bond). The problem is that, as humans, these three can separate. So a person, according to Nancy, can be in a long term attachment, become infatuated with someone else, and want to have sex with a third person. Another way our genes lead us astray is through social status. As humans, we always seek to further and increase our social status. One way humans do this is through prestige. Someone has expertise and knowledge and knows how to do things, and we give that person status. So genes wire us to different levels of happiness.
According to Sonja, author of, The How of Happiness, 10% of your happiness is attributable to your life circumstances. Are you rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, married or divorced? This leaves a surprising 40% of our capacity for happiness within our power. How we view and understand the other 40% then makes all the difference to our well-being.
So to better understand happiness we need to also understand emotions. Even for Aristotle, happiness entailed experiencing the right emotions.
We tend to think of emotions as only feelings. Emotions are, in fact, a physiological alert system. It changes what we remember, the kind of decisions we make, and even how we perceive things. Better managing our emotions then could impact happiness.
So how do we do this? We need to look again at the brain. It has two more systems:
- the reward system – it makes something look so attractive that you have to go after it. We rely on this system to change our habits for example. Primary reward examples include survival needs, such as water, food, and sexual contact. Secondary rewards, such as money, derive value from the primary rewards.
- the pleasure system – it makes you say, “I like this.”
The reward system consists of wanting, learning, and pleasure liking. Pleasure is the most relevant to happiness. Dopamine drives reward-driven behavior and pleasure-seeking. Studies have revealed that reward-seeking behaviour increased dopamine transmission in the brain.
Learning #4: So one way to drive happiness is to increase your levels of dopamine naturally. Sonja, in her book, lists out 12 activities of happiness. You can use these activities to boost your dopamine. They are:
- Be grateful
- Stay optimistic
- Don’t overthink
- Be kind
- Become social
- Learn to cope
- Forgive others
- Seize the moment
- Be joyful
- Become goal-oriented
- Become spiritual
- Stay physically and mentally fit
These activities can boost your happiness when put to work in your daily life.
Growing research has also shown that people are born with a “happiness set-point”. It is a baseline for happiness to which you are bound to return, even after major setbacks or triumph. The set point for happiness is like the set-point for weight. Some people are skinny irrespective of what they do. Others have to work hard to keep their weight at a desirable level. The moment they slack they creep back to their baseline.
Learning from the longest study on happiness
This wouldn’t be a worthwhile article if I didn’t reference the longest study on happiness. For over 80 years Harvard tracked the lives of over 750 men. 268 of them were Harvard sophomores in 1938. (Fun fact: President John F. Kennedy was one of those men) 19 of them are still alive and in their 90’s. The study expanded in the 1970’s to include 456 Boston inner-city residents, 40 of whom are still alive. Later, the scientists also expanded their research to include the men’s offspring. A decade ago the Harvard Study of Adult Development started including women.
The study tracked everything about the lives of these subjects. These were the biggest learning from the study:
Learning #5: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.
A big surprise was that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships have a powerful influence on our health.
Learning #6: Social connections are really good for us, and loneliness kills.
People that are more connected to family, friends and their community, are happier and healthier. They also live longer than people who are less well connected. It also turns out that loneliness is toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others are less happy. Their health declines earlier in midlife. Also, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives. Here’s the scary thing – three in five Americans (61%) report feeling lonely, compared to more than half (54%) in 2018. (Check this Infographic)
Learning #7: It’s not about the number of friends you have, or whether you’re in a committed relationship. It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.
Living in and around conflict is bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, turn out to be very bad for our health. It is even worse than getting divorced. Living in a good, warm relationship is protective.
Learning #8: Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains.
The study identified that if partners could count on one another in times of need then their memories stay sharper longer. Those good relationships didn’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of the couples could bicker with each other all day every day. But as long as they felt that they could count on each other during times of need it didn’t take a toll on their memory.
Also, the people in the study who were the happiest in retirement were the people who had worked to replace workmates with new playmates. Most started as young adults believing that fame and wealth and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a good life. Throughout the study, it was clear that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships. Relationships with family, with friends, and with the community.
Money and happiness
“Money can’t buy happiness.” How many times have you heard or read this sentence?
Here is what I found about why that sentence is wrong.
A 2010 study by Deaton and Kahneman found that “emotional well-being” peaks at $75,000. This is the origin of the popular belief that money can’t buy happiness. “Emotional well-being” is an indicator of people’s moods. The study captured it by asking people about their emotions the day before. Do you think that is an adequate measurement of happiness?
The other holistic measure of happiness is “life satisfaction” or “subjective well-being”. If you look at data for life satisfaction you do not find a plateau. Check out this solid analysis that Dylan Mathhews did of the study results. So there is strong evidence that proves life satisfaction goes up with each rung of income.
Learning #9: The notion that money can’t buy happiness isn’t true.
So apart from the use of money for materialistic happiness how else can having more money make us happier? The answer lies in how you choose to spend your money.
Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton (co-authors of Happy Money) found that the right spending habits can change a person’s physical and emotional well-being.
They go on to recommend five principles to follow that can assist with translating your purchases into happiness. They are:
Learning #10: Buy experiences – Buying material goods runs you the risk of suffering from buyers remorse – the worry that you could have made a better choice. Opt instead of spending money on experiences. They don’t have to be elaborate. Look for experiences that connect you with others and reinforce your self-image.
Learning #11: Make it a treat – The way to find renewed pleasure in your activities is to introduce novelty. For example, spice up your relationship by engaging in activities that you have never done in the past. Bought a new Rolex? Don’t use it every day.
Learning #12: Buy time – The amount of money you have has little influence on your happiness. But “time affluence” does impact your sense of well-being. Turn decisions about money into decisions about time. For example, you can choose to book a more expensive direct flight to reach home earlier.
Learning #13: Pay now, Consume Later – There is pleasure in anticipation. Monthly subscription services like Birchbox, built its entire business around this. For $10 a month, Birchbox sends its customers monthly boxes with samples. Fans take to social media as soon as announcements on new boxes. So practice delayed gratification.
Learning #14: People who spent money on others got happier. People who spent it on themselves, nothing happened. It didn’t make them less happy, it didn’t do much for them. Also, the amount of money or the context under which you spent on others doesn’t matter.
It was all too common for me growing up. Interacting with the poorest of poor people in India. I saw firsthand how even a poor person seemed so happy. A big reason for this is because the poor person practices grateful living. What does being grateful mean? We have all experienced the feeling of being grateful in our lives. Two things, according to David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, need to happen to be grateful. You have to receive something valuable to you and it has to be a real gift.
Learning #15: To be happy, we cannot only have grateful experiences. We need to live in gratitude.
We can live in gratitude, according to David, by recognizing that every moment is a gift. If we didn’t have this moment we would never have an opportunity to do or experience anything. The opportunity then becomes the gift within the gift of a moment. If we miss the opportunity of this moment, another moment is given to us and on and on. How we choose to view and avail the opportunity is where happiness then lies. It is a fact that not every moment is positive. Bereavement being a case in point. It’s a challenge to rise to that opportunity, and we can rise to it by learning something. This process is sometimes painful. Learning patience, for example. How do we do this? According to David, we must
Learning #16: Stop, look and go – Take time to pause. Be grateful for everything you have in your life. From small things like access to running water to larger things like shelter, food and family.
In conclusion, studies on happiness will continue to evolve. The learning laid out here can transform how you choose to live your life. Barring clinical depression which requires medical intervention, happiness is attainable. Through some diligent effort and practice, you can upgrade the quality of your life.
Knowing what you know now about happiness, what did you find most surprising? Which of these learning will you experiment with first? Leave a comment below.
TL;DR: Click here to download the summary of all learning and action items from this article
Note: The Univ. of California Berkeley has a popular free course on happiness called The Science of Happiness if you want to learn more about happiness.