Is happiness a choice? It turns out and answer is yes. And no. There are many factors to a person’s happiness: genetics, life circumstances, and choices all influence happiness levels. Scientists are discovering that choice has a greater impact on happiness than previously thought. But just like you can’t simply choose to get in shape and magically get in shape, you can’t choose to be happy and magically become happy. Choosing happiness is just the first step.
Naval Ravikant explains this best in an episode of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast; Ravikant says “Happiness is a skill you that develop and a choice that you make. You choose to be happy and then you work at it. It’s just like building muscles, it’s just like losing weight, it’s just like succeeding in your job, it’s just like learning calculus. You decide it’s important to you, you prioritize it above everything else, you read everything on the topic, and then you work at it.” First, choose happiness. Second, prioritize happiness. Third, continuously work at happiness. But just how much does choice, prioritization, and work influence happiness levels?
Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky has devoted much of her professional life to studying happiness. Lyubomirsky is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. She received her B.A. from Harvard University and her Ph.D in social psychology from Stanford University. Her two books, The How of Happiness and The Myths of Happiness, are both best sellers. If anyone has cracked the code on true happiness, it is Lyubomirsky.
Let’s return to the three biggest factors of happiness: genetics, circumstances, and choices. Many people believe that life circumstances have a major impact on happiness. These are things like your job, your spouse or partner, where you live, physical appearance, how much money you have, and even dumb luck, such as winning the lottery or getting an unexpected inheritance. However, Dr. Lyubomirsky says that “… when two colleagues, Ken Sheldon and Dave Schkade, and I conducted research into the factors that determine our levels of happiness, we found that only 10 percent lies in our life circumstances.” Life circumstances have such a minimal impact on happiness, says Lyubomirsky, because of something called hedonic adaptation.
“Hedonic adaptation, also known as “the hedonic treadmill,” is a concept studied by positive psychology researchers and others who focus on happiness and well-being that refers to people’s general tendency to return to a set level of happiness despite life’s ups and downs,” writes Elizabeth Scott, Master of Science in counseling. The term hedonic treadmill refers to the fact that you always end up where you started. Getting a new job, making more money, or even winning the lottery will make you feel good in the short term, but often have little impact on long term happiness. Improved life circumstances eventually become the new normal, and once the circumstances become normal, humans naturally want more. These bursts of happiness trick people into believing that all they need to be happy is more money, a nicer body, a new house, or a great partner. Long term happiness, however, is more complicated.
Scientists have conducted studies on identical twins to determine the impact on genetics on happiness. These are subjects who have the exact same DNA, but can have varying levels of happiness. In identical twin studies, scientists have “… found that about 50 percent of our happiness — or unhappiness — can be traced to our genes,” writes Michael Mendelsohn for ABC News. Mendelsohn writes that “One reason for the happiness difference between the twins is their outlook on life.” 50 percent of our happiness is believed to be genetically determined. 10 percent is believed to be determined by life circumstances. What does that mean for the other 40 percent?
In her book The How of Happiness, Dr. Lyubomirsky writes that the secret to happiness lies in the remaining 40 percent. “… our research has shown that up to 40 percent of our happiness depends on our behavior and daily activities—that’s 40 percent that’s within our power to change every day,” writes Lyubomirsky. This is huge. Everyone has the power, every day, to influence their levels of happiness. Lyubomirsky says this 40 percent is determined largely “… by what we do and how we think – that is, our intentional activities and strategies.” Choosing happiness does have a large impact. But as I said before, choice is only the first step.
So what choices do people make that produces happiness? Lyubomirsky writes: “If we observe genuinely happy people, we shall find that they do not just sit around being contented. They make things happen. They pursue new understandings, seek new achievements, and control their thoughts and feelings.” Happy people choose to be happy, put effort into being happy, and build habits that maintain happiness.
Every choice we make becomes an action we take. When choices and actions are repeated, they form habits. Our habits become our lifestyle. There is a reason repetition is touted by scientists and top performers for learning and improving; when actions are repeated it reduces the amount of brain power needed to repeat that action. This is why top athletes still practice fundamentals. This is why the military performs drills over and over again. Repetition has the power to produce an automatic reaction to given stimuli. The same is true in regards to happiness. All of the little choices we make every day have the power to influence our habits, our lifestyle, and our happiness.
Here are 10 choices that you can make every day to increase happiness.
- Practice Gratitude. Start a gratitude journal, write letters to people you are grateful for, or simply sit and think about what you are grateful for. Get specific. You have much more in your life to be thankful for than you realize.
- Practice Mindfulness. Practice living in the present moment. Worrying about the past or having anxiety about the future detract from your level on contentment in the present moment. Think less about how you think you should feel and more about how you actually feel.
- Eat Healthy. The body and the brain are connected as a cohesive whole, and what happens to one influences the other. Give your physical body the fuel it needs and you will feel the benefits mentally and emotionally. Plus, physical appearance impacts happiness. You control what you put in your body. But don’t forget to indulge from time to time!
- Smile More. You can actually trick yourself into feeling happier by smiling more. People are more likely to interact with you if you smile more and humans are social beings at our core. Smile at your loved ones, your coworkers, strangers, and even yourself in the mirror. Smiling releases dopamine. Spread that dopamine to those around you.
- Move Your Body. The physical and psychological benefits of movement are massive. Walk your dog, do yoga, go for a run, ride your bike, hike in the woods, swim. It doesn’t matter, just move. There is a reason they call it “runners high.”
- Complain Less. Complaining accomplishes nothing; or better yet, nothing positive. Use that energy to find a solution. If you can’t solve it, leave it. Don’t waste energy on what you cannot control. You can complain all day and won’t have accomplished a thing.
- Do Something Nice For Someone Else. Hold open the door for someone. Buy coffee for the person behind you in line. Let a stranger go ahead of you in line. Ask the grocery checker how their day is going and genuinely listen. Say “thank you” every time anyone does anything for you. Dr. Lyubomirsky writes: “I’ve come to conclude that helping others leads to a cascade of positive social consequences: Lots of good social things happen when you are generous and kind to others, and many of these play a direct role in making us happier.”
- Assess Your Sphere Of Influence. There are things you have control of. There are things you do not directly control, but can influence. And there are things which you cannot control or influence. Focus most of your energy on what you can control. Focus the rest on what you can influence. Give no energy to what you cannot control.
- Spend Quality Time With People You Enjoy. True wealth comes from the quality of the people around you. Find people who you enjoy and spend time with them. Get a beer with your friends. Have dinner with your family. You choose who you spend time with, Choose wisely.
- Play. Do something fun. Find little moments to play every day. As we grow older our lives become more structured. Don’t forget to play. We have more to learn from children than we realize.
I think it is pretty liberating to realize how much happiness is determined by choice. So much of what we seek outside of ourselves can be found within us. As Peloton yoga instructor Kristin McGee says: “Everything you could ever want, have, or need is right here inside of you.” Choose happiness. Study happiness. Practice happiness. Make happiness a habit.
Let’s keep the conversation going. Please like, share, comment, or contact me directly! I would love you hear your thoughts, your tactics for happiness, or any pointers you may have.
Positive Psychology: The Science of HappinessNew science shows that happiness is about our behavior, not just our biology.
- The Tim Ferriss Show, Episode 136, Guest: Naval Ravikant, https://tim.blog/2016/01/30/naval-ravikant-on-happiness-hacks/
- 12 Intentional Actions to Choose Happiness Today, by Joshua Becker, https://www.becomingminimalist.com/choose-happy/
- This Is Scientific Proof That Happiness Is A Choice, by Carolyn Gregoire, 12/09/2013, updated December 6, 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/scientific-proof-that-you_n_4384433
- Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness, by Michael Mendelsohn, January 14, 2008, https://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=4115033
- The How of Happiness, by Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, http://thehowofhappiness.com/excerpt/
- Happiness for a Lifetime, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, July 15, 2010, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/happiness_for_a_lifetime
- Hedonic Adaptation: Why You Are Not Happier, by Elizabeth Scott, https://www.verywellmind.com/hedonic-adaptation-4156926
- Repetition and the brain: neural models of stimulus-specific effects, Kalanit Grill-Spector, Richard Henson, and Alex Martin, http://vpnl.stanford.edu/papers/kgs_etal_TICS.06.pdf
- How Repetition Enchants the Brain and the Psychology of Why We Love It in Music, by Maria Popova, 9/18/2014, https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/09/18/on-repeat-margulis/
- Train the brain to form good habits through repetition, University of Warwick, January 28, 2019, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190128105227.htm
- The Reason for Repetition: How Repetition Helps Us Learn, by Peak, February 3, 2016, https://medium.com/peak-wellbeing/the-reason-for-repetition-how-repetition-helps-us-learn-10d7eea43e95