The Other Key to Happiness

Owen Sanders at the Frontier Neuropschology blog presents a highly readable summary of what the field of positive psychology has to tell us about human happiness. The findings aren't terribly surprising (at least they weren't to me) but it is handy having everything compiled together in one place like this.

First and perhaps most importantly, we need to come to terms with what doesn't cause happiness. Genetics has something to do with it, accounting for perhaps as much as half of our happiness, but then again, maybe less than a quarter of it. Meanwhile the factor we tend to think of as most closely associated with happiness -- life circumstances -- accounts for a lot less than we think. It turns out that when really bad (or really good) things happen to us, the long-term impact on our happiness -- after the initial shock wears off -- is about a 10% bounce one way or the other.

So what should you do if you want to be happy?

1. Think positive. 

Optimism is associated with a wide variety of positive health and career outcomes, so it helps create all those life circumstances that won't make you as happy as you thought, but that's okay. Apparently, the optimism itelsf will make you happy.

It's important to note that there are two kinds of optimism. One is the kind that says, "I know there's a big health risk, but I'm going to go right on smoking. I'm optimistic things will work out." Of course, this isn't really optimism at all; it's denial. However happy it might make you in the short term, it will kill you in the long run. The there's the kind that says, "I know I got my leg blown off from a land mine, but I'm convinced that I can make god things happen in my life anyway."  That's the kind you want.

2. Avoid overthinking things.

How do you know when you're overthinking? How about this -- if you seem to be going over and over things in your head and it's not making you very happy, you're probably overthinking things.

3. Avoid judging yourself in comparison to others.

It's great to have good role models that we try to emulate. But that's not what we're getting at with this one. if you spend your time pissed off that your neighbor has a better car than you do, or depressed that his kids are more attractive than yours -- that's lethal for happiness.

4. Savor the good stuff.

Don't just do things you enjoy. Remember to enjoy doing the things you enjoy.

As I mentioned, these all seem pretty straightforward. But I'm going to add one. I was just reading this Scientific American  piece (you need a paid subscription to read the full article) on resilience, which has several interesting overlaps with Sanders' happiness summary. In case you're not sure, here's what the authors Southwick and Charney mean by "resilience":

Biologically, resilience is the ability to modulate and constructively harness the stress response—a capacity essential to both physical and mental health.

The authors talk about the ability to re-frame negative experiences, form good social networks, be optimistic (of course) and adopt good stress-management techniques. But if I were going to sum it all up and define it as the missing key to happiness, I would say it like this:

5. Build your tolerance to pain.

This is the paradoxical one. Surely happiness has more to do with avoiding pain than getting good at enduring it?

Wrong. Pain-avoidance is a strategy that comes dangerously close to the false version of optimism we rejected above. In fact, being able to endure pain is probably a key ingredient to being truly optimistic. This doesn't just mean physical pain, although we have to be able to tolerate a certain amount of that if we want to be in good physical condition. We hear all these admonitions to get out of our "comfort zones" if we want to succeed in life, which often refers to risking embarrassment or social rejection.

Being able to take action confidently in spite of potential pain (real or imagined) is probably the key differentiator between people who are happy and people who are not. And if this fifth point is later confirmed by research in the field of positive psychology, remember that you read it hear first!


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