Are You As Happy As You Want to Be? Or Hopeful to Kick It Up a Notch?

by DR. LINDA MOORE

Happiness is often more elusive than it needs to be. That’s possibly because what actually makes us happy is quite different from what we are told in articles, newspapers, books, and especially in advertisements. History reminds us that the 1950s portrayed housewives literally embracing new refrigerators. And, thus, the message of “the ’frig makes you happy,” along with other appliances, and with things in general, gained a more universal foothold.

Many of us grow up with an acquisition frame of mind, and research tells us that early attitudes can set us on the wrong track. Is there a right track? Debatable. However, consider some baseline thoughts and examine that question for yourself.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Dr. Jonathan Haidt provides this formula for happiness.

H = S + C + V

Translation: (H) Happiness equals your set point (S) plus your circumstances (C) plus voluntary activities (V).

Research indicates your “set point” is something you are born with. It’s that emotional spot you typically gravitate back to – eventually – when something wonderful happens to elevate your mood or when something devastating occurs that throws you into disappointment, even depression. Regardless of the up or the down, the theory suggests that you gradually move back to the emotional space you inhabit most of the time. The good information, again, according to research, is that it’s possible to move that set point in a positive direction. How?

With meditation. Meditation has been demonstrated to positively impact the left brain and, gradually, over time, it can move your set point in a positive direction. That is significant payoff. Haidt also quips that the set point can be altered with the medication Prozac … and I imagine that would, indeed, work, short term, for some – though not at all reliable or recommended here. The long-term and safe benefits are derived from meditation, minus negative side effects.

“Life circumstances” include things that are less likely, or harder, for most to change: gender, IQ, history and background, education level, career/employment, and, for some, even where you live. This, then, is the least likely part of the formula to change … tweaking, perhaps possible.

In contrast, “Voluntary activities” … how and where you choose to spend your time … have an enormous impact on your happiness level. This part of the formula includes family, friends, volunteer work, hobbies, and any activities that have connection and meaning. The more you do the things that bring you pleasure and personal satisfaction, the happier you are likely to be. If that seems ridiculously obvious, just take a minute and check what percentage of your time is spent actually doing the voluntary things that make you happy rather than a “quest” for what you believe (or are being told) brings happiness.

Since the voluntary activities make the most impact on happiness levels, detailed exploration of what and how are examined in another formula. Consider the acronym PERMA, from the research of Dr. Martin Seligman in Flourish.

You can use these five areas of “living life” as a checklist for what you’ve incorporated successfully in your life. Examine the areas you know you need to work on; perhaps push to a higher level or acknowledge those that are important to you. The goal is to assess for a bit of balance. Or, sometimes more achievable in our busy lives, “integration.” Ask yourself what you need to include that is missing? At least a little more often. What needs more emphasis or attention? What do you need to embrace as truly important, not to be taken for granted?

I’m a huge advocate of checklists and inventories, because visuals do help. Consequently, I suggest identifying a page for each item in PERMA. Then list what you currently do that falls into each category. Then list what you have historically done but perhaps stopped for some reason.

Next, what do you aspire to do that you’ve not yet done? And, finally, what do you believe you could put into practice within the next 30 days? After making the lists, sit back, take a deep breath (maybe even meditate, since research says it helps), and just see how you feel. Check yourself to imagine what needs to change to increase your happiness level. And when that is possible.

One more basic piece of research: People earning under $50,000 to $75,000 yearly are typically unhappier than others. If obvious, perhaps more surprising, people who make more are typically not happier than others. Hmm! If the financial payoff isn’t a happiness guarantee, the information might make all the difference in where to put your energy. If not that convincing, perhaps it’s useful in at least contemplating and evaluating what you do that you might consider letting go of … as well as more frequently embracing what you know you do that works. Regardless, do what makes you happier!