Lead researchers have broken down the determiners of human happiness into three fundamental aspects.
If you are sitting in your house filling sorry for yourself all day you are much less likely to be happy than someone who is out and about stimulating their brains with novel stimuli.
Now we also have to deal with the genetics. Sure, if your parents were depressed alcoholics, and their parents were depressed alcoholics, then then the likelihood of you being a depressed alcoholic is pretty high. Likewise, if your parents are in a committed happy relationship, you are much more likely to be a happy person overall.
There is a ton of stuff we can do to stack the deck in our favor.
Let's look at an example.
Of course, you can't spend money and go to Six Flags all the time, but you are in control of the situations you put yourself in everyday. The old cliche variety is the spice of life is absolutely true. You've got to change things up.
Vary your exercise routine, eat something different, call someone you haven't talked to in a while. If you're seeing the same walls, talking to the same people, and doing all the same stuff day after day, you are going to find yourself in a rut.
You want dopamine released into your brain? There's two ways to go about that. You can be a drug addict (which we clearly DO NOT recommend) or you can expose yourself to novel experiences. We suggest the latter.
Being in the moment is perhaps the most important part of happiness, but not THE most important imho. We’ll get to that one in a moment. But being in the moment is a close runner up.
While we must be guided by the past, and take the future into consideration, when we let these two constructs consume our thoughts, we are diminished as humans. The moment you are in (for you dear reader, it is reading this article right now!) is the most important moment of your life. It is the only one you have any definitive control over. The past is done, and barring your favorite doc falling off the toilet and discovering the Flux Capacitor, there is nothing more that you can do about it. The future is coming. It always is. The march forward cannot be stopped. Staying in the moment is the cornerstone of self-awareness, and that capacity to be self-aware is a fundamentally unique characteristic of our humanity. We are the only species that we know of in the entire universe that is capable of asking questions. It is interesting that though we have taught various intelligent apes to sign language, and though they have become quite good and requesting things like bananas, not a single ape in the history of sign language ape-dom has ever asked a question.
Isolation is not good for us. When we interact with people, given the nature of unpredictable consciousness, we are inherently exposed to novel stimuli given that it is inevitable that we are going to be unable to predict exactly how our co-interaction-ers are going to interact with us. The beauty of people and of consciousness is that people have a tendency to always surprise us by the things they do. This unpredictability is what separates us from machine intelligence, though the debate on whether machines will ever catch our intellectual capacity is an article far and away outside the scope of this article.
We derive happiness from our interactions with others. So find people that you enjoy being around and hold on to those people with all you got. And prune the people that you don’t enjoy being around. There is no rule that says that you have to be around people you dislike.
Being Realistic About Life
Take this example. Let’s say that I finish up typing this article, stand up, and slam my finger in the door. A person who is predisposed to unhappiness may think something along the lines of, why does this type of thing ALWAYS happen to me? Of course that would be a horrible situation. Of course if you ALWAYS were slamming your fingers in the door and snakes were biting you and your family members were always getting into mortal accidents and Santa Claus ALWAYS gives you coal for Christmas, of course that would be a terrible life. But the truth of the matter is that people who are depressed have a significant tendency to deeply overestimate the bad things that happen to them in life while minimizing the good.
Let’s look at the exact same example, take the exact same starting situation of slamming our finger into the door, and rephrase our thoughts to reflect the reality of the situation. What is the most realistic way to think about that situation. The person who is most happy will think something along the lines of, ouch, that hurt, but it will heal and then we’re good. How do we feel at this point? Of course, we aren’t celebrating the fact that we just slammed our finger, but looking at the situation more realistically gives us a much brighter outlook than the doom and gloom of the negative person’s always happens to me mantra.
So happiness is not just saying, I’m going to start being happy, because we aren’t really that in control of our emotions, or our behavior. BUT, we are in control of our thoughts. Our thoughts are the most important part of this triad, because they are completely within our control. If a situation occurs, and you have a thought that might not be reflective of the reality of the situation, you are always free to take a moment to reevaluate, get a second conscious opinion, and ask yourself if there is a more realistic way to look at the situation.
Be careful not to mistake this with being an optimist for optimisms sake. Suppose I give you a car and the windshield is covered with dirt and bird feces. How’s the world going to look? Terrible right? But worse, if your windshield is in this state, you are not going to be a very good driver because you can’t see the world outside your window. Now, let’s say that I take back your car, clean off your mud, and replace it with drawings of rainbows and flower and unicorns and candy canes. How’s the world going to look? Great! Right? Well sure, the world will look pretty rosy, but are you going to be a good driver? Nope. The best driver is going to be the person with the clear window, so that they can see the world out there for what it is. The Positive Paul and the Negative Nancy drivers are going to end up crashing because their view of the world is inhibited. Meanwhile, True Tom is going to lap you.
Responding to Adversity
A long time ago, there was a baseball player who played for the New York Yankees. He was one of the greatest lefty's the game has ever seen. He was also one of the most popular players in the history of sports. Fans loved him, and appreciated being able to root for a player they considered a class act.
In addition to his many accomplishments, 1927 was a particularly special year. He batted .373 with 218 hit, 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, and a then record 175 runs batted in, smashing the previous record held by Babe Ruth. His team went on to sweep the World Series that year. Many consider the 1927 Yankees to be the greatest team of all time.
Towards the end of his career, this baseball player begin to stumble. He was no longer putting up superstar numbers, and in fact dwindled to the point where he was only batting a buck 83 with 1 paltry RBI on the season. The baseball player decided to bench himself, because he was angry for not being able to perform at the level he was accustomed to performing. It wasn't long before doctors discovered he had a degenerative disease whose prognosis was fatal.
Feeling terrible about the situation, the Yankees scheduled an appreciation day on July 4th, 1939 in honor of this player to a packed Yankee Stadium filled with men, women, children, and the media. He was the first player in sports ever to have his number retired.
After some kind words from Babe Ruth, and with not a dry eye in the stadium, the player shoved his hands into his back pockets and without flinching told his friends in The House that Ruth Built that he considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” That man was Lou Gehrig. The disease would later be named after him.
This is the type of outlook we must instill: the outlook that no matter how grim, even in the face of our own mortality, to look out into the universe and to see the beauty inherent in nature and in order, we as humans should consider ourselves extremely lucky, and it is in the shadow of Lou Gehrig and his bravery facing death we can learn a valuable lesson about our place in the universe.
It’s so easy to see the things that we don’t have. It’s all too tempting to look at others’ lives, to look at material possessions and wonder why it is that we are not as blessed. Happiness comes from being able to appreciate what you have in the moment, for the current moment - the real-time realization of reality that you are experiencing right now - is the most important time in your life.
Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I'm lucky.
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that's something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body — it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that's the finest I know.
So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.
— Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium, July 4, 1939
What Yoda, Jesus, and Buddha All Have in Common
Here’s what the research says about wealth: once your needs are met, you aren’t going to become much happier no matter how much wealth you acquire. As long as you have a roof over your head, food in the pantry, and people around you that matter, you are rich my friend!
I recently saw a documentary that included a segment over a man in a third world country whose job was to drag a cart around town by foot while people road in it. This is not a job with a high ceiling or pay grade. He said that a lot of people cursed at him and threw things at him. He said that his feet often hurt (he couldn’t afford shoes) and that his hands were rough with calluses from carrying the cart all day. He was dressed in tattered rags and he lived with his family in a shanty.
Yet, when asked, this man called himself “lucky” and referred to himself as “rich.” This was no fool. This guy was not playing to the camera. As someone who evaluates how to make people happy for a living, either he was the best actor in the world (doubtful) or he truly believed that he was the happy. He spoke of counting his blessings: the fact that he lived with his family who loved him and lived in a small shanty community where everyone was friends with each other. We can all learn a lesson from this great man. And the research supports his seemingly insane hypothesis. Once our needs are met, there isn’t a whole lot of difference in terms of happiness between the middle class citizen and the person who is a multimillionaire. Being rich in life is not a condition of the size of your bank account, but of the size of your heart and sense of being part of something in life.
We are very lucky here in America. Our great country came into existence through the ideas of the most legendary thinkers of our time. Our framers recognized that not only are our governmental powers, held in the constitution, an extension of our roles as public servants through free elections, but that the dark heart of man lurks. There are those of us who actively search for power, for the sake of power, and that through the unhappiness in their hearts they desire to remake the world in their vision. Our framers recognized this propensity and put significant road blocks in place to prevent this type of person being able to wield too much power if it ever came to be that they came to power. The darkest of us seeks power, while the best of us seeks to
No matter what paths your life has traveled, you can always seek to serve your fellow man, and through that servitude you will know joy. Help someone. Teach someone. Praise someone. This is the pursuit of happiness.