Is Happiness a Skill?

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 19, 2014.

I just watched a fascinating documentary titled “happy” and directed by Roko Belic. I would recommend that everyone watch it because who isn’t trying to be happy? The documentary showcases the latest research on what makes humans happy, and it’s full of interviews with researchers in this fairly new field of inquiry.

Twenty years ago psychology was about helping people with their problems, but in the 1990s it finally became more acceptable to study what makes people flourish. This “positive psychology” has produced a slew of books and other media on the subject.

Ed Diener, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, and he started his research in 1981. He said, “The first thing to realize is that happiness can actually help you get your other goals, have better relationships, make more money, do better at the job. People on the job are going to like you better if you are happy.”

So what does it take to be happy? Although I expected the researchers to say that success and money don’t buy happiness, I was still surprised to hear what they have found out.

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, 50% of what determines whether we will be happy or not is genetic. She says that we all have a kind of “set point” or a range of feeling happy that we continue to fall back into after the effects of our good and bad experiences wear off.

This surprised me. Are we doomed to unhappiness because of genetics? As pointed out in the documentary there is still the other half. Lyubomirsky goes on to say that 10% of what makes us happy is our circumstances: our income, social status, where we live, and our age.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that all those things we typically “strive” for do little to make us happy, but Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D. and author of Stumbling on Happiness, says that money can buy happiness when we’re talking about lifting someone out of poverty. Once our needs are met, however, there isn’t much difference in the happiness levels of someone who makes 50K a year and someone that makes 500K a year.

Lyubomirsky says that 40% of what determines how happy we feel is our actions and intentions.  There are things we can do to help ourselves become happier.

One action we can take is to get more aerobic exercise. This is because physical exercise helps to release dopamine in our brains, a chemical necessary for happiness. From our teenage years onward, we start to lose dopamine, but exercise is one of the best ways of producing it.

They also said that getting exercise in fun and novel ways is an even better way of releasing dopamine, and in our everyday lives, we need variety and change.  For some that may be taking a different route to work, but for others, they may need more changes. Having new experiences and keeping up that “spice of life” is another action we can take to help increase our happiness.

Not surprisingly, people who are happier tend to have a strong network of family and friends. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone has to get along all the time though.)

“Social bonding, social interactions is programmed to be intrinsically rewarding to humans,” says P. Read Montague, Ph.D., Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine.

Doing something that we feel is meaningful is an important step in trying to feel happier. When we concentrate on relationships and our community’s overall feeling of well being, we stop thinking so much about ourselves.

The final “building block” in happiness, as the documentary’s narrator calls it, is appreciating what we have. Since I’ve spent a good portion of my life concentrating on what I want instead of appreciating what I have now, I can attest that shifting my focus to others and appreciating every moment has done quite a bit to elevate feelings of satisfaction and contentment in my life.

I appreciate that the film also noted that there is no one formula for happiness that fits every person, but it does a good job of finding people who live in dire circumstances around the world and showing that happiness can be found even in these places. The film doesn’t go into problems such as chronic depression that can affect a person’s brain, but that didn’t seem to be the point of this particular film. The “building blocks” may seem simple and common sense, yet the average person could benefit from learning about them. It’s something many people in our culture could use.

What makes you happy?

3 thoughts on “Is Happiness a Skill?

  1. I love Lyubomirsky’s book “The How of Happiness.” It’s my favorite of that genre.

    One thing that I’ve read recently is that focusing on happiness can make you unhappy. 🙂

    I really believe that focusing on meaningful work and helping others is what brings happiness — as a byproduct of a well-lived life, not a goal in itself.

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    1. Thank you, Lori! And thanks for the book recommendation. I’ve been thinking of reading one of these books myself! I completely agree with you about focusing on meaningful work, helping others and about happiness being a byproduct of a well-lived life. I have found that to be true in my own life. Spot on.

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  2. Interesting! I will seek out this film. I have learned in therapy that humans are wired for survival and connection. Happiness, in my eyes, is something I’m lucky to feel sometimes. I’m stellar at surviving! And sometimes I laugh!

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