What Really Makes Us Happy

December 16, 2013

happiness by moriza

Yesterday, The New York Times published an interesting op-ed piece by Arthur C. Brooks, the president of a public policy think tank. Brooks cited recent research to determine the exact “formula for happiness.” According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, around 48% of how happy you are at any given moment is determined by genetics. This corresponds roughly to information previously cited here from Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Interestingly, however, Brooks then posits that 40% of happiness is attributed to recent events in your life (that breakup; getting a new job; new relationship), and that “the good news is that we can bring [remaining] 12% under our control.” (Lyubomirsky argued the reverse, that around 10% is attributed to life events and 40% can be under our control.)

That is a pretty substantial difference between the two experts, and Brooks does not cite the studies that support these last two findings. But instinctively, I’m inclined to feel that Brooks’s 12% sounds about right. It’s difficult to imagine that the sheer force of will and positive thinking can be four times as powerful as external stressors, for even the most self-aware of us. For instance, it’s human to break down in face of calamities, and rejoice from unexpected good fortune. Our ability to react emotionally makes our existence rich and worthwhile. But our ability to control our happiness–that remaining 12%–gives us hope, resilience, and nobility in face of trauma.

So do you know what determines the 12% of your happiness? According to Brooks–based on a study published by his own American Enterprise Institute–there are just four things that go into this sliver of happiness: family, community (friendship), faith, and work. It’s not surprising that such things as good family life, friends, spirituality and meaningful work go into the foundation for happiness. What is more surprising might be what gets excluded from this essential list: romantic and passionate love (excluding more stable companionship, which can go under “family”); being spontaneous and adventurous; traveling and “seeing the world”; beauty; recognition and reputation; and even health and fitness. These are the more glamorous aspects of life that we often believe will make us happy–but at the end of the day, what really helps us be happy are the more mundane things.

Here are some ways to embrace what really makes us happy.

1. Family: Of course we all think that family is the most important thing in life, but do you really put it into practice? How often do you call your parents? Do you snap at your partner or children when you’ve had a tough day at work? Make sure you take the time and effort to be gentle to your family, and let the time you spend with them really count. (Call your mother!)

2. Community: It’s hard to keep up with friends when you’re busy, but take the time to check in with them. Members of your community include not just your close friends, but anyone who has touched your life in a significant way. I still stay in touch with some of my high school teachers and other mentors, for instance. Your kindness and thoughtfulness to neighbors, old roommates, family friends, and others will ultimately give you a sense of belonging and happiness.

3. Faith: We live our modern lives on physical, emotional, and mental levels, but rarely on a spiritual level. Bring awareness to your spiritual self through being in nature, meditation practice, and prayer. Whether or not you consider yourself religious, such higher consciousness will bring a sense of peace and meaning to your life.

4. Work: Meaningful work is crucial to our sense of purpose. Even if you’re not truly passionate about what you do for a living at this moment, find ways to bring a greater meaning to your job. First determine what motivates you: is it your stunning ability to be efficient and organized? Or perhaps you love the idea of helping people. Even mundane tasks can be imbued with meaning if you see it as somehow related to your particular motivator. And in the long term, find ways to progress toward the work that you’re truly passionate about: here is how you can do that and make 2014 your career-making year.

Also in Happiness: Lasting Happiness – 5 Tips on How to Practice Gratitude

When Was the Best Time in Your Life?

On Being Gentle

Photo: Moriza via Flickr

Juhea is the founder and editor of Peaceful Dumpling and the author of bestselling novel Beasts of a Little Land. Follow Juhea on Instagram @peacefuldumpling, @juhea_writes and Pinterest.


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