Happiness is not a utopia, but an emotion that we can live every day, applying methods that have been scientifically demonstrated to be effective.
For decades, the gurus of personal growth have promised to reveal the formula for happiness. But in the last few years, as well as books, both more and less serious, about the techniques and strategies for being happy, we also have scientific studies. If The University of Pennsylvania has established a degree course on happiness, The University of Edinburgh has gone further: the scholars A. Weiss and T. C. Bates, in their treatise “Happiness Is a Personal(ity) Thing”, have identified the factors that determine our happiness.
Happiness depends on:
- 50% – our genes. Thus, choose your parents carefully!
- 8-10% – external factors, such as money, social status, physical appearance etc.
- the other 40%… (drum roll)… YOU.
That’s right, 40% of your happiness depends on the way in which you think about and face life. Unfortunately we cannot change our genes, and in this article I do not want to talk about how to improve your finances or become a master of interpersonal relationships; instead, I want to propose to you six scientific ways to make the most of that 40% of happiness that depends only on yourself:
1. Find a purpose in life
In Ancient Greece the concept of happiness was expressed by the term “eudaimonia” that can be literally translated as “being with a good demon”.* Mind you, the term “demon” (daimon) means a spirit guide, a destiny or… a purpose.
Doctor Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology – a new branch of psychology that studies how to help people be accomplished, purposeful and happy – has recently stated that the one way to find true and lasting happiness is just that: identify our points of strength, our abilities, and use them to reach ambitious objectives. In my own small way I have formed a pretty clear idea about how to find purpose in my life.
2. Rediscover the simple pleasures of life
To find true happiness, you do not have to wait to reach your goals: you can have them every day.
One of the practical exercises used by scholars of Positive Psychology is the method of “redesigning the day”. This experiment requires that participants describe in detail the activities of their day. The following day, looking back over their diaries, the participants had to give a score to individual activities. At this point, the method of “redesigning the day” required that the participants replaced at least one hour of unpleasant activities with one hour dedicated to the small pleasures of life. The results of the study group demonstrated that this small change in everyday routine can have a notable impact on overall levels of happiness.
3. “Go with the flow”
I have taken advantage of the title of one of the most beautiful compositions by Giovanni Allevi, to tell you about the third scientific method for finding true happiness. The term “flow” was coined by the American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for describing that state in which you are completely absorbed in the activities you are doing, so much so that you lose all sense of time.
Reaching such a state of total immersion can happen… singing, reading a book that you are passionate about, or working on a project that is important to you. Our happiness is directly connected to the capacity to more frequently experience these moments of complete immersion and the one way to do this is to identify what we are passionate about and place it at the center of our lives.
4. Choose your reactions
Doctor Tal Ben-Shahar is one of the greatest experts of Positive Psychology. One of his courses at Harvard University is dedicated to “reactions”. From his studies, it emerges that it is not external events that determine the state of wellness in individuals, but rather their capacity to react in the right way to such events.
In fact, if it is true that life is governed by causality and you cannot choose the events that happen to you, it is also true that you always have control of your reaction.
5. Learn to give
An interesting experiment at Harvard Business School has demonstrated that spending money on others makes us happier than spending it on ourselves. During the study at HBS, the group of participants were sub-divided into two categories: the first was asked to spend an amount of their own choice, on themselves; the second, on the other hand, was asked to spend an amount of their choice on another person. All the individuals in the second category recorded higher levels of happiness than the participants in the first category; furthermore, the individuals who had given more to others, also demonstrated more happiness.
Giving to others… and I am not talking only about money, but also time, commitment and love, is one of the most immediate gestures for being happy.
6. Stop saying, “If only…”
Do you keep saying that you would be happy if only… you got that promotion, won the lottery, met your true love etc? Okay… you have just condemned yourself to eternal unhappiness! Tying your happiness to future events creates dissatisfaction and is a mistake for at least two reasons: a) we tend to overestimate the impact of events on our lives; b) once a much-desired event has occurred, after a brief period of euphoria, our happiness levels will return to normal; it is the so-called “hedonistic adaptation” effect.
Many (and I include myself) think that they will be happy when they have more money. But scientific studies show clearly that this is a false belief. There is a big difference between having no money at all and being able to satisfy basic needs. However, it is equally true that the rate of happiness remains practically unchanged if we earn $50,000 or $500,000 per year. Simply… over a minimum level of income, money has no impact on our happiness.
Try this little practical experiment: change “I will be happy if only…” into “I am happy now because…”.
And now you have no more excuses: you have to be happy… it is science!