Can We Learn to Be Happy?

Taking all aspects of your life into account, how happy are you today?

When Fox News asked Americans in 2014 how we feel, just over half of us responded that we’re “happy” or “very happy”. That’s wonderful!

However, that leaves 160 million Americans feeling pretty “unhappy.” No wonder the self-help industry (over $11 billion in books, CDs, seminars and coaching in 2008) is growing so fast.

Important distinction between “not feeling happy” and true depression

Abraham Lincoln once said “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” Unfortunately, we now know that this is NOT the case for the 40 million Americans who suffer from clinical depression, a true medical disorder. In fact, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

Unclear on the difference between sadness and depression?
In a TED Talk entitled Confessions of a Depressed Comic, Kevin Breel put it this way: “Real depression isn’t being sad when something in your life goes wrong. Real depression is being sad when everything in your life is going right. That’s real depression…”

What exactly is happiness?

While most of us would be ecstatic to learn that we’ve won the lottery, or many of us smile at the sight of a puppy, the smell of a flower, or the thought of playing with friends, others may not find joy in any of these. If happiness is something we all hope for, how is it that we can be so different?

woman trying to be happyCommonly defined as a state of positive well-being or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy, our ability to experience happiness may be largely influenced by three factors: genes, events and values.

Genetic tendency: Identical twin studies done at the University of Minnesota suggests that approximately 48% of whether or not we tend to be happy is hard-wired in our genes.

Events: At any given time, about 40% of our happiness may be attributed to events going on in our lives (such as achieving a goal, moving, getting a pay raise or landing a new job), though the impact from these tends to be only temporary.

Basic Values: While we may have little or no control over our genetics or what’s going on in our lives, social relationships, spirituality and, perhaps surprisingly, how fulfilling or rewarding we find our work also play important roles in our happiness. In fact, how satisfied you are with your job is a strong predictor of how happy your are — regardless of income, demographics or education level. And as long as we have enough money to meet our basic needs, job satisfaction is a much more important influence on happiness than how much money the job pays.

And what if none of this explains why I’m just not happy?

For many of us, happiness may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Research has shown that, if we force ourselves to project happiness, we may actually start experiencing it. Part of the reason for this is biological; the brain recognizes that we are smiling and begins to change other body functions to respond accordingly. The second reason why “fake it ’till you make it” works is social. Others may find you more approachable and respond to you in a more positive manner.

So… is it possible to teach ourselves to be happy?

Genetics and life events play a big role in whether or not we tend to be happy. So, while you or I may never become the happiest person on earth, most of us may be able to teach ourselves to be MORE happy than we’ve been. However, the factors within our control are: to develop strong, supportive relationships with family, friends and your spirituality, find a job that’s satisfying, and try forcing yourself to be happy (even if you’re not feeling happy at the moment).