The Science of Happiness

“The Foolish Man Seeks Happiness in the Distance.  The Wise Man Grows it Under his Feet.” 
~ James Oppenheim 

 What is the Secret of Happiness?

How can we find happiness, joy, peace, fulfillment, and contentment? These are age old questions and reflect the yearnings of the human spirit to make the most of our life experience.

  •  Is happiness associated with one’s life circumstances?
  • Is happiness related to one’s opportunities, successes, income, possessions, or advantages in life?  Does it depend on
    Does you circumstances determine your happiness?

    Does you circumstances determine your happiness?

    intelligence, attractiveness, personality, or simply attitude?

  • Conversely, how does hardship, adversity, and disability impact levels of happiness?  Do they have the power to snuff it out?

Most of us believe at one time or another that if our life circumstances changed, we would be much happier. Our thoughts may be something like the following: “When I graduate from college, lose some weight, marry the person of my dreams, have a better paying job, a new car, a bigger house, or am more financially secure, then I will be happier.”  We are continuously looking to a future time when the right circumstances or conditions will exist and lead to greater happiness.

As a young mother of several preschoolers, I thought it would be nice when my children were older and more independent. When they went to school and were the targets of teasing or had drama with friends, I longed for the simple days when I could kiss their “owies” and soothe their hurts and wounded egos. When they were teenagers, I remembered the days when I could tuck my kids in bed and knew they were safe. Instead, I worried about who their friends were, where they were, and what they were doing. Sometimes I couldn’t wait for them to grow up and be on their own–when I thought I would be able to stop worrying about them. Once they left home for college, career, and marriage, I missed their presence, their high school activities, their friends visiting, and felt the loneliness of an empty nest.

Are you like me? Have you wished away some of the circumstances of your life and failed to appreciate the wonder in each day? Thankfully, (and happily), I have since recognized that happiness is not to be found with a change in life circumstances. Rather, as I more fully appreciate the present, my happiness and fulfillment increase.

Have you ever failed to appreciate the wonder in each day.

Have you ever failed to appreciate the wonder in each day?

Thankfully, (and happily), I have since recognized that happiness is not to be found with a change in life circumstances. Rather, as I more fully appreciate the present, my happiness and fulfillment increase.

If more money, a better job, and a bigger house don’t really make us happier in the long run, what does determine happiness? Positive psychology studies show that only 10% of individual differences in happiness are determined by life circumstances, 50% are determined by genetics, and 40% by our intentional activities. (Lyubomirsky) This means that happiness can be influenced positively by simple daily practices which have the power to override the genetically predetermined range of happiness we will likely reach if we do nothing to improve it.

Some might question these findings. Does it seem logical that all of these things we work so hard to attain don’t really influence our level of happiness beyond a mere 10%? What about the person who wins the lottery, or meets and marries a new love? Won’t this dramatically change their lives for the better? Surprisingly, pleasurable experiences and circumstantial changes have been found to only temporarily increase happiness levels for a short period of time. The reason for this lies in our ability to adapt to change.

When I was nineteen, I was preparing to buy my first really nice car. Since getting my driver’s license I had owned and driven a couple of cars that were considered “junkers,” cars that were barely roadworthy and more suited for the junkyard. Now that I had a good paying job and could make payments on a car, I found a beautiful, white, Toyota Celica Coupe–a sporty looking car that I wanted more than anything. The cost was greater than what my father thought I could afford. He gave some wise words to help me put my desire in perspective. “After a while, a new car just becomes transportation.” He understood something about human nature and was trying to communicate that we quickly adapt to positive experiences, receiving only a temporary boost in happiness with a positive change in life circumstances.

What Science Tells Us About Maximizing Happiness 

Recent neuroscience research shows how incredibly pliant the human brain is. For a long time, scientists thought that the brain’s development was largely determined early in life. Now, researchers have discovered that this isn’t true. There are changes occurring in our brains throughout our lives that can help us optimize the brain’s ability to cultivate and increase happiness.

“Among other things, neuroplasticity means that emotions such as happiness and compassion can be cultivated in much the same way that a person can learn through repetition to play golf and basketball or master a musical instrument, and that such practice changes the activity and physical aspects of specific brain areas.”  Andrew Weil

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading happiness researcher, has identified 12 practices which are simple but powerful in changing the neural pathways and chemistry of the brain to maximize happiness. By cultivating and practicing these activities we can override our circumstances and genetic effects to increase levels of contentment and well-being.

  • Express gratitude. Reflect on the good that is in your life and express appreciation to others.

  • Cultivate optimism. View challenges in the best possible light and visualize your ideal future.

  •  Avoid dwelling on your problems and comparing yourself to others.

  • Engage in acts of kindness and service.

  • Strengthen and cultivate relationships.

  • Involve yourself with hobbies, pastimes, and activities that are challenging and absorbing.

  • Relish and replay the simple joys in life.

  • Pursue goals that are meaningful and challenging.

  • Develop coping strategies. Practice ways to endure or overcome stress, adversity, and suffering.

  • Forgive and let go of anger and resentment.

  • Follow a spiritual path. Become more involved in your church; read and contemplate inspirational books.

  • Engage in physical activity and care for your body. Cultivate a sense of humor, laugh, smile, and meditate.

 Being a truly happy person is something anyone can achieve through regularly engaging in the activities that have been shown to override the effects of circumstance and genetic set points. It is not luck, good fortune, or circumstance. It is a habit and a way of being actively engaged in making things happen. It is learning to control thoughts and feelings. It is learning new things and pursuing goals.  It is living life with gratitude and meaning.


“Happiness consists in activity.  It is a running stream, not a stagnant pool.” 
~ John Mason Good

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Good, John Mason.  Retrieved 1/15/2014

Lyubomirsky, Sonja. (2007). The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life

You Want.

 Oppenheim, James. Retrieved 1/15/2014

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish:  A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being.

Weil, Andrew. (1995). Spontaneous Healing:  How to Discover and Embrace Your Body’s Natural Ability to Maintain and Heal Itself. Retrieved 1/15/2014.

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