If something really good or really bad happened to you, how much difference would it make to how happy you are?
Is being happy just something you’re born with?
These are some of the questions that happiness researchers (yes, really) have set out to answer. And probably the most famous image in happiness research is the pie graph that summarizes the answers:
Researchers studied identical and non-identical twins to work out how much influence genetics has on happiness. They followed up people at intervals after lottery wins and disabling accidents, and they asked people about their activities and how happy they were.
And they concluded that about half of your happiness is down to your genes, only ten percent comes from your circumstances – and the remaining 40% is pretty much up to you.
This is one of those scientific findings that just doesn’t seem right at first. Surely having a wonderful or terrible event in your life accounts for more than 10% of your happiness? Listen to the contestants on any reality show. “If I get sent home I’ll be devastated.” “If I won it would be the greatest thing in the world.”
Well, of course when big things happen to you, good or bad, they transform your emotional world. But only for a short time. Negative events seem to last longer than positive events – most people get over a major loss in a year or two, usually, versus about six months to get used to something that makes them happy and return to their normal happiness level. (Each case is different, and some people’s grief or happiness will last longer or shorter than this, but those are the averages.)
If you’re talking about long-term happiness, there are two big influences: the capacity for happiness that you were born with, and what you do in order to become happier.
You can’t do a thing about your genetics. But what about that last 40%? How do you become happier?
Here are three ways with good research to back them up.
1. Experience life
Having fun experiences, researchers have found, easily beats buying things in terms of how much happiness you get.
Extra points for:
- Experiences shared with other people
- Physical activity and movement
- Natural surroundings, including green spaces and, ideally, water
- Trying new and challenging things
- Engaging all your senses.
Looks like sport might have a few things going for it after all.
2. Pay attention
We’re not often encouraged to reflect on our lives or pay attention to what we’re doing. Possibly this is because we’d buy less stuff and question authority more if we did. But we’d also be happier.
Especially helpful for happiness are reflections on:
- Things you’re grateful for
- What’s important to you (your values)
- What your strengths are
- What you enjoy doing
- What’s worked well for you and given you a sense of achievement in the past.
- Keeping a journal is a great way to become more aware of your own life process and get to know yourself better.
3. Do things that mean something
We’re happiest when we’re doing something meaningful – for ourselves and for other people.
Of course, self-reflection is really the only way to figure out what will be meaningful to you. But these are the sort of things I mean:
- Creating something – whether an artwork or a computer program
- Learning a skill you can use
- Passing on something you’ve learned or discovered to someone else
- Supporting a cause you care about with time or money
- Helping someone less fortunate than yourself.
- Eating the happiness pie
Half of the happiness pie belongs to your genetics. A tenth is down to things that just happen. But you can totally own the rest of it by choosing to experience life fully, pay attention with a positive mindset, and take meaningful action.<
Mike Reeves-McMillan writes more about how to be happy on his website How to Be Amazing, where he trains ordinary people to be heroes by teaching the things you didn’t learn at school.