The study of happiness in science is relatively new on the scene. Concentrating scientific research on what is right with humans, rather than what is wrong has given vast amounts of new insight into well-being.
While it is not a hard science, the past decades have had major advances in our understanding of the subjective experience of happiness. The connection between behavior and genetics begs the question:
Were we born with it, or can we learn happiness?
This article contains:
- Is Happiness Genetic and if so, What Percent?
- Information About the Origins of Happiness
- A Look at How Happiness Works
- The Elements and Components of Happiness
- Common Characteristics and Traits of a Happy Personality
- How Does It Feel To Be A Happy Person?
- What Causes Happiness in Life?
- Is Happiness a Skill and Can It Be Taught?
- How Does Happiness Change with Age?
- 14 Ways Happiness Can Be Achieved
- 10 Lessons on How to Find Peace of Mind
- 7 Happiness Strategies
- How Does the Pursuit of Happiness End?
- A Take-Home Message
Is Happiness Genetic and if so, What Percent?
A meta-analysis done at Stanford University (Levinson, 2005) showed the particular role that genetics plays in depression. While an absence of depression is not an indicator of the presence of happiness, many wonder if we are genetically predisposed to higher levels of life satisfaction.
An additional study was conducted in an attempt to locate a gene responsible for happiness.
In this twin study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience (De Neve, 2012) subjects with a higher presence of the number of longer alleles of the 5-HTTLPR gene (a serotonin transporter gene) self-reported higher levels of life satisfaction, aka happiness.
While the study did not define this gene as the happiness gene, it did equate 33% of subjective life satisfaction with genetic variation. Whereas environmental factor variation equated to not more than 3%.
A twin study of over 2,000 twins from the Minnesota Twin Registry found that approximately 50% of life satisfaction is due to genetics. This leaves 40% attributable to intentional activities and 10% attributable to external events. (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005) Being able to move a happiness “set point” with intentional activities makes levels of happiness variable.
Information About the Origins of Happiness
As a species, humans were built to survive. Life satisfaction, therefore at its very beginning was the necessity of survival and creating the next generation to survive as well. Hunter-gatherers and humans predating the Neolithic agricultural revolution endured within social groups that were required for survival. (McMahon, 2006)
Negative emotions were therefore hard-wired, necessary, and beneficial to species advancement. In other words, humans were constantly scanning the world for threats but survived well in close, social units.
The agricultural revolution created the first real threat to happiness due to the creation of a new social hierarchy. With advances in agriculture, a decreased need for reliance on social groups for survival created the notion that happiness equates with fortune or luck.
Species survival was improved, but happiness, particularly among the classes of humans without fortune, was therefore unchanged, if not reduced.
The notion of fortune and social status as a goal for happiness in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution continued to threaten the concept of happiness. Humans focused more on amassing wealth and fortune than existing in a right loving and right action type of existence. A state of eudaimonia (Greek word used to describe happiness) was less sought after than the need for material goods.
Our current technology revolution has created an additional threat to human happiness. Though incomes and quality of life have increased, self-reported levels of happiness have stagnated over the last 20-30 years.
The largest indicator of this stagnation of happiness has to do with decreased engagement in prosocial behavior. Simulated human interaction does not have the same benefit to overall human happiness, as does live, interpersonal interaction.
Using our technology wisely and intentionally could assist in altering this additional threat. In other words, use your social media wisely!
A Look at How Happiness Works
There is obviously variance in human experience. However, neuroscience is a very definable way to explain how happiness works. The brain chemicals released during moments of positive emotion are endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. These chemicals increase with certain behaviors creating neural pathways that lead to more frequent positive emotions.
Studies on behavior and their relationship with these brain chemicals have been vital in increasing our knowledge of the importance of behavior in the increased experience of positive emotion. (Light et. al 2005) (Bue-Klein, 2010)
Our life satisfaction has more to do with our experience with other humans than most people realize. How our brains perceive others and human ability to be resilient and accurate in that perception is thought to be one of the pathways to beating the depression epidemic plaguing our world.
Neuroscience can be tough and boring for the average human. To put it in much simpler terms, positive psychology can be summed up in Chris Peterson’s words, “other people matter.”
Understanding self-acceptance, while perceiving others with loving compassion leads the way to a life that will flourish. The better humans become at mastering the concepts of positive psychology, the more likely they are to live with the happy chemicals running through their brains.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning, experience, or following injury.
Positive psychology assists humans in developing more accurate and resilient thinking. How people approach every aspect of their lives shifts when perspective shifts. Increasing neurotransmitters associated with positive emotion leads to a more fulfilling life.
The Elements and Components of Happiness
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a well-known theory in psychology. What most people don’t realize is that once our basic needs (physiological and safety) have been met and our bills are all paid, our happiness does not increase very much based on material wealth! The components of happiness are actually under our control.
According to the Foresight Report (Aked et. al, 2008)
There are 5 factors that affect well-being.
1. Connecting with people
The importance of high-quality connections (HQC) with other people is a high determinant in human life-satisfaction in the workplace. Empathy in all relationships is essential for mutual understanding and positive communication.
Truly listening and being present when interacting with others is where connection begins. Lose the distractions (your phone for instance), and witness the increase in HQCs in your world.
2. Being active
Human brains work more efficiently when BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is created during exercise. This neuropeptide allows for the easier transmission of neurochemicals that are associated with positive emotions. Endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are all released during exercise and are all important in regulating mood.
3. Taking notice
Mindfulness pulls human attention away from anxiety and worries into a more resilient and accurate way of thinking. Mindfulness also increases instances of savoring, which allows you to fully feel, enjoy, and extend our positive experiences. Being present with quality attention has far reaching benefits.
4. Keep learning
Continued learning keeps the brain working well. Love of learning is a character strength that can benefit people with sharper brain skills, and potentially a longer life. Society itself is even impacted because the more people are engaged in learning, the more opportunities arise to help each other.
Increases in neurochemicals like oxytocin and dopamine. Acts of kindness and volunteering are areas in which life satisfaction are increased with giving behaviors. Pro-social behaviors when developed from a place of feeling are mutually beneficial to giver and receiver.
Common Characteristics and Traits of a Happy Personality
More information on healthy personalities is available than happy personalities. However, it shows the need for healthy and positive psychology as a means to happiness. Here’s a list of characteristics of a healthy personality. (Eddington, 2006)
- Personal Integration – this indicates psychological maturity and may help an individual move past negative behaviors
- Autonomy – the capacity to make an uncoerced and informed decision
- Accurate Perception – an informed and error-free view of the self and the world
- Environmental Mastery – the ability to select, shape, and achieve goals set up in accordance with one’s values
- Self-acceptance – the awareness and satisfaction with one’s strengths and weaknesses
- Self-actualization – the need to be good, to be fully alive, and to find meaning in life
When you think of happy people, what sort of personality traits come to mind? They may seem obvious, and that’s because there is commonality within the traits of happy people. Here are a few traits that most happy people share.
- They are hopeful and possess an optimistic explanatory style.
- They are consistently and automatically kind.
- They are positive.
- They are energetic and have a zest for life.
- They are fervent practitioners of gratitude.
- They are intellectually curious.
- They possess self-confidence.
- They show up in the world in an authentic way.
- They live in the present but plan for the future.
- They are adaptable.
- They have intangible values.
- They are compassionate.
- They are cooperative.
- They surround themselves with opportunities to love and receive love.
- They are resilient thinkers.
How Does It Feel to Be A Happy Person?
Happiness is very subjective. A writer may feel an intense sense of flow and fulfillment in their process; while a mother may feel intense joy and comfort when interacting with her child. The most common denominator in the feeling of happiness is not the intensity of the feelings, but rather the frequency of the increased positive emotion in daily life.
A happy person does the things that create more personal positive emotion in their everyday lives. A happy person performs behaviors that create satisfying interpersonal relationships that bolster trust and engagement.
A happy person almost stumbles on to the feelings of happiness due to the behaviors that they engage in on a daily basis. A happy person feels negative emotions because they are human (Shahar, 2006), but a happy person has the ability to move through those negative emotions more quickly and efficiently.
To be a bit more poetic, a person who is happy smiles with their whole body. Happy people spread sunshine because they are “others” focused. Happy people feel like they belong. Happy people are kind to themselves and tend to describe things in an optimistic way.
Happy people usually approach their day with a deep sense of hopefulness and optimism, which fuels their productivity.
What Causes Happiness in Life?
Happiness is a marathon, not a sprint. Life satisfaction comes from long-term commitment to positivity, engagement, relationships, meaning, achievement, and vitality. (Zhivotovskaya, 2018)
Deep trusting connection to other human beings throughout life, is vital to emotional well being. Statistics on happiness and marriage don’t lie. (Grover, 2014) The quality of our relationships matters deeply in the creation of happiness.
Meaning in work and meaning in relationships are two very important ways that people become happy in life. Having a purpose and deeply knowing the people around them creates high-quality connections that fuel life satisfaction. The more connection one has to core values and to the core values of those around them will result in continued positive emotion.
Is Happiness a Skill and Can Happiness Be Taught?
Since happiness has so much to do with long-term behavior, happiness is absolutely teachable. This wild-west of psychology is an exciting and relatively new science. Every day, new discoveries on how to monopolize happiness are being made. The #1 most vital element in this learned behavior is the commitment to the behavior that increases happiness.
For humans to flourish and elevate their set point of happiness, they have to engage in behaviors that promote positive emotion in various areas of life.
In positivity, there are 12 suggested interventions to increase positive emotions. They are laid out in the Person-Activity Fit Questionnaire. These are activities that yield high rewards for behaviors that come naturally to the person utilizing them.
In engagement, seizing opportunities for the experience of flow repletes a person’s mental energy to handle depleting experiences. Activities that are challenging, have clear goals, and are intrinsically motivated are likely instances of flow. These activities help time to stop, decrease pain symptoms, diminish a sense of self, neutralize emotions, and give the participant a “natural” productive high.
In relationships, improving communication, attunement, and compassion allows for opportunities in high-quality connections, increasing opportunities for positive emotions through interactions with others.
Seeing the perspective of others is a pathway to flourishing. Humans are interdependent and improving the ability to relate with others increases instances of positive emotions. Trust, empathy, vulnerability, appreciation, and belonging are additional areas that are vital for flourishing relationships.
In meaning, finding opportunities to participate in meaningful activities allows for increased feelings of positive emotions through effort in an others-focused approach to work and activities. People who find deep meaning in their work feel lost without it. Developing a self-perception that is, “I do good in the world,” increases a quality connection to the world around you.
In achievement, having a meaningful connection to your goals is essential. This releases you from what Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D. calls the “rat race.” With that release, it allows people to fully engage and enjoy the rise to the goals set with intention.
It is important in accomplishment to release comparison and to savor the experience is massively important. Reliving past positive experiences can create upward spirals for more positive emotions!
In vitality, putting into action behaviors that value health and bodily strength is another pathway to flourishing. Improving self-regulation and commitment to one’s health goals allows people to come alive and live in a heightened and energized state. Through emotional contagion, this energy is spread to those around them!
If happiness could not be taught, Tal Ben Shahar’s Harvard class would not be the most popular on campus. There are many books outlining the secrets of being happier. The field of positive psychology has never been more exciting!
How Does Happiness Change with Age?
Our focus through the different seasons of our lives is how happiness changes with age. There is a story of an 80-year-old nun participating in the Iron Man. She believed that she could, so she did. Her perspective to live her life to its fullest, including taking her body to the extreme was so very inspiring.
Your wellbeing has everything to do with your perspective and less on your circumstances. Our physical bodies will break down slower if we use them. The same can be said of our emotional wellbeing.
According to a long-term study (Waldinger, 2015), the biggest predictor of life satisfaction in older aged subjects is the quality of their relationships.
When aging adults have a partner whom they trust implicitly, their rating of life satisfaction is significantly higher than those who are not in committed, loving relationships. Knowing someone “has your back” should something happen and your health deteriorates, gives aging adults peace of mind.
14 Ways Happiness Can Be Achieved
Fordyce Fourteen Fundamentals for Happiness:
1. Spend more time socializing. This doesn’t mean you have to spend every waking hour trying to be the most popular person in the world. Spending time with others in meaningful connections is the most important part. Connecting with others in an authentic way is how to boost that happiness.
2. Strengthen your closest relationships. Be intentional with how you show up in your circle of friends and family. Strengthening relationships requires better communication and increased application of empathy. These are skills that can be learned and grown with a bit of effort.
3. Develop an outgoing social personality. Easier said than done for someone who prefers to binge solo on Netflix all night. Start small by simply acknowledging others in your environment. Say hello to strangers with a smile! Being a little more vulnerable by allowing others to see you is a brave way to be more outgoing.
4. Work on a healthy personality. Self-compassion is key! Speaking kindly and praising the human you already are is a way to get started on the path to happiness. Saying, “I love you too much to let you….” is a great way to gain perspective when bolstering positive emotion and eliminating negative behaviors.
5. Lower expectations and aspirations. Constantly focusing on the summit, distracts you from enjoying the journey to the summit. Setting goals and running for them is great, but there’s no sense in chasing them in you aren’t enjoying the ride. Goals have to match intrinsic values, or they will never deliver long term life satisfaction.
6. Develop positive optimistic thinking. The way you describe the stories of your life are your explanatory style. If your story is consistently being explained like Pooh’s friend Eeyore, your style is pessimistic. Describing your story in positive terms filled with hope and zest for the future is a way of developing this type of thinking. So, start with your words.
7. Value happiness. Make happiness a non-negotiable in your life. Unpleasant experiences are going to happen, this is real life. Happy people move through the tough times faster and with less pain than those who continue to reenact negative emotions and experiences in their lives. Focus on gratitude and acts of kindness to increase opportunities for positive emotion. Build them like you would a piggy bank!
8. Become more active. Move that body of yours! That movement has to be aligned with who you are as a person. Nobody expects all people to seek out being a marathon runner. Endorphins, BDNF, serotonin are all good reasons to get moving, because they all increase in the brains of active people.
9. Become involved in meaningful work. If you can’t find it at your job, find it in volunteering. Find it in parenting. Find it at your place of worship. Find it where your values match the effort the work requires.
10. Get better organized and plan things out. A person without a plan is planning to fail. Having a map to wherever it is you want to go takes away the state of overwhelm that holds too many people back. This takes time and thoughtful work, but has great returns in more time for meaningful work.
11. Develop your presentation organization – how you show up. This is more than mere appearance, although appearance does matter. How you show up in the world is a conscious choice. When you show up grumpy, the world knows it.
When you show up happy, the world knows that too. A self-confident, smiling human is going to have an easier time navigating through their environment than someone that is self-deprecating and melancholy. Choose how you show up by using tools to change your perspective.
12. Reduce negative feelings. Digging deep into why negative feelings occur in the first place is a great place to start. Take your negative thoughts to court and see if there is evidence for them in your world. Most of the time, the evidence is false and you can then flip the negative into a positive.
It takes work, but it is worth the effort. Increase opportunities for positive feelings by engaging in behaviors that induce those feelings.
13. Stop worrying. We can’t NOT think about something. Replace worry with other thoughts. A great technique for reducing worry is to sketch the worst case scenario/ best case scenario/ most likely case.
By allowing your brain to go down the worry path to the most ridiculous possibilities and giving the percentage of these scenarios occurring, a more realistic scenario of the upcoming worry can relieve the effects of catastrophizing the situation. Plus, the thought spirals usually get a good laugh, which will boost your mood too.
14. Be a better friend. Go out of your way to improve your relationships with the friends that deserve a seat at your table (friends that are reciprocal). Be vulnerable and let them know how much they mean to you. Make time to spend with them. Show up for them.
10 Lessons On How To Find Peace Of Mind
Our thoughts are conditioning that has developed over our lifetime. Most would classify peace of mind as being devoid of thought, but our brains just don’t work that way. Mastering the ability to calm our thoughts and replace them with peaceful thought is the key to peace of mind.
Lesson 1 Integrity
Peace of mind is a byproduct of living a right and good life. Having absolute integrity will foster behavior that you will never have to apologize for or excuse. Self-acceptance is of utmost importance. Practicing self-kindness and compassion will lead to increased empathy, compassion, caring, and an understanding of the self and its positive interaction with the world.
Thoughts surrounding these concepts create a more peaceful approach to thinking and with it a peaceful approach to showing up in your world.
Lesson 2 Meditation
Much research has been done in the area of meditation. Finding peace of mind takes work and states of peace are subjective. Buddhist monks, viewed as masters of meditation have had brain scans showing the increased connectivity in their brains. Their minds are at peace because they are attuned to the conditions that allow for calm and peaceful thought.
Not all people who meditate are going to reach peace of mind all the time, but the practice allows practitioners the opportunity to calm their minds during meditation and the effects of that practice allow for the relaxation to heal.
Lesson 3 Get Outside
Being in nature is a pathway to peace of mind. Nature allows the mind to be surrounded by calm. Distance from the hustle and bustle of everyday life allows our brains to reduce cortisol and adrenaline, which are stress-induced chemicals.
Lesson 4 Calm Circle of Friends
Surrounding yourself with humans who do not induce a stress response can be very beneficial. Some friends are excellent fun, but others can induce feelings of calm and this helps to calm the central nervous system. Cultivate that group of friends that calm your mind.
Lesson 5 Spirituality
Connecting with something larger than yourself is a profound way to find peace of mind. Daily practice of prayer or any ritual that brings the mind to a place of compassion creates more feelings of calm. Participating in these types of activities creates more opportunities to cultivate peace of mind.
Lesson 6 Practice Non Judgment
Judgment thoughts lead to downward spirals and negative emotions. A path where curiosity and compassionate thoughts take the lead is a path where a more peaceful mind can be cultivated. Without judgment, there is an opportunity to offer a broadened perspective, upward spirals, and positive emotions.
Lesson 7 Focus on Serving
When focused on the self, anxious thoughts are allowed to grow and spiral out of control. When focused on helping and serving others, remarkably the feelings of anxiety disappear. Peace of mind can be found in the space where “other people matter.”
Lesson 8 Create a peaceful playlist
Listening to music can induce the release of dopamine. This feelgood chemical when induced by calming, peaceful music can create a state of peace of mind. Relaxing in this state is very beneficial.
Lesson 9 Pet the animals
Pets are a scientifically proven way to create a relaxation response in the nervous system. Soak up the healing unconditional love of those furry friends. Fill your heart and find your peace with nurturing those creatures.
Lesson 10 Get Up and Dance
It’s not just dancing. Art, playing an instrument, or any chance to create gives the creator a shot at more inner peace. Creating gives the creator the opportunity to create instances of flow. Activities that create a state of flow also create the opportunity to lose track of time and calm the mind by focusing intently on the task at hand.
7 Happiness Strategies
With any strategy to bolster happiness, one must first choose and commit to the goal. Holding happiness as the “ultimate currency” is the choice. This choice allows room for the release of comparison and competition and leaves room for abundance instead.
- Choosing a loving kindness meditation is a terrific strategy for boosting happiness. This strategy helps to increase oxytocin and reduce cortisol. Focusing on loved ones while relaxing self-focused thoughts increases happiness.
- Increase opportunities to experience the emotional boosting benefits of gratitude. Writing letters of gratitude to friends and loved ones is an incredibly powerful strategy for boosting happiness.
- Visualize your best possible self. Then practice the behaviors that that best self would engage in. Over time and with consistent effort, you will become that best possible self.
- Practice self-compassion. Considering the way you would speak to someone else before saying something critical or self-deprecating are a couple of strategies for boosting happiness. Be kind to yourself. Choose language that is gentle and encouraging.
- Find out your character strengths and use them in a new way. The VIA character strengths survey is a great place to start.
- Create opportunities to utilize mindfulness. The 5 senses mindfulness exercise is particularly helpful. See 5 things, touch 4 things, hear 3 things, smell 2 things, and taste 1 thing.
- Set goals that are meaningful and run toward them. Feeling alive and challenged is a great strategy to boost happiness.
How Does the Pursuit of Happiness End?
The pursuit of happiness is not meant to end. Even as hospice patients enter the end stages of their life, finding a common human experience and what it means to be human in even those final days will make the transition easier on the patient and those around him/ her (BJ Miller).
There may not be happiness in death, but there can be ease. The Zen Hospice Project allows for a more compassionate way to view death. The human connection even in that last stage exists. Never stop pursuing.
A Take-Home Message
This piece covered the genetic components of happiness. Knowing that it is theorized that 50% of happiness is due to genetics gives you another 50% of your life to decide how happy you want to be.
Daily behaviors and resilient thinking allow for the remaining percentage of your happiness to be malleable.
Does knowing that your happiness is in your hands scare you? Or does it empower you? Having the ability to change your set point of happiness is exciting!
Thanks for reading.
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