Can We Control Our Own Happiness?

Are you a master of your fate or a victim of circumstances? An optimist or a pessimist? Do you believe your happiness is dependent on life’s occurrences, your genetic predisposition, or within your control?

How do you approach your world?

All of us want to be happy, but few realize how much that feeling is within our control. Most believe circumstances dictate our personal level of happiness.

We are constantly in pursuit of the things that we believe will make us happy: a new job, a bigger home, a better body, or a different mate. Once we get what we were after, there is an initial spike in our happiness. But, the feeling is not sustained. Positive emotions that come along with accomplishments fade quickly. Life returns to routine, and new objects soon become old.

Shifts in emotions don’t last, and most people return to their personal baseline or “happiness set point” for the long term.

Until recently, behavior scientists believed happiness levels were inherited and extremely stable over the course of people’s lives. Circumstances could shift happiness in one direction or another, but only temporarily.

For the individual who considers himself or herself a very happy person, personal tragedy will temporarily cause unhappiness. But with time, that person adjusts to the new reality and eventually will call themselves happy again.

We all know someone who always seems melancholic, blaming their outlook on a lack of a spouse or lousy job, for example. Then they find their dream mate and marry or land the fantastic new job. Rather than living happily ever after, within a small time frame, they are melancholic once again. The reason has changed, but the temperament hasn’t.

In the past researchers primarily studied individuals with disease, disordered behavior, or clinical depression. Medication and/or talk therapy to “fix” the problem was the available options for them. Little was known about how to help ordinary individuals go from feeling OK to feeling great.

Enter the field of positive psychology.

Researchers such as Martin Seligman (Authentic Happiness), Sonja Lyubomirsky (The How of Happiness), Barbara Fredrickson (Positivity), and Tal Ben-Shaham (Happier, Even Happier) devote their studies to how ordinary folks can go from being just OK to flourishing.

Their findings show that although 50% of our disposition is a result of our genes, only 10% is due to life’s circumstances. That means 40% is due to our behavior, which we do have control over. Through daily focus and effort, we can change our happiness set-point.

The happiest and most successful individuals experience at least a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions throughout the day. Sadly, in the complicated, fast-paced world we live in, most fall well below that ratio.

With everything else you need to turn your attention to, is the pursuit of greater happiness necessary?

You might not be thriving, but you certainly aren’t miserable.

Unchecked negativity leads to a host of emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression. Those feelings can lead to stomach disorders, increased blood pressure, tight muscles, headaches, and a multitude of physical sensations most would prefer to avoid. Chronic negativity can make us sick!

Self-generated positive emotions can improve our physical health. When we increase positive emotions, we become more open-minded, creative and resilient, perform better on tasks, and improve relationships.

Dr. Fredrickson identifies 10 positive emotions: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. Along with the many other health-promoting behaviors you practice (exercise, proper nutrition, sufficient sleep), concentrated effort to increase your daily ratio of positive to negative emotions will shift your set-point.

Here are some ideas to get you started towards a happier, healthier you!

  • Dispute negative thinking. When you overreact, blow things out of proportion, or become overly self-critical, stop and analyze the facts. Usually, they won’t support your negative thoughts.
  • Stop ruminating. Constantly going over adverse situations and thoughts perpetuates bad feelings and doesn’t accomplish anything. Look for healthy distractions that focus your attention elsewhere. Engage in activities that bring you joy.
  • Look for the silver lining in challenging situations. If you habitually view the glass as half empty, challenge yourself to find it half full.
  • Mindfulness activities like yoga and meditation can teach you to attend to thoughts with awareness and without judgment. Having a negative thought doesn’t mean you must react to it emotionally.
  • Read inspirational quotes and stories. Watch movies that make you laugh. Savor the beauty around you and share good news with others.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Count your blessings and give thanks to those who help make your world better.
  • Engage in an act of kindness every day. Volunteer for a cause you care about. Smile and say “good morning” to the stranger you pass on your way into the office. Bring chicken soup to a sick friend. You will enjoy the same feel-good hormone rush that the recipient does.
  • Utilize your personal strengths in the work you do on a daily basis. Visualize a successful future achieving your goals and dreams.
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2 Comments. Leave new

  • I read that a study done found having flowers in your office, cube or house really does make you happier by lower stress. This follows other studies that find our stress can be reduced by simply walking in natural environments.

    Reply
    • You are absolutely correct, Mindy. Several studies have shown being in nature, and surrounding yourself with things that allow us to appreciate and savor nature (plants, flowers, pictures of scenery, even paint colors that bring the outdoors in) lower stress and improve our moods.

      Reply

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