In Pursuit of Happiness

By April 9, 2016 No Comments

iStock_000072228559_SmallEver wondered how much of your happiness is under your own control and how much is outside of it? Researchers have discovered that 50% of our overall happiness level is determined by genes, 10% by our life circumstances and 40% by what we think and do in our daily lives.

Research on identical and fraternal twins has shown that people have a genetically determined happiness set point which is largely fixed and stable over time and immune to influence and control. In the study identical twins reported similar levels of happiness, while fraternal twins showed greater variation in their reported sense of well-being. These results were consistent regardless of whether the twins were raised together or apart. Genetic happiness set points vary from individual to individual, with some people having a higher or lower set point than others.

A surprisingly small amount, only 10% of your happiness level is controlled by your life circumstances including where you live, your age, gender, ethnicity, your personal history e.g. significant negative or positive life events. Other happiness-relevant life circumstances are your marital status, occupational status, job security, income, health and religious affiliation. Many people believe these things they have a greater influence. If only I… earned more, lived somewhere else, was in the perfect relationship, was thinner, younger, older, hadn’t had that experience or had this other experience then I would be happier! The truth is people have a great ability to adapt to their circumstances so where a change in circumstances may bring a temporary high or a temporary low after a period of time the effect of any life circumstance change on overall happiness levels tends to be relatively small.

So that brings us to the remaining 40% – the 40% that is controlled by the daily thoughts, actions and practises in which we choose to engage. The 40% that is completely under your control. While every individual is different and there is no one prescription for all, research has shown that some kinds of thoughts, actions and practises tend to have happiness boosting potential. In fact implementing as little as 4 of the 12 happiness enhancing strategies below into your daily life has been shown to have a positive effect on happiness levels.

  1. Practise gratitude: Make a mental note as you go through your day or take a couple of minutes at the start or end of each day to write down some things you are grateful for.
  2.  Cultivate optimism: Practice looking on the bright side of each situation, look for solutions not problems and intentionally expect the best of people and situations.
  3. Avoiding overthinking and social comparison: Distract yourself from dwelling on problems or comparisons with others. Remember no one in the world can do a better job of being you, than you!
  4. Practice kindness: Be kind to others. Do a good deed for a friend or a stranger, openly or anonymously, it doesn’t matter the size. Think random acts of kindness, paying it forward or simply doing unto others as you’d have done unto you.
  5. Nurture relationships: Invest time and energy in relationships that are important to you. Express appreciation to friends and family.
  6. Do things that absorb you: Engage regularly in activities or experiences that are challenging and absorbing and that you “lose” yourself in.
  7. Savour life’s joys: Savour what is good in life, paying close attention to life’s momentary pleasures and wonders. Replay these through thinking, writing, drawing, or sharing them.
  8. Pursue meaningful goals: Pick one or more significant goals that are meaningful to you. Devote time and effort to pursuing them.
  9. Develop coping strategies: Explore ways to support yourself in coping with stress or hardships. Find ways to de-stress physically and mentally, develop social supports and seek profession support when needed.
  10. Forgive: Forgiveness may not be easy but holding on to anger generally hurts you more than the person you are angry with. It can be helpful to express your anger on paper, not with the intent of showing it to anyone but simply to help you to let it go.
  11. Religion and spirituality: Get involved in religious or spiritual communities or read or watch spiritually-themed books or videos.
  12. Take care of your body: Look after yourself. Eat well, exercise, have downtime, develop a meditation or mindfulness practise, smile and laugh.

Finally, when it comes to these activities variety is the spice of life. The effect of any activity tends to wear off as it becomes routine so keeping it fresh and finding different ways to do the activity is important.

Erica McKinney is a counsellor, psychotherapist and life coach with a private practise in Shankill and Wicklow.

This article was originally published in the February edition of Scan Magazine

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