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Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Achieving happiness is likely the most universally common goal. While there are significant subjective definitions of what happiness really is, we all want to be happy. People around the world value happiness above intelligence, success and even material wealth. This makes sense because happiness is associated with good personal relationships, better jobs, more success and higher income.

The advice of how to have a happy life comes from many sources. There are recommendations from the ancient Greeks, the ancient Chinese, 19th Century German philosophers and of course shelves of self-help books in any bookstores.

The psychological literature clearly shows there is a strong relationship between success and happiness. However affluence produces rapidly diminishing returns on happiness.

Psychologists have in the past 10 years begun to investigate the questions about what causes human happiness how to enhance this sense of wellbeing. The results of this research show first off that almost all humans are surprisingly happy and 90% of Americans report themselves to be “very happy” or “fairly happy”. There are individual differences in the level of happiness and these differences are stable across the lifespan. Another interesting finding in the research on happiness in that major life events that we would expect to effect happiness over the long term (winning the lottery, death of a loved one) only affect it for about six months to a year.

Research suggests that the contributions to our happiness are 50% a stable “set point” of overall sense of well being – this is largely determined by our overall temperament which is determined by genetics. Not much we can do about those issues. 10% of a sense of happiness is related to life circumstances such as how much money we have, our education level, and age. We have some possibility to change our life circumstances and these factors do matter, but these changes make a small contribution to happiness. However 40% of happiness is determined by our day-to- day activities. Research has confirmed that enjoyable activities have more potential for making us happy than improvements in our circumstances. People tend to place much more importance on their life circumstances to the detriment of happiness enhancing behaviors and everyday pleasurable activities.

Three activities that psychologist have investigated that enhance happiness are 1) visualizing you best self and imagining your life in the future where goals have been met; 2) helping other with acts of kindness has been found to increase a sense of well-being by 40%; and 3) practicing gratitude.

In addition to these guidelines research has shown the impact of daily pleasurable activities on happiness. Having fun improves our sense of well-being. The activity choices should have three characteristics: 1) They should fit our needs and our personalities (sky diving is NOT for everyone). 2) The content should vary (new experiences are especially helpful because the amount of pleasure we can get from the same experienced tails off with repetition). 3) The timing should vary.

We live in a society of materialism, where objects are valued way beyond their possible contribution to happiness. Happiness research has determined that experiences give more pleasure than material purchases. This difference is for several reasons. Experiences create memories which improve with time – possessions don’t. It is hard to compare our own experiences with those of other people. However comparing possessions is easy. Pleasure diminishes with unfavorable comparison.

Achieving happiness is a lifetime goal and pursuit. Doing what brings YOU the most meaning and contentment to your life over the long run will bring happiness. Benjamin Spock wrote “Happiness is mostly a by-product of doing what makes us feel fulfilled.”

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