I have asked myself if we can be happier and how for a long time. And I know that if I search “how to be happier” on Google right now, I will find thousands of articles about anything from kindness, money and watching TV series. Well, there are many mainstream sources such as new sites, personal development “gurus” and social media that claim to know what happiness means and how you can achieve it.
But I have decided to take a step back and learn about happiness from more reliable sources such as research studies and psychologists that lead the field of positive psychology after decades of study and research. After doing some research, I realized that many of the things that are blindly promoted as necessary or desirable may make little or no difference in our lives in the long run.
However, there are things we can do to actually experience more happiness. In this article, you can learn more about a scientific formula for happiness created by Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology. By the end of this article, you will know more about the factors that really make a difference (and those who don’t) and you will know what you can start doing today to enjoy your life more!
a formula for happiness
To be honest, I know that this may be only one of the scientific formulas for happiness. But based on what I have learnt so far, this is a really good recipe for happiness and its “creator” is one of the people that know a lot about happiness. Plus, it seems to take into account and be compatible with the teachings of other psychologists in the field. If you would only following this formula and disregard everything else about happiness, I am 100% sure that you will be much happier than you are!
Martin Seligman shared his formula for happiness in his book “Authentic Happiness”. This formula is also a “recipe for happiness” as the explanation of each factor tells you what to do and what not to do to be happier.
H = S + C + V
H refers to an enduring level of happiness
S refers to Set Range
C refers to Circumstances
V refers to factors under voluntary control
S: the set range
Now let’s focus on each factor to see what they really represent. I will also give you some guidelines based on the information in Seligman’s book and based on what I have learnt so far.
The set range refers to our genes and what we inherit from our parents. According to him, about half of our happiness depends on our genetic makeup. Our genes can determine how many positive emotions we normally feel and how often. They also determine or influence the personality traits we develop which affect our behaviour and consequently our happiness levels. He also states that some traits can be changed for the better, which can help us increase our happiness.1
You have probably noticed that some people seem to be naturally more optimistic and energetic than others. They are usually cheerful, excited and friendly. When they have to deal with a setback, they interpret it as a challenge and they are motivated to do their best and overcome it. They persevere when others would give up. They are confident and bold and this contributes to their success.
Do you know anyone like this? You probably have at least one person in mind. Well, it seems that these people are this happy partly because of their genes. And they will probably continue to be this way for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as lucky as them. Some people are more pessimistic by nature. They often experience negative emotions like sadness, fear and self-doubt. They worry about the future and are sometimes scared of it. And when they fail, they sometimes want to give up altogether. They need more time to recover from their setbacks and they are more likely to give up when they make mistakes or have to deal with obstacles. These people have a genetic makeup that usually makes them less happy.
But, even if you are prone to be negative and unhappy, you can work on this. Although you sometimes feel like giving up, you can act against your natural instinct and persevere. You can sometimes choose to act in a way that feels unnatural, but that makes you achieve more and feel happier. So if you did not win the “genetic lottery”, you still have a chance at happiness – it’s just that it takes a bit more work.
Circumstances refer to the conditions in which you live your life. Think about your race, gender, age, how rich you are, how beautiful you are, how healthy you are and your relationship status.
I know that you probably believe that being more beautiful, earning more money and dating someone you like will definitely make you much much happier.
But I’m going to have to tell you the truth – neither of these things will do that for you. I know that it seems unbelievable and you may choose to ignore this fact, but many scientific studies prove that circumstances like these may make you only slightly happier at best.
According to Seligman, all the factors that represent these circumstances combined can “probably account for no more than between 8 and 15 percent of the variance in happiness.” 1 In other words, if you were younger, more beautiful, wealthier, healthier, in a better relationship than everyone else and so on, you will probably be only about 10% happier than the rest of the people.
Changing your life circumstances may sometimes be very difficult or even impossible. Other times, it may be possible, but it would require a lot of energy and time that could be used in a better way. Imagine that you are determined to work hard for your next 40 years to become the richest man or woman on the planet. You persevere, work hard and you eventually achieve your goal. Well, maybe you will be 3% happier for a while. But by the following month, someone else may claim your spot and with it, your increase in happiness.
And if you think about it, there will always be someone whose circumstances are slightly better than yours.
There will always be someone who is a bit more beautiful than you. Maybe they have better genes, are younger, dress better or use plastic surgery. And there will always be that couple whose relationship seems so much better than yours. You may feel sad in comparison to them since your relationships is not that perfect. But keep in mind that what you see may be more of an illusion than reality. And even if it were reality, maybe you want to focus more on your career and you are satisfied with a fulfilling relationship, even though it is not the “best love story ever known”.
Now, I know that this seems a bit shocking and unbelievable. That was my reaction when I first heard about this too. But I have read about this from several reliable sources and now I believe this is true. Plus, if you look for it, you will see evidence all around you. You probably know someone who is richer than you, but still seems not to enjoy life any more than you do.
Or you can look at some of the richest man on the planet like celebrities and hear their stories. Not all, but many of them tell us that they have to deal with many issues too such as health problems, mental health issues, stress, responsibilities and so on. And we are surprised whenever we hear that someone famous, young and wealthy committed suicide because they were so dissatisfied with their lives. But we should not be so shocked by this fact since fame and riches contribute so little to someone’s happiness and often comes with a huge burden (no more privacy, obligations, less freedom).
If this was not enough to convince you of this, you can do your own research and see for yourself. Or, you can devote the next 5, 10 or 40 years of your life to this purpose, become incredibly wealthy and see for yourself. You may be one of the few people that beat the odds and find a way to become rich and become incredibly happy for a long time because of this. But you may also experience the disappointment you feel when you realize that money is just an illusion on your path to happiness. And when you do, if you remember me and this article, let me know. I may want to interview you about your situation!
I know that this article may not change your life philosophy now. I understand and respect that. I know that it would probably take millions of people and many years to change our cultural paradigm.
The idea that money is the only measure of success and the only way to achieve happiness in life is so ingrained in our culture than no amount of evidence may make us reconsider this and reassess our beliefs…or maybe not yet.
V: factors under voluntary control
So, if your genetic makeup cannot be changed and if your circumstances do not matter that much, what can you do to become happier?
You can focus on the factors that you can control. According to Seligman, you can increase your happiness and make this change last if you focus on:1
- feeling good about your past
- feeling good in the present
- feeling good about your future
Whenever you think about something, that thought will likely create an emotional and sometimes physiological response. If you think about next week and you anticipate that the presentation you have to give at work will not go well, you will probably feel anxious and worried. If you keep thinking and worrying about this, your body may become tense, your heart may beat faster and you may experience a headache. But if you think about the summer vacation you are planning and imagine yourself strolling down the streets of Paris while holding hands with your lover, you will probably feel excited and happy as you anticipate a pleasant experience.
The way you think and feel about your past, present and future determine the way you live your life and how happy you are.
feel good about the past
If you want to feel better about your past, you can practice gratitude and forgiveness.1
Gratitude is one of the most effective ways to increase your happiness level. To become more grateful, you can write down 3 things you are grateful for every night, keep a gratitude jar or write a gratitude letter to thank someone that made a difference in your life.
By practicing forgiveness, you can make peace with yourself and others and let go of what happened in the past. In order to forgive those that wronged you, you may try to look at the situation objectively and try to understand the person that hurt you in any way.1 You may try being empathetic and imagine why they hurt you or why they might be unaware that they have. And then try to accept what happened and move past it. Of course, doing this takes effort and time, but learning to forgive can set you free and help you make peace with your past.
Let’s see how we can feel better about our past, present and future based on Seligman’s book, “Authentic Happiness”.
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
Lewis B. Smedes
feel good about the future
To be more optimistic about the future, question your negative thoughts and beliefs and replace them with slightly more positive ones.1
When you worry about a situation, you may only focus on what is bad, wrong, unfair or negative in any other way. Moreover, when you are in a negative state of mind, you expect the outcome to be much more serious and appalling than it could ever be. As soon as the situation is resolved, you realize that you were worrying about nothing and that you overreacted. But by them, it will too late. You have already wasted precious time of your life making yourself suffer in vain.
So the next time you worry about something, try to take control of your thoughts. Here’s what you can do:
- Stop yourself from worrying. Do something to distract yourself and focus on something else. You can take a walk, clean your home, read a good book or talk to a friend. Do something that you enjoy and is good for you.
- Try to think objectively. Do your best to look at your situation as if it were about someone else. If you let go of your feelings, how do you interpret the situation now? Are your fears still logical and reasonable? You will probably realize that your worries were unfounded.
- Talk to someone about your situation. If you have a friend that you trust, you can talk to him or her about your concerns. Sharing your thoughts can help you feel better. And your friend can also help you reassess your situation to help you think about it more realistically.
- Replace your worries with a supportive thought. Once you realize that your situation is not as bad or as serious as you thought, create a new scenario in your mind. Find a more positive way to analyze your situation. Say to yourself something that will make you feel more hopeful about the future.
I know that some situations are indeed complicated, serious or dangerous. In those cases, you may have a good reason to worry. I am not saying that you should ignore serious problems when they arise. But, if you are in no real danger, you may unconsciously be more negative than you need to be. If that is your case, I suggest following these recommendations.
You can use the same steps in other situations as well: when you criticize yourself, when you are upset about something or when you are too negative. These steps are meant to help you challenge your negative thoughts or beliefs, whatever they may be about.
feel good in the present
In order to be happier in the present, practice savoring experiences, mindfulness and engage in activities that make you experience a state of flow.1
If you want to savor something, become fully aware of your experience while it is happening. Consciously focus on the pleasure you feel in the present.1 For example, when you are eating salmon sushi, a chocolate cake or your favourite food, decide to savor that. While you are eating it, notice the taste, smell and texture of the food. Pay attention to how delicious it is and how much you enjoy it. And you can learn to savor more than just food. You can use it to immerse yourself in and savor other activities such as reading a great book, walking in nature or talking with your partner.
While we live our lives, we are usually in a hurry and we fail to pay attention to what happens around us. Mindfulness encourages you to do the opposite – to slow down and look around you. 1 It means slowing down your mind so that you can be present in the moment. This way, instead of running to the bus station while worrying about the million things you have to do today, you can stop and breath in the fresh air. You can look at the sky and notice its shade. You notice the birds that are chirping in the tree and feel the smell of coffee coming from the person walking by you with a cup in their hand. That’s what mindfulness is like: stopping and taking in all that surrounds you. Meditation can have this effect as well and it can help you feel less anxious and more anchored in the present moment.1
While savoring and mindfulness encourage you to stop and become aware of what you feel and think, engagement does the opposite. When you are engaged in something you truly enjoy and you are good at, you immerse yourself in it. You loose yourself in it and it is like time stands still for you. You forget about yourself, your thoughts and your feelings. But once the activity is over, you feel great and you want to engage in that activity as well. This is the state of flow. 1
To find an activity to engage in, look for something that challenges you and makes you use your skills. Some people experience this while taking photos, writing an article or doing improv. If you have no idea where to start, you can take a test to discover what your strengths are. You can use the one Seligman recommends for free here.
“Everyone enjoys doing the kind of work for which he is best suited.”
All these activities can truly help you become happier. Each activity I included is based on the work of Martin Seligman and is backed by science. Moreover, many of these activities are the ones recommend by other leaders in the field of positive psychology. However, they can make a lasting difference in your life only if you put in the work and practice them often. You do not have to do all of them every single day, but doing only once of them once a year will not change much. Keep in mind that although some activities may seem weird or unnatural at first (such as writing down what you are grateful for), but in time you will feel better and normal while practicing them. It may take some time and effort, but isn’t your happiness worth it?
This is it! Now you know what the scientific formula for happiness is! The “secret” is out! You know that the right genes, the good circumstances and the right activities can help you experience more happiness for a long time. However, you also know that not all factors of the equation are equal. While changing your genes is impossible and changing your circumstances is very difficult, cultivating gratitude, savoring and choosing optimism is something you can definitely do.
As Seligman states, happiness is possible for you. If you can consistently make the right choices and do the activities mentioned in this article, I honestly believe that you have the power to experience life in a better, more fulfilling way. Well, you got what you came here for. Now go and live a great, happy life!
If you have no idea what to do or how to apply what you know about happiness, you can also get my book “Happy by Choice”. Although it is not based on this formula, some of the advice in my book does overlap with Seligman’s theory.
“Happy by Choice” is the blueprint for your transformation process. It replicates what I went through when I learnt how to understand, accept and manage my negativity to overcome depression. The information and techniques shared in my book also helped me understand myself better, realize that I can change and I can take action to become happier. You can buy the book here!
Happiness is more than our right. I say that it is also our duty. Don't we owe it to ourselves to strive for happiness and to make our lives meaningful, worthwhile and happy?
- “Authentic Happiness” – Martin Seligman