What Controls Your Happiness?

your happiness

Clearly, happiness is something that everyone wants. To be happy is in fact, one of our most basic and fundamental desires. So if everyone has always wanted it, and if everyone is actively seeking it, why doesn’t everybody have it?

That’s a rather difficult question for several reasons, but the solution may not be as complicated as you think. In the field of personal development we often base our conclusions on experience rather than scientific research. I thought it might be enlightening to have a closer look at some recent scientific findings in the field of happiness, and see if we can make some practical application.

What is happiness anyway?

What does the term happiness mean to you personally? We all have our own version of what we think would constitute true happiness. Some feel that it hinges on material possessions or personal health. Others feel that happiness is directly linked to the quality of our relationships, or that it depends on our circumstances. So allow me to ask…

Do you think that happiness is an elusive quality controlled by outside forces like health, wealth or relationships? Do you suspect that it might be determined by genetics or living conditions? Or do you feel that happiness it controlled by something else entirely?

Let’s consider some recent findings

Materialism. Some have said that happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have. This logic sounds so reasonable that two university psychologists decided to put it to the test. Their results suggest that people can grow accustomed to their possessions and thereby derive less happiness from them.

Here’s their conclusion, “Simply having a bunch of things is not the key to happiness, our data shows that you also need to appreciate the things you have. It’s also important to keep your desire for things you don’t own in check.” Source

Relationships. While a close and meaningful relationship has the potential to be a real and lasting source of happiness, scientific research in this area is obscure. However, there is a set of statistics that illustrate the fact that relationships do not always produce the desired happy results.

As you may have guessed, I am referring to the divorce statistics for the U.S. They are as follows: 50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second and 74% of third marriages end in divorce, according to Jennifer Baker of the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology in Springfield, Missouri. Source

Genetics. Some researchers now claim that happiness is mostly genetic. Psychologists, who used data from 900 pairs of twins, identified evidence for common genes which result in certain personality traits that predispose individuals to happiness whatever their circumstances. Source

Another ground breaking study claims that individuals who carry the happiness gene don’t pay much attention to negative things happening In their lives and, instead, they focus on the happier aspects of life. In the process, they end up becoming more sociable and are generally in better shape psychologically. Source

Does that mean that happiness is genetic?

I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions just yet. Instead, Let’s consider another factor also being studied by science. I found this on to be especially meaningful because it is something that we all have control over, and the research is extensive.

Gratitude. In a published paper called: Highlights from the Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness, Michael E. McCullough from the University of Miami made this observations. “Gratitude is the ‘forgotten factor’ in happiness research.”

His group is engaged in a long-term research project designed to create and disseminate a large body of scientific data on the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its potential consequences for human health and well-being. Source

What they found

Psychological and Physical Well-Being effects of gratitude

1. In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis – exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.

2. A related benefit was observed in the realm of personal goal attainment:  Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental groups.

3. A daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others).

4. Participants in the daily gratitude group were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, relative to those focused on hassles or social comparison.

5. In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality, relative to a control group.

6. Children who practice grateful thinking have a more positive attitude toward school and their families.

Measuring the Grateful Disposition

1. Gratefulness Most people report being grateful (an average rating of nearly 6 on a 7 point scale).

2. Well-Being: Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress.  The disposition toward gratitude appears to enhance pleasant feelings more than it diminishes unpleasant emotions.  Grateful people do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life.

3. Sociality: People with a strong disposition toward gratitude have a greater capacity to be empathetic and to take the perspective of others.  They are rated as more generous and more helpful by people in their social networks.

4. Spirituality: Those who regularly attend religious services and engage in religious activities such as prayer and reading religious material are more likely to be grateful.  Grateful people are more likely to acknowledge a belief in the interconnectedness of all life and a commitment to and responsibility to others. Gratitude does not require religious faith, but faith enhances the ability to be grateful.

5. Materialism: Grateful individuals place less importance on material goods; they are less likely to judge their own success and that of others in terms of possessions accumulated; they are less envious of others; and are more likely to share their possessions with others relative to less grateful persons. Source

How does this information benefit us?

We see that it is our attitude that has the greatest influence on our personal level of happiness. Sure, we can gain some enjoyment from material possessions as long as we appreciate what we have. Good health obviously contributes to our happiness as do meaningful relationships and favorable circumstances. But there are plenty of people who have all of those things but still can’t find happiness.

What about genetics? If we lack the so called happiness gene (if such a thing even exists) are we destined to an unhappy life? It has been said that our genetics are only that stage upon which we act out our life. How we choose to express those genetics is completely up to us. We determine what aspects of our genetic potential we will express, and how.

It all comes back to attitude!

If you want to be happy you must take responsibility and stop looking to things or people to make you happy. You are the source of your own happiness, stop looking elsewhere. Instead of seeking happiness, start creating it. Here are a few ways to get rolling:

1. The attitude of gratitude. Express gratitude daily for everything. Don’t forget to appreciate you smallest blessings. Remember, this one is scientifically proven to produce tangible results.

2. Be thankful to others. Appreciate the people in your life, and practice saying thank you for any courtesy they show you. It is too easy to take those around us for granted. Show them the same consideration you would like shown to you.

3. Honor other people. This goes beyond courtesy; it is a form of giving. Treat everyone you meet as if they have a big sign on their chest saying “make me feel worthwhile.” If you do this you will discover a hidden source joy.

4. Be positive. A positive attitude will move your focus toward all that is good in your life. That means you will not be focused on anything negative. For an excellent article on how to do this read: Positivity Leads to a Flourishing Life

5. Project happiness. Even if you are not feeling especially joyful, adopt a joyful persona. Your body language and words send powerful signals to your nervous system. You can change your feelings by acting the way you want to feel, and it happens very quickly.

6. Perform acts of kindness. Don’t wait to be asked, if you see an opportunity to do something nice for someone else, do it! It doesn’t need to be a big thing, hold the door for a stranger, or smile a anyone you make eye contact with. Look for opportunities to make others feel good.

7. Make a decision to be HAPPY. This is the most important step on the road to a happy life. Simply make up your mind to be the happiest person you know, and you will be. You are the key to your own happiness, so go ahead and unlock it once and for all.

What do you think?
Did I leave something out?
The lines are open!

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  1. Jeff March 31, 2009 Reply

    Gosh, if I could just stay focused on maintaining the attitudes above my life truly would be awesome! This is a great post. Attitude is definitely where we need to focus.

    • Jonathan March 20, 2011 Reply

      Hey Jeff, seems like you are doing just fine in the attitude department to me!

  2. Rocket Bunny March 31, 2009 Reply

    I would have to say – yes, happiness is a state of mind.
    One should be happy with their self before they can be happy in a relationship.The marriage thing well that is a sad fact but some people still believe in it.
    I do.
    Too many people settle or marry for other reasons and not for love or knowing the true meaning of what marriage and having a family means. Divorce is too easy.
    I have heard guy friends talk about expecting to have multiple marriages with the way society is here.
    I have friends that have chosen to remain single and have children. The fathers are active in the child’s life but I don’t agree with it for me.
    Call me old fashion but at almost 31, I have waited and learned what I want in a relationship.
    I am not materialistic. I think it is a waste of money and space.
    I surround myself with positive people. People who are creative and up beat.
    I find having a relaxed mind and body by meditation and working out works for me.
    Finally- I think volunteering is very rewarding for both parties involved. Everyone walks away feeling happier and I know I always learn something from the experience.
    Great article!

    • Jonathan March 20, 2011 Reply

      Hi Bunny, I totally agree with you about marriage. Seems that you have found practical ways to incorporate many of these practices into your life.

  3. Robin Easton April 1, 2009 Reply

    I just love the conclusions you came to in this post. It made me feel great peace and joy. It actually brought tears to my eyes because I felt you spoke directly to my heart. Being thankful every single day, every moment changes lives. I have seen it happen. My husband and I both do this all day long even when something challenging happens we always stop and remember what we are thankful for. We remember those who are suffering much greater loss or challenges and keep them in out thoughts. And because we always choose to be thankful we are truly happy. We laugh a lot and seek out joy. It doesn’t mean that “stuff” can’t happen it just means that we choose how we want to respond. Even as I sit at my desk at home right now, looking out my office window I have a million things to be thankful for.

    I think for me being happy is being in love with Life. Simply being or living in Love, within one’s self and within the world. Knowing this anchors me to what is really important and I let the rest go.

    This is yet another life affirming sharing here, which I am very grateful for.

    • Jonathan March 20, 2011 Reply

      Hi Robin, I felt a similar connection with your comments.

  4. Stephen April 1, 2009 Reply

    This was wonderful Jonathan. Genes? I believe they are a strong factor in most traits, BUT they don’t control you. They just create tendencies and maybe even strong ones, but I choose not to be imprisoned by mine. I didn’t get the happiness or the positivity gene so it doesn’t come easy and naturally to me. I believe it does come easy to some. By making the choice to use your mind and do those things that overcome your genetic tendencies, you are choosing to not be chained by those genes.

    There are so many little things you can do on a daily basis when you “Make a decision to be HAPPY”. I’ve been telling people how good I’m doing and that by itself makes be feel happier. Maybe we should come up with the 101 simple daily happiness habits. Make it a collaboration or something.

    The one thing that has worked better for me than anything else is to simply be mindful of the present. It melts your regrets and worries away.

    I like to have my computer ding me with all kinds of reminders throughout the day and I’m adding your 7 ways to be happy to those tonight.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Jonathan March 20, 2011 Reply

      Hey Stephen, nicely put with regard to genetic influence.

  5. Dragos Roua April 1, 2009 Reply

    Great post. I especially liked the “scientific” approach, which was merely a way to introduce the reader in the main room by using a different entrance. And the main room is saying what we all know: be grateful, honor people and perform random acts of kindness.

    For me, happiness is a process, a continuous living experience, not a goal in itself.

    Thanks for sharing, reading this felt good.

  6. Mike King April 1, 2009 Reply

    Great article with a lot of angles and considerations here. I like how you led it back to attitude as well. I absolutely agree that happiness is something you can simple decide to have and that yes, its an attitude, not an event.

  7. Jacqueline April 1, 2009 Reply

    I’d just like to add exercise and quiet reflexion to your happiness list. These 2 habits will help increase feelings of joy, acceptance of oneself, and then acceptance of others, as well as providing a buffer to the emotional turbulance of the world. Great post!
    Live Life Happy!

  8. Laurie April 2, 2009 Reply

    I like how you mentioned that we can ‘decide’ to be happy. So true. It’s our choice.

    I’ve always thought that happiness is an inside job. When we think positive thoughts (ie thoughts of gratitude), we’re probably going to be happy. Likewise, when we think negative thoughts, we’re going to feel unhappy (or, perhaps, less happy).

    Thanks for the post – informative and useful.

    • Jonathan March 20, 2011 Reply

      Hi Laurie, life is mostly an inside job and the part that isn’t we can reframe if it’s not working for us.

  9. Megan April 3, 2009 Reply

    What a fantastic idea to keep a gratitude journal.
    Committing feelings of gratitude to paper will make us even more conscious of our blessings. I’m starting this right now, even just a one-liner on my daily calendar will be a great way to keep focused on positive aspects of daily life…resulting in even greater happiness.

  10. harvey April 4, 2009 Reply

    In this day and age, I think we have forgotten that a philosophy of being as beign helps to understand man in his complexity and reveals his substantial autonomy in the order of being.

  11. Gregg P April 8, 2009 Reply

    I needed to read this post! I started a section in my journal for Gratitude. This is awesome.

    • Jonathan March 20, 2011 Reply

      Thanks Gregg, glad it was useful for you.

  12. Anne December 21, 2012 Reply

    HI Jonathan, even though I’ve taken a break off blogging, I’m just stopping by to say Happy Holidays to all my blogging friends. Thanks for all the support, comments, visits etc. I hope you have fun with your loved ones and I wish you all the best for 2013.

  13. Ken Wert December 26, 2012 Reply

    Coming late to the party, Jonathan, but just had to say how much I loved this article. So well documented, researched ans stated. Powerful stuff, my friend.

    I believe gratitude is the single most important principle to happiness. Add that one attitudinal habit and our happiness will grow in leaps and bounds.

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