The familiar saying of ‘nature versus nurture’ applies to keeping our happiness at the levels we want. While it is true that 50 percent of our happiness is rooted in our genetics, about the same amount of our happiness comes from our own intentional activities—that is, 40 percent. We have 40 percent control over our own happiness, more than we might think. So, what can you do to actually keep you happy?
The 2011 documentary “Happy” by Academy Award nominated Roko Belic, its producer and director, recently introduced the idea about our say in happiness levels. The movie was inspired by a colleague of Belic’s, Tom Shadyac, who noticed that the U.S. was 23rd on a list in The New York Times of the happiest countries, despite its massive amount of wealth. It seems Shadyac was interested in exploring what actually makes and keeps people happy.
The movie “Happy” explores the science behind happiness, from neurotransmitters in our brains to what explains differences in happiness among identical twins to expert interviews with psychologists.
A striking take-home lesson is that only 10 percent of our happiness comes from money, health, status or other life circumstances.
Given a 40 percent stake in determining our happiness, the question lingers, what can we do to keep ourselves happy?
Professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, Sonja Lyubomirsky, is the author of “The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want,” a book with scientifically-backed strategies to help people increase their happiness levels. Lyubomirsky observes that happy people:
- Nurture and enjoy their social relationships
- Are comfortable expressing gratitude
- Practice optimism about the future
- Savor pleasures and live in the present moment
- Make physical activity a habit
- Are often spiritual or religious
- Are deeply committed to meaningful goals
According to Lyubomirsky, here are eight ways we can actually keep our happiness levels higher than usual:
1. Expressing gratitude
Realizing the good things in our lives, or counting our blessings, actually affects our happiness levels. We may express our gratitude verbally or in writing, or via a spiritual or religious habit such as meditation or prayer. Cultivating a habit of thankfulness can be refreshing at any time, though especially when we may need the reminder, such as in times of difficulty.
2. Developing optimism
Developing a sense of optimism can reward our physical and mental health more than we think, as I’ve written previously. Even if we are not always rewarded immediately, the feel-good effects of optimism can leave us hopeful about the future. Similar to how in sports a coach may say, “imagine yourself making the shot” to breed a winning mentality, optimism about the future can elicit greater mental toughness and grit so that you may reach your goals, whether they are personal or professional.
3. Practicing acts of kindness
By extending a helping hand to strangers or a loved one, an act of kindness, small or large, can be emotionally rewarding in the least. You can practice sharing a smile more than usual, for a simple smile can bring a world of joy to someone who may be somewhat down.
4. Nurturing relationships
Relationships may not come easy, but if taken care of, they can be rewarding in multiple ways. In tough times, such as illness for example, loved ones can reciprocate kindness by cooking a meal. Friends can remind you of your strengths and what they love about your character. Simple, meaningful conversations that come with nurturing of relationships can satisfy and further boost your happiness levels.
5. Developing strategies for coping
As I’ve discussed in previous articles on coping in times of difficulty and internal coping mechanisms, the ability to carry yourself in tough times can involve everything from exercise to self-expression to non-judgmental meditation. Experience often tells us what works best for us. Rather than necessarily going through hardship, however, to learn our coping strategies, we can become aware of potential “go-to coping strategies” by taking note of character strengths—how to enrich and nurture these further—and character weaknesses—how to work on these. For example, you might find hobbies or work toward goals that compliment and accentuate your strengths. Alternatively, you might develop habits that help improve upon weaknesses.
6. Increasing flow experiences (being absorbed in the present)
Lyubomirsky writes in her book, “When in flow, people report feeling strong and efficacious, at the peak of their abilities, alert, in control, and completely unselfconscious. They do the activity for the sheer sake of doing it.” Have you ever felt this way? Try picking up a hobby such as writing, painting, exercise, baking or cooking, etc.—to name a few—so that you’ll feel this way regularly. Or think back to when you felt this way before and expand upon those experiences.
7. Committing to your goals
Working toward goals is a multi-step process. First, laying out goals takes self-reflection and identification of ways you can reach your goal. Second, you must keep at it. Sometimes you will be rewarded, sometimes you won’t. It takes stamina and hard work. Third, you might need to adjust and self-reflect again on your goals as you reevaluate what is important to you. It is a process, but working at it feels great, especially when you see that it might be helping others.
8. Taking care of your body
Ways such as meditation, exercise and laughing regularly are ways we can take care of our bodies. Other ways may include eating well, sleeping enough and self-expression. As I have written before, being aware of the signals our bodies give us is important (e.g. difficulty sleeping, headaches) so we know when to make a change. Each of us has varying priorities, so our strategies in taking care of our bodies will vary with good reason. Do your best to keep yourself as healthy as possible.
Altogether, above are eight evidence-based ways we can keep ourselves happy. Remember that happiness may temporarily come when life circumstances change for the better, though it may not linger the way we want it to. In order to actually keep us happy, we can and should work at it through the ways listed above or other proven strategies. And remember, 40 percent of it is up to us!