“Happiness is a choice” is everywhere. In fact I often post memes with that saying. But I ask you this—is it? Is it really? And if so, how much of it is a choice?
You’ve heard people who say they “just wake up happy” or are “naturally positive,” while others scratch their heads wondering what’s in their coffee and why they don’t feel that same way. There’s the ongoing debate about who’s right—the pessimist, optimist, or the pessimist who calls him or herself a realist. Research shows a certain amount of happiness can be found in our “set point,” and those gleeful “wake up happy” folks may indeed just wake up that way. It’s not in their coffee.
In recent years psychological research has brought to the forefront a theory commonly known as the “set-point” theory, which states that a person can shift their basic level of happiness (according to parameters set by researchers) only by a certain amount.
In the book “The Happiness Project” Gretchen Rubin recounts her findings.
According to current research in the determination of a person’s level of happiness, genetics accounts for about 50 percent; life circumstances such as age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, income, health, occupation, and religious affiliation, account for about 10 to 20 percent; and the reminder is a product of how a person thinks and acts.
The good news is that we can shift! We can go to the lower end of our possible set point or the higher end—primarily based on how we think and what actions we take. Based on this writer’s precise mathematical acumen, that remainder accounts for a whopping 30-40% of potential happiness opportunity based in our “thinking and acting” skills. And with that range we can create an upward trend in our own happy.
What kind of factors play into our “thinking and acting” 30-40%?
- Choosing not to look at the negative side of situations. Earlier I said, “happiness is a choice”, and to a partial extent it has been shown to be true through the research. There are always several ways to view any situation, circumstance, or event, and only one of them is negative. The term “growth mindset” coined by Carol Dweck in her mindset work, states that we can view circumstances as experiences for their ability to teach us growth.
- Depression is not the opposite of happiness. Unhappiness is. This does not mean a person with depression is just negative and we get to beat them over the head with it—in addition to all the shaming they already face. In fact it’s apples and oranges. Someone who struggles with depression has an illness in their brain’s neurochemistry and isn’t just “unhappy” or negative by choice. We wouldn’t blame someone with the flu or arthritis, telling them they’re choosing to be ill, so doing the same for someone dealing with depression isn’t helpful either.
- Giving back or service. This is another factor designed to create a positive mental state and the physiology to match. Our brains produce both serotonin and dopamine when we give to others. To increase your happiness percentage, find ways to give back.
- Novelty is one of the factors that keeps us on our happiness toes. Changing things up, switching them around, and altering our daily routines can shake things up in a good way. Tom Fiffer, Executive Editor at Good Men Project, shared this insight, “When we get used to something we do, we can become ‘happy’ with it in a way. Sometimes we need to get out of our discomfort zone to be happier.”
- Exercise. Moving our bodies allows the biochemical physiological reactions meant to happen, well, happen. We were not built for lack of sunshine and the outdoors, or for sitting in an office with florescent lights or in front of a computer all day. Moving in short bursts (10-20 minutes a few times a day, or a total of 45-60 minutes 3-5 times a week and lifting things (weights, resistance bands, something heavy for each muscle group section) at least 2-3 times each week will do your body wonders.
- Water is also something the majority of us do not drink enough of, and since our bodies are made of 60-70% water, it’s worth figuring out how you like your water: iced, room temperature, in your fancy water bottle, cold, or hot. Yes, some people find they drink more water if it’s in something like tea.
- Decrease negative stress. Not all stress is bad, and believing so can actually be harmful. Check our Kelly McGonigal’s The Upside of Stress for more on that interesting phenomena. Certain kinds of stress can be invigorating, exhilarating, exciting. I get nervous every time I write an article, create a workshop, or do a video; wondering if my message will translate and if it anyone will find benefit in the words. That’s a great kind of stress; it makes me take action. But the types of negative stress are the kinds that create an over-production of adrenaline and cortisol—the stress that puts your sensitive system into fight or flight when you aren’t actually fighting or fleeing for your life.
- Sleep. This is a subset of a much larger problem, the lack of our culture focusing on rest, as Arianna Huffington’s book The Sleep Revolution brings to the forefront. We need a cultural revolution in relaxation and rejuvenation. We must learn how to appreciate the simplicity of the moment and the importance of getting a full 8-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night, not just when we’re sick, exhausted, or burned out. Stopping before we get to that point would be the lesson.
- Clarity. Getting clear on what we want (and don’t want) in our lives will help us make consistent plans, create boundaries when necessary, and stay out of that Land of Confusion that can suck us into obscurity where we waste hours, days or years. Having clear definitions can keep us from distractions and all the noise that life has to offer. Cathy and Gary Hawk of Clarity International have created an easy metric, “it either lights you up or it drains you. If it’s draining, limit it.”
Your energy, and your happiness, are a precious and valuable resource. Learning to treat them as such can shift how you think and act. You get to be in charge of that 30-40% of your set point, according to researchers. Do you want to play those odds in your favor? I ask you, now that you’re aware of the “happiness set point theory” and the fact that you can control a percentage of happiness; will you make any changes?