We treat happiness as passive, something that comes when we are lucky, that is somewhat out of our control. We talk about “being” happy, not feeling it. Is this truly how happiness works? According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of positive psychology at UC Riverside, maybe not. In an interview with Dan Ariely, Lyubomirsky said “It takes ‘work’ to be happier.”
While we don’t have total control over how happy we are, we can influence a notable portion of it. Lyubomirsky explains that our happiness- that is, how happy we feel day-to-day- is 50% genetic, 10% determined by our life circumstances (these are both outside our immediate influence), and 40% our behavior and daily activities (which we do have control over).
This means that to be happier, we need to do the tough work on ourselves—to change our attitudes, behaviors and habits. There are some obvious challenges to this. One problem is that we quickly adjust to new, “happier” circumstances. We assume that we will be happier if we achieve this one thing: a promotion, a marriage, a raise or a target weight. These things can make us happy, but we get used to the changes surprisingly quickly. Once we achieve our goal, the boost in happiness is fleeting. Studies show that increased happiness only lasts about six months. Then we are back to where we started, and we’ve moved on to the next goal. We get stuck in a cycle of never-enough, the dreaded Hedonic Treadmill.
Buddhist teacher Tara Brach warns us about this type of “if/then” thinking in a lecture on happiness. This “worldly” happiness, as she puts it, comes from life going our way, or some gratification or pleasure. This can be wholesome, and it’s important to savor these experiences. But, too often we try to hold onto the things that make us happy. Brach explains, “As soon as we have to have the world a certain way, we start suffering.” This “if only” logic creates a sense that what we have now isn’t enough. When we expect a certain thing – a friend, a food, a milestone achieved – to provide a sense of accomplishment and happiness, our hopes are often disappointed. We are waiting for the thing (the job, the marriage etc.) to come and make us happy. Brach explains, “If we’re in the habit of wanting, then we keep on wanting even if we get it.”
It takes real effort get out of this cycle. It is work to continue to feel happy and grateful for things in our lives that we have adjusted to and come to expect, even, or perhaps especially, our friends and family. We can learn to lean into the feelings of gratitude and excitement by being present and mindful when they come. Though you may associate mindfulness with an antidote to suffering, it is the bedrock of happiness too. Tara Brach says: “Mindfulness strengthens our capacity to relax and enjoy our moment, to be happy.”
I’m starting to do the work. I am trying to let the feelings of happiness, excitement, and pleasure live longer in my body. Unwittingly, I seemed to shoo them away, often by just moving on to the next thing too quickly. Now, I try to give myself over to the feeling for a little bit. When I’m successful, this is simple and wonderful. It allows me to really feel those good feelings, and I think it improves my memory of the happy occasion.
It sounds simple to seek out the things that give us pleasure and then take the time to savor them. Yet in this busy world where success is measured by accomplishments, it can be harder than you might think. The things that Lyubomirsky recommends for happiness (positive thinking, meaningful relationships, and coping with the bad stuff) all are real work. Reversing our mental stories to positive ones, investing time in relationships, pausing to deal with our negative experiences and feelings (rather than just masking them) all take effort and presence of mind. Yet, they are totally worth it.
The pleasure need not be big either. It turns out that small pleasures are important; frequency of happy moments matter more than their intensity. According to Lyubomirsky, a study that followed people over the course of 13 years found that those with more frequent positive moments also lived longer.
Small moments of happiness don’t have to just be from life’s pleasures. Brach describes a different type of happiness, one that is unconditional. She calls it “happy for no reason.” This is not a false cheer, but a feeling of wholeness and connection even in the midst of sadness, anxiety or uncertainty. When I pause and ask myself, “What’s stopping me from being happy now?” most often the answer is nothing. Asking this question helps me pause and feel grateful to be a part of the world, a small dose of happiness.
Focusing on my happy feelings can backfire though. I was recently in the car with my boyfriend, heading out of the city to enjoy a beautiful day in nature. I was feeling particularly happy, in love, and grateful to have him to encourage me to do this, and a life that allows a last-minute excursion on a random Sunday. From the passenger seat, I turned toward him to share how good I was feeling.
“You have something on your nose,” he said.
Image: Morning Sun by Edward Hopper (1952)