I have long held the position that the mind games people like to cite as ways to attain happiness are complete poppy-cock. Maybe they work for some people, and maybe they give a certain level of satisfaction, but they have no effect on any of my serious moods, or my overall perception of life. Do not attempt to fight depression by using guru techniques.
And to be perfectly honest, science is on my side with this one.
Happiness has been a long studied phenomenon, and we have known certain things about happy people (I’m talking specifically Western people here, radically different traits of happiness are found in people from the east, go figure), for a long time. Extroverts are happier than introverts. Optimists are happier than pessimists. Wealthy people are happier than poor people (oh you had heard something different? Don’t believe the hype).
And there has been some linking to things like the Myers-Briggs personality test, based heavily on Carl Jung personality theory, and happiness. If optimistic extroverts are happier, then let’s be like those people; trick ourselves into being happy by pretending to be someone we aren’t. Like some kind of meta-physical ‘fake it till you make it’ concept.
On the Myers-Briggs personality test I usually come up as an ENTP, and some modified versions of this test will stick me with an ‘A’ at the end. So I would be considered an assertive extrovert who bases decision making on critical thinking and intuition. I identify with that strongly. However, part of the problem with things like these is that they work much like horoscopes, everyone tends to identify with their description because we are so much more vastly complex then these tests. I could fill up an entirely different essay with my thoughts on this subject. Here is the point, I’m an extrovert. People who know me, see me in social situations, know about my love of performance and public speaking, they would never doubt this.
But, I am not optimistic. And I am not a happy person by my nature. I’m cynical, sarcastic, and often even mean-spirited. I’ve never identified as happy, I’ve never cared much for the term, I’ve just never been that bright bubbly person. My extroversion is boisterous. I’m loud and obnoxious and inappropriate and I try to be funny. I’m not bubbly and cheerful, even if I do smile and laugh a lot. And to be perfectly honest, my public persona is an act. It is a character I play. I very much enjoy it, but it is crafted, I’m conscious of it, I’m trying to be that way.
Back to the science. In the late 1990’s some massive studies were published that established happiness as a mostly genetic circumstance. It was argued that somewhere between 50-80% of your happiness was pre-disposed genetically. This tested was most conducted (as is much of psychological research) on identical twins. And terms like ‘happiness set-point’ were created. The set-point theory basically states that you have a set level of happiness, that is crafted and then stuck by early adolescence. You can deviate from that set-point for lengths of time, for example marriage often creates about a 24-month rise in your happiness level, or getting a new job can raise your happiness for a month, but eventually you will always return to your set-point. You were born that way, nothing you can do about it.
Now this is being contested currently. A slew of articles have been published over the last three years that suggest that the influence of genetics is more like 30%. But that is probably still higher than you realized isn’t it? 1/3? One third of your level of happiness is just inside you, with little you can do to change it.
Corresponding with the genetic set-point would be environmental factors. Things like marriage, children, family, employment, wealth, and community involvement all are very influential on our happiness. And like I mentioned earlier, income has a lot to do with how happy we are. Money does actually buy happiness. The problem that humans have is that we are extremely adaptable. And so we tend to take a change and make it a lifestyle very quickly. So we look for the next upgrade to continue hunting that happiness we found in the initial attainment of the thing. This is a phenomenon known as the Hedonic Treadmill. And it correlates with Set-Point theory in that is also states that things can improve our happiness temporarily, but we will always return to a stable level of happiness.
Current research shows that external forces such as these can affect happiness between 10-30%.
Go ahead and read that again. The highest estimate for the affect external factors have on your happiness is the same as the lowest estimate for genetic factors.
Here are a couple of very interesting and thought provoking things. The most common external factor for increasing happiness is community engagement. Having friends in your neighborhood or letting your kids play at the park or things like that are more effective at making you happy then a new TV, or even a major career achievement.
And on the flip, having kids actually lowers most people’s sense of personal satisfaction, and their happiness. That one is certainly opposite of the narrative, but really shouldn’t be that surprising. Oddly, parents tend to see their optimism rise dramatically despite being less happy.
I think there are things we can do to make ourselves happier. I don’t think it is all just how you are and that is that. But those things we can do, they require a lot of work, and they have relatively small gains. We will never be able to really radicalize how happy we are without a substantial change in our situation. Going from extremely sick to extremely healthy or extremely poor to extremely not poor can drastically alter our perceptions and happiness. But those situations are rare, aren’t they? And not exactly attainable. And even if they were, it isn’t a guarantee that we will go through that change too. It is just a possibility.
I have always maintained that contentment is the thing we need to search for, not happiness. Maybe being content can lead to happiness, I don’t know. Being content could probably get you off the Hedonic Treadmill. Being content would probably make you more optimistic. Being content might even make you more extroverted. I’m not sure.
So, if you look up the words ‘happiness’ and ‘contentment’ in the dictionary, you will see that they are used to define each other. So what do I mean? According to the Oxford English dictionary, which includes the colloquial uses of the wording, it will state that contentment is having to do with binding your personal desire closely with what you have or what you can attain. The Latin root word is contentus which is the same root as the word content. The content of your life is where you derive contentment. Happiness meanwhile is rooted in the word hap which is Norse, and the word means luck or chance. But we can find interesting meaning if we look to the French word heur which has the same origin. Heur means fortune and the way to say happiness in French is to say Bonheur, ‘good fortune’. So you can see that while today the words contentment and happiness are very similar, their roots are very different. Happiness is based on having a favorable situation bestowed to you while contentment is finding any situation you find yourself in as favorable.
I certainly would prefer to focus on something I can actually work on, something I can deal in. Trying to be content with the things I obsess about, becoming content with my inadequacies and the problems in my life, being content with everything that causes me stress, that’s something real to me.
Thinking ‘happy thoughts’, ‘trying’ to be optimistic, focusing on ‘positive vibes’ isn’t going to solve my real problems, even if they could make me temporally better off.