(This blog was spawned from a podcast I did with Aubrey Marcus at the Onnit studio. Our Onnit #19 podcast opened with a discussion about the nature and causes of happiness.)
Happiness is integrally woven into every aspect in the tapestry of life. Not only does it essentially determine one’s fulfillment in life, it’s also notable that happy people live longer, are much healthier and lead more productive lives. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Book has a wonderful book on the Art of Happiness, and he sums it pretty well when he describes happiness as being the universal core desire of all beings.
The science behind the art and cultivation of happiness is actually a well-explored science dating back millennia.
Augustine wrote the first recognized book on happiness around 400 AD, and given the staggering number of people currently on medication around the globe for a variety of conditions essentially related to being unhappy, we can see that this study is as relevant now as ever.
So, how do we get there in these often troubled times? In order to reach any goal, it’s helpful to know the path to get there and the steps involved, and happiness can be looked at the same way.
It can also been seen as the summation of a variety of factors that involved happiness’ little brother joy. As happiness is the season of one’s mood, joy is the feeling state of the day.
For example, right now in this morning I feel fairly fuzzy headed and a bit off my game. I stayed up pretty late last night at a friend’s going away party, and with ample amounts of pizza, wine, laughter and celebration my senses are a touch dulled and my daily joy isn’t as readily available. And even so, I can still turn my mind towards optimism and faith, reinvigorate through gratitude for such a great group of people in my life, have fat green juice, do a bit of lighter eating today, enjoy some hot yoga…. and Voila… I’m back in the saddle and reconnected to my deeper happiness.
Joy waxes and wanes depending on our flavors of recent experience, whereas happiness is the gradual accumulation of such joyful states.
It’s like watching your savings account build over time when you consistently invest in the causes and conditions that cultivate happiness in life.
Through a ton of personal experience and working with so many clients and family and friends on rebuilding a life filled with happiness, it’s just as important to look at what adds to it as what taxes it. It’s a simple equation, where certain factors lead to happiness and certain ones lessen it.
If you’re pouring water into a bucket (like filling up with joy), but you haven’t plugged the holes where it leaks then you’re essentially fighting a losing cause. To a large degree it is a choice. It’s typically reengaged countless times and cultivated over a long period.
First, let’s look at joy and the day-to-day influencers of a person’s mood and outlook on life:
• Physical factors influencing joy: diet, exercise, sleep, general state of health, feeling of ease in one’s body
• Mental factors influencing joy: inspiration, motivation, optimism, faith, passion
• Behavioral factors: charitable acts, disciplined practice (meditation, yoga, dance, sex – the undisciplined type)
• Detractors from joy: pain, pessimism, addiction, toxicity
The formal field of this study is Positive Psychology, and it has been steadily gaining momentum over the last few decades and turning traditional psychology on its head. It doesn’t focus so much on what the problem is with a person or situation as much as it is solution focused, targeting what resources are available and what can be done about it.
A great example of this difference is illustrated here:
“We had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide and we had to ask some of them to leave.
They came and their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgement of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again.
Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.”
~A Rwandan talking to a western writer, Andrew Solomon, about his experience with western mental health and depression.
When you look at the numbers through the lens of Positive Psychology, the components of happiness break down like this: 50% genetics, 10% circumstance, 40% intentional actions. (Some in the field of epigenetics may even argue for more of an intentional behavior factor of around 75% and genetics around 25%, but you get the general idea.)
When we get even deeper into the neurochemistry of happiness we come across a variety of important neurotransmitters at play, with Dopamine being the forerunner. Dopamine (DA) is responsible for pleasure and happiness and it lives by the motto “use it or lose it.” DA neurons follow the usual course of neuronal
DA neurons follow the usual course of neuronal life span and naturally decrease over time, unless one continuously engages in activities that fire and wire DA pathways, and these are exercise, having new and novel experiences, encouraging the sense and feeling of beauty in life and immersion into “flow states.”
We could write an entire volume on Flow states and the science of Flow, and essentially that is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did in the book Flow when he investigated the question “what makes a life worth living?” We’ve all heard (and most resonate with) the adage “variety is
We’ve all heard (and most resonate with) the adage “variety is spice of life.” Totally true, and when we combine novelty in life, flavored with states of loving kindness and gratitude, then add consistent immersion into optimal experiences where we lose ourselves and “flow” into timelessness of an engaging activity… we are cracking the code for Happiness.
We CAN choose to engage in experiences so powerful that they can even shift genetic potentials away from unhappiness.
These choices activate the neuronal pathways for DA wiring, and as practice this over time, the natural outcome is a contribution to lasting, consistent, universally available happiness. But this is really just one side of the coin.
Interestingly enough, people also do really well when bad things happen. Through the process of loss and suffering, the majority of people (myself included) eventually come to a place of increased gratitude, acceptance for what one has, the presence to enjoy life in the now, and an overall more purposeful and meaningful life.
The human nervous system is geared for contrasting experience and recovery from adversity is proportional to the degree of happiness achieved. It’s in our wiring to grow and strengthen through adversity and challenge, just as a stressed grape produces the sweetest wine.
To add a few more items on the plate, let sum up what some of the studies show that lead to happiness:
1. intrinsic goals – desire to be helpful, personally develop ones nature and have meaningful relationships
2. live in connected, cooperative supported communities (Denmark is the happiest of the “developed” countries and has the highest rate of cohousing communities)
3. Regular engagement in “happiness interventions,” such as gratitude letters, random acts of kindness (Primary Health Care R&D article Jan 22, 2014 showed improved health measures and quality of life)
4. Back to HH the Dalai Lama, “if you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
These things take happiness away:
1. extrinsic goals, for money, image, status ( ** once the basic needs for survival are in place, money has absolutely no bearing on happiness. Fifty thousand in the bank is the same as fifty million on the happiness scale **)
2. killer work ethic (Japanese culture more focused on efficiency than play is the least happy of industrial nations)
3. proportional immersion into TV and mainstream media (each hour contributes to worsening physical health, mental well being and overall vitality – article in Preventive Medicine by Dempsy et al Sept 13, 2014)
In summary, what we’re getting down to here is the recipe for happiness. It’s a bit different for everyone, and it’s pretty much the same nonetheless.
We each have the power to choose our lives, to live it fully in the way that suits us best while respecting others and encouraging them to do the same. And if enough of us do this at the same time… we just may tip the scales toward a common humanity that celebrates all life in a good way.
Just a few from a long list to check out:
• Movie Happy – thehappymovie.com
• Youtube Video – Greatest Man on Earth, Narayanan Krishnan
• Book – Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar, based on his Harvard University course on happiness
• Book – 10% Happier by Dan Harris
• Book – Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin