How Much Happiness Is enough?

28 September, 2014

What if we just aren't naturally happy?  And what if we don't feel happy all the time?  Are we destined to be on the island of negativity forever?  Not according to some interesting positive psychology research.

There's a man who runs a wholesale nursery down the road from where we live.  He is always in shorts and a jaunty cap, no matter what time of year, and when we drive down to the train station at 7 in the morning, he's usually walking around in all weathers, putting up his signs in the street, and always gives us a friendly wave.  We went to visit the yard yesterday so my husband could buy a lime tree.  We chatted with him for a few minutes: he is one of those relentlessly cheerful types, always happy and smiling, pleased to see you, always putting a positive spin on things.  He somehow causes you to feel happier just by being in his company, and if you were in a bad mood before you saw him, you certainly leave feeling somewhat uplifted.  More often I leave thinking 'man, I wish I was as naturally happy as him!'.

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, positive psychology professor, 50% of your capacity to 'be a happy person' is down to genetics, and can't be changed.  It's just how you're born, you can't change it, so get over it frankly!  When I learned of her research, I actually felt a lot better.  Let's put it this way:  I'm not the wholesale nursery guy.  As much as I'd have liked to have been blessed with a naturally happy demeanor, I just wasn't born that way.  I can see how the 'negative genes' got passed down to me - when I look at my family line it is hardly surprising!  My natural setting tends to be to remember and focus on the negative side of things - it's just the way it is.

However - never fear!  I would not honestly describe myself as an unhappy or depressed person, and indeed couldn't be in my line of work for long if I was.  I've been open with many of my clients before about my default state of mind, and I tell them this because I want them to understand that for me to experience happiness takes a daily practice and commitment (i.e. work).  When this daily practice and commitment slips, my defualt setting creeps back in.  This fits in with Sonja's research as well, where she also highlights that 40% of your state of happiness comes from your thoughts and actions at that moment, and 10% down to your external circumstances.  This leaves us with a great deal of scope for changing our state of mind, in any given moment.  This is why a number of evidence-based techniques given to us by the Positive Psychology people, actually work and change our state of mind into a happier one.

Barbara Frederickson's research on positvity I find interesting.  She found that it's not about persuing happiness 100% of the time (my own professional opinion of this is notion is it can be very harmful: people expect to be happy 'all the time' and therefore when they're not, this gets judged as a 'bad thing' and can cause all kinds of problems), it's actually the ratio that's critical.  A 3:1 ratio of pereceived positive experiences to negative ones seems to be the magic tipping point.  If you increase the number of positive to negative to 5:1 it doesn't seem to make much difference to your happiness level (so, if you want to be economical with it - do!).  And a mere 1:1 ratio is actually a predictor of depression.  So, here we see it's not about trying to eliminate the negative or difficult experiences or thoughts in life, it's about balancing them.  I think this is a very healthy and realistic approach.  If you're going through a rough patch, it's time to do some counter balancing and get your ratio up 3:1 again.  This also fits in with John & Julie Gottman's extensive research on couples, where they found it wasn't whether a couple argued more than another couple that predicted whether they would stay together and be happy, it was whether the negative experiences the couple were having where outweighed by positive ones, 3:1.  In other words, if you're having more fun (and/or sex!) than arguments, you're doing OK!

Where to from here?  There are many techniques for changing the pliable 50%, some of which I know you already know because I've taught you!  I would start with this hilarious Ted Talk by positive psychologist Shawn Achor:  funny and informative with lots of tricks and tips.

And I'd like to thank Bryan Royds of Achieve Group, for bringing a lot of these different researchers together in one informative presentation.  Thank you!

As always, I love to hear from you!  What have your learned about your own state of mind, and what tricks and tips can you share for the experience of more happiness?  Leave a comment, and let's chat.


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