I have asked myself that question countless times. And in my quest to find an answer I have discovered positive psychology – the field that wants to use science to answer the very question that has been on my mind for so long! I think we all ask ourselves whether we can rise above our predispositions and live a flourishing life. In this article, I’ll share the answer I have found.
The happiness limit
There seems to be a limit to the happiness we can experience. We all have a happiness set point.1 That is the happiness level we always stay at. It is genetically determined, so it cannot be modified. 1 And any positive or negative event can only temporarily affect us. 1 In time, we return to our normal happiness levels.
If we would measure happiness on a scale from 1 (complete misery) to 10 (excitement and profound happiness), some people will have a set point of 5, others of 7 and others of 9. For example, if my happiness set point is at 7, I will always be this happy.
Positive things can happen in my life. Let’s say that I go on a great vacation on an exotic island, or I earn a lot of money next month or I buy an apartment. These events will make me feel happier. I may rise to a happiness level of 8 or 9. However, in a matter of days or weeks, I will go back to my happiness set point.
So…can we really become happier? Maybe…
Before you lose your hope, let me tell you that the answer to this question seems to be Yes and No at the same time. Although this seems illogical, both answers can be correct.
No, you cannot become any happier.
If you continue to live your life the same way as you have until now, you will not become happier. If you will not make any major positive changes in your circumstances, habits and attitude, you’ll feel approximately the same way until the day you die.
Yes, you can become happier.
If you really want to become happier, you can. You will need to learn how to do this, to develop new skills and do some work, but it is possible to elevate your happiness level.
To explain how this is possible, I’ll talk about a theory from fitness. I’ll make an analogy between the happiness set point and the bodyweight set point.
Happiness and bodyweight
This happiness set point is similar to the bodyweight set point. The bodyweight set point represents the weight and body fat percentage we are programmed to have. If you live a normal and balanced life, eat when you are hungry and do not work out much, you will always have the same weight and body fat percentage. You may occasionally gain or lose 2-3 kgs, but you will not be much fatter or skinnier than your genetic set point.
However, if you want to, you can become skinnier, leaner or bulkier than your set point. Let’s say that my set point is about 42 kgs. If I eat a lot of fast food, snacks and sweets, a gain a few kilograms. But if I want to be skinnier, I can do that too. I can choose to eat less than I would want to, eat healthier food, cut back on fast food and sweets and work out 4 times a week. If I do all these things regularly, my weight will always be below my weight set point.
It’s a really simple concept. If you eat less and work out, you lose weight. If you eat fast food, sweets and live a sedentary life, you gain weight. Similarly, if you focus on problems, always complain and engage in negative thinking, you will lose happiness. If you focus on the positive events in your life, train your mind to look for the good things and practice gratitude regularly, you “gain” happiness.
If you want to increase your normal happiness level, you can do that. But, whenever you want to lose weight or gain happiness, you have to use willpower, put in work, develop better habits and make some changes to your lifestyle.
How can we become happier?
There is an important distinction I want to make here. Your happiness set point is not your happiness level. The happiness set point is the happiness level you are genetically programed to experience. It cannot be changed.
The happiness level is the amount of happiness you experience at a certain moment in your life. Even if you can increase your happiness level, your happiness set point will never change.
Let’s say that my happiness set point is 7 on a scale from 1 to 10. If I want to, I could elevate my happiness level to 8 or 9. But my happiness set point will always be 7. And if I want to constantly keep my happiness level at 8 or 9, I have to constantly work on this. The moment I stop, I start going back to my happiness set point.
There is no magic formula to become happier. It takes work. Many positive psychologists have discovered that we can indeed elevate our happiness level.1,2 And we can do that through consciously choosing to do the things that can contribute to our happiness.
Happiness Set Point + Effort = More Happiness
“The key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities.”
In her book, “The How of Happiness”, Sonja Lyubomirsky focuses on 12 science-backed strategies to elevate our happiness levels. And for each strategy, she describes a few exercises we can implement. I’ll talk about 3 techniques that I have tried and loved.
You may have heard about gratitude before. I’ve also talked about it because it is one of the most effective and enjoyable ways to become happier. According to Lyubomirsky, gratitude has many positive effects:
- it helps you enjoy life more1
- it enhances your self-esteem1
- it helps you deal with stress and overcome traumatic events1
- when you are grateful, it is very unlikely (or impossible) that you will experience negative emotions such as sadness or anger1
I'm currently using a bullet journal for gratitude
How can you practice gratitude?
Write down 3-5 things you are grateful for. You can do this every day or 3-4 times a week. It seems that some people benefit from this exercise more if done daily, but it may not be the same for everyone.1 However, it is very important to do this often (at least once or twice a week) and regularly.
You savour something when you consciously become aware of how much you are enjoying a certain experience.3 For example, when you eat your favorite food, you can savor it by intentionally paying attention to the taste, smell and texture of the food. By focusing on this, you enhance your experience and enjoy it more.
Radu and I eating sushi
How can you practice savouring?
When you are doing an activity you enjoy, become fully aware of it. You can savour eating your favourite food, having a conversation with a friend, reading a great book and so on.
According to Martin Seligman, you have to try to use as many of your senses. If you are drinking a cup of coffee, focus on the smell of fresh coffee and the rich taste. If you are walking in the woods, try to listen to the sounds of nature. Try to look around you and observe the trees, the plants, the animals and the birds in the sky.
Try to focus all your attention on that experience.3 Allow yourself to be absorbed in what you are doing and try to forget about everything else.3
You can also enhance your experience by sharing it with someone else.3 Simply sharing a meal or going on a walk with someone else can make the experience much more enjoyable.3
Another thing you can do to be happier is to write how you imagine your future life to be.1 If you do this on several days for about 20 minutes, you will experience more positive emotions and feel happier, even weeks after doing this activity. 1
Writing my best scenario
How can you practice optimism?
Sit down and write about how your best life would be.1 What would happen if everything went according to your plans? What would you do? How would you behave? And how would your day-to-day life be? Describe the best scenario you can imagine! 1
This is one of the exercises included in the book “The How of Happiness”. And Lyubomirsky, the author, says that this exercise is very effective.1 The people that did this exercise as part of a study reported feeling motivated because it helped them realize that they have the power to create the lives they were dreaming of.1
These are just 3 examples of the activities you can do to become happier. There are many more you can try. Some of you will love them. Some of you will be skeptical and disregard them. That’s alright. We are all different people and we need to find the activities that are efficient and enjoyable for us. After all, you can write down 100 things you are grateful for, but if you hate doing that, you will not get any happier.
No matter how happy you are feeling right now, no matter how happy you are wired to be, you can improve that happiness level. You can start implementing one of these activities. You can research and find new ones that suit you better. Keep in mind that many activities can increase happiness, but only if you do them often enough and regularly.
I know that words like “happiness” and “work” are an unexpected combination. And you may think that happiness should just come to you, without you having to do anything special for it. Well, if you want to, you can try that approach. And when you realize that happiness does not simply happen, you can choose to work on your happiness.
After all, is there something better, more meaningful and more rewarding to work on than your own happiness?
If you want to learn more about happiness and the science of happiness, sign up for The Happiness School. You’ll get to learn about different topics related to happiness and the lack of it (depression).
- “The How of Happiness” – Sonja Lyubomirsky
- “Learned Optimism” – Martin Seligman
- “Authentic Happiness” – Martin Seligman