It's not easy to change your level of happiness...but it can be done.
Posted October 15, 2009
We all want to be happy and are looking for simple steps to getting there, yet scientific evidence makes it seem unlikely that you can change your level of happiness in any sustainable way. Sad people don’t become lastingly happy and happy people don’t become lastingly sad. But new research shows us all how to find lasting happiness.
In his book, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Martin Seligman, the father of happiness research tells us, “The pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as a right of all Americans, as well as on the self-improvement shelves of every American bookstore.”
But achieving lasting happiness isn’t easy. Scientific evidence suggests that we each have a fixed range for happiness just as we do for weight. “New research into happiness,” says Seligman, “demonstrates that it can be lastingly increased. And a new movement, Positive Psychology, shows how you can come to live in the upper reaches of your set range of happiness.”
How a Born Pessimist Learned to Be Happy
Martin Seligman is a world-renowned author and psychologist who describes himself as a born pessimist. In 1965 he stumbled onto the field of study that would change his life and the lives of all of us who suffer from things like irritability and depression. In doing experiments with dogs he found something completely unexpected. He gave dogs a mild shock paired with a tone (rather than pairing a tone with food as had been done in classical conditioning).
He expected that once the dog was conditioned, whenever the dog heard the tone he would associate it with the shock, feel fear, and run away. Instead he found that the conditioned dogs just pathetically laid back and took the shocks. Apparently, what the conditioned dog learned was that trying to escape from the shocks is futile. This dog learned to be helpless.
A new field of study was born, one perfectly fitted to a born pessimist. The theory of learned helplessness was then extended to human behavior, providing a model for explaining depression, a state characterized by a lack of affect and feeling. Depressed people became that way, Seligman felt, because they learned to be helpless. Depressed people learned that whatever they did, it was futile. During the course of their lives, depressed people apparently learned that they have no control.
On a summer’s day in 1998, Seligman had another critical insight and his personal and professional life shifted once again. “It took place in my garden while I was weeding with my five-year old daughter,” Seligman remembers. “I am goal-oriented and time-urgent and when I'm weeding in the garden, I'm actually trying to get the weeding done. Nikki, however, was throwing weeds into the air and dancing around. I yelled at her. She walked away, came back, and said, ‘Daddy, I want to talk to you.’
‘Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? From the time I was three to the time I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I've ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.’
“This was an epiphany for me. As for my own life, Nikki hit the nail right on the head. I was a grouch. I had spent fifty years mostly enduring wet weather in my soul, and the last ten years being a nimbus cloud in a household of sunshine. Any good fortune I had was probably not due to my grouchiness, but in spite of it. In that moment, I resolved to change.”
7 Steps for Becoming Happy
1. Learn the Happiness Formula
Here is the happiness formula developed by Dr. Seligman: H=S + C + V.
H is your enduring level of happiness.
S is your set range.
C is the circumstances of your life
V represents the factors under your voluntary control.
There are many things that will increase our momentary happiness: Chocolate, a good movie, flowers, new clothes, sex. But to achieve enduring happiness takes more work.
2. Take the Happiness Test
The following scale was devised by Dr. Sonja Lyubominsky, one of the world’s leading happiness researchers. For each of the following statements and/or questions, there is a range from 1 to 7, with 1 being the low end and 7 the high. Choose the point on the scale that you feel is most appropriate in describing yourself.
1. In general I consider myself: Not a very happy person (1) / A very happy person (7)
2. Compared to most of my peers, I consider myself: Less happy (1) / More happy (7)
3. Some people are generally happy no matter what is going on. To what extent is this true for you? Not at all (1) / A great deal (7)
4. Some people are generally not very happy, never as happy as they might be. To what extent is this true for you? Not at all (1) / A great deal (7)
To score the test, total your answers for the questions and divide by 4. The mean for adult Americans is 4.8. Two-thirds of people score between 3.8 and 5.8.
4. Imagine Your Parents Taking the Test. How would they score?
Research shows that half of your score on the happiness test is accounted for by the score your biological parents would have gotten had they taken the test. This may mean that we inherit a “steersman” who urges us toward a specific level of happiness or sadness. This is our set range.
5. Change the Circumstances in Your Life That Really Matter.
“The good news about circumstances,” says Seligman, “is that some do change happiness for the better. The bad news is that changing these circumstances is usually impractical and expensive.” Here are some of the circumstances that people believe will increase happiness:
- Having more money.
- Getting married.
- Being healthy.
- Good social life.
- Avoiding negative events and emotions.
- Getting a good education.
- Live in a sunnier climate.
- Engaging in religious practice.
Surprisingly, money, health, education, and living in a sunny climate had no effect on happiness.
Getting married and having a rich social network had a strong effect on happiness. Avoiding negative events and emotions and engaging religious practice had a moderate effect.
6. Don’t Dwell on the Negative.
Many people believe that in order to be happy they have to focus on all the negative things in their lives, find out what is causing them, and fix what is wrong. In fact, research shows that the more we focus on what we don’t like in our lives, the more unhappy we will become.
Depressed men and women tend to ruminate and chew on all the things that are going wrong in their lives. They believe that bad events that happen to them are permanent and will persist. Those people who are generally happy have a different view of the world.
7. Focus on Gratitude and Forgiveness.
Those who would be happy ruminate on happiness. They assume if something bad happens, it is temporary and will soon pass. They focus their attention on feeling gratitude for what they have and look forward to more good things happening in the future.
I tell my clients that life has two windows. Look out one window and you will see all the negative things going on in the world: Anger, violence, wars, poverty, death, suffering. Look out the other window and you will see a different world: Love, compassion, care, support, emotional richness, hope. Both exist, both are real.
Happiness depends on which window you spend most of your time looking through. When we look out one window we feel gratitude for all that we have. When we look out the other window, we see all that we do not want. Which window are you looking through?
Many of us carry old wounds from times we were hurt. We also carry a lot of anger and blame within us. We hold on to grudges for years. Forgiveness is one of the most difficult, yet most healing things we can do. At some point in our lives we have to accept that the wounds inflicted on us were done by people who themselves were wounded. At that point, we don’t forget, but we do forgive.
Jed Diamond is director of MenAlive, a program dedicated to healing men and the women who love them. He is the author of 7 books including Male Menopause and The Irritable Male Syndrome. For more information, or to sign up for his newsletter, visit MenAlive.com.