Is There a Secret to Happiness? Research Shows There Is

By Kimberly Suchy

Each year, millions and millions of people will buy Powerball lottery tickets despite the vastly long odds they face. According to Powerball, the chances of winning are 1 in 175.2 million, making players more likely to be bitten by a shark in their lifetime than to score the jackpot—the odds of getting bitten by a shark are 1 in 11.5 million in case you were wondering. Yet, Americans continually feed into the symbolic premise that winning the lottery will help them achieve the American Dream. Whether their goal is to own a private island made entirely of chocolate coins or to pay off expensive medical bills, people generally believe that money will solve all of their life’s problems and lead to ultimate happiness.

Nvate Happiness Instant Gratification Eudaimonic Dopamine Happy by Roko Belic

Credit: freedigitalphotos.net

Linking wealth with happiness is not necessarily a far-fetched idea, as there is actually a measurable connection between a person’s income and their level of happiness. People who live a comfortable living standard, which deems a yearly income of around $75,000 in America, are in fact reported to be happier than people living in poverty, according to an article in the New York Times. However, once this comfortable level of wealth has been achieved, the positive effects of money begin to taper off. Winning the Mega Millions may expunge your credit card debt and afford you a new Aston Martin each year, but it will not guarantee a lifetime supply of happiness.

Affirming this reality, a classic study by Northwestern University compared the happiness of a lottery winner to a quadriplegic after one year. Believe it or not, the quadriplegic was reported to be more content in his everyday life than the person who got lucky. Now, this does not mean that the key to contentment is to undergo a life-altering trauma, but rather, that finding lasting joy is much more deep-rooted than attaining wealth. Why, then, are we wired from a young age to pursue high-status, high-paying jobs and monetary success? We’ve all heard that money can’t buy happiness and have memorized the cliché phrase, “the best things in life are free,” so why do we still believe that the winning Powerball ticket is the solution to our happiness?

Is there Happiness through Instant Gratification?

The answer is simple. We like formulas and instant gratification. It is much easier to establish controllable, extrinsic goals that will result in the immediate pleasure and satisfaction known as hedonic happiness, than to dig deep and make long-term changes in our lives to achieve eudaimonic well being, or lasting fulfillment.

According to an article by Alice G. Walden in The Atlantic, hedonic happiness is rooted in hedonism. It is the short-term result of “feel good” pleasures that light up the reward circuits of the brain and relies on the neurotransmitter dopamine. Like a drug, hedonic pleasure is addictive, explaining our propensity to continually chase selfish, momentary pleasures such as eating a bar of chocolate or buying new clothes.

Nvate Happiness Instant Gratification Eudaimonic Dopamine Happy by Roko Belic

Eudaimonic happiness, on the other hand, is achieved when we establish a deeper purpose in life. Eudaimonic wellbeing is measured by how autonomous or self-sustaining we feel, how interested we are in personal growth, and the nature of our relationships with other people. Therefore a $337 million super yacht equals instant ecstasy, but the formula for continual lifetime bliss is not quite as prescribed.

Luckily, researchers have caught on to our predilection for simple solutions and noticed that most Americans are in the pursuit of happiness, yet cannot identify what exactly gives them joy in their day-to-day lives. Positive psychology is the resulting field that focuses on human strengths and studies the factors that make individuals and communities flourish. Surveys and studies have been conducted that measure, compare and contrast general levels of happiness of people from all types of cultures and economic backgrounds. According to researchers at the University of Edinburgh, 50 percent of our happiness is controlled by our genes and determines our happiness set point, while only 10 percent of our overall wellbeing is influenced by life circumstances such as status, money, career and objects. A whopping 40 percent, therefore, is subject to intentional behavior and choices, meaning we are actually strongly in control of how happy we are.

In an interview with Forbes, Roko Belic, director of the 2011 documentary “Happy,” said, “When I started this, I thought 95 percent was genetic—you’re either born grumpy or finding the silver lining. I know now that happiness is within our control. That’s inspiring.”

In “Happy,” Belic delved into his own exploration of the science behind happiness with over 400 hours of footage and inspirational interviews with some of the happiest people in the world. From the swamps of Louisiana to the slums of India, he gives a deeper understanding of our most valued, yet least understood emotion, and uncovers a basic formula for happiness in our day-to-day lives.

Be Happy Every Day: Think in Minutes, not Dollars

What did he find? Turns out, making and spending money was not part of the equation, but how we spend our time was. This confuses many people, as the majority of their time is consumed by work, which directly correlates to money. The key is to balance the time we spend between our careers and personal lives, essentially working in order to live rather than living to work.

In the documentary, Brazilian surfer Ronaldo Fadul beams with joy, standing beside his rundown, beachfront shack. Despite his meager lifestyle, Fadul has achieved a happy balance between work and leisure. Waves are free and he doesn’t need more than a surfboard to spend his time doing what he loves. Sharing a piece of wisdom with all of us, Fadul calmly said, “Try to work so that you can live your life in tranquility.”

In contrast, people in Japan are under so much pressure to succeed that they literally work themselves to death. In “Happy,” Belic explores a phenomenon called “Karoshi,” the disease that develops when people experience fatally high amounts of stress. The Japanese tend to favor time spent at work over time with their families, which raises their level of stress. This consistently ranks Japan as one of the unhappiest industrial nations.

Rather than working overtime to buy the new family car, then, come home early and have dinner with your family. You will be much happier when you consider the value of this quality time over time spent at work.

Go with the Flow

Have you ever been so absorbed in an activity that time just melts around you? Maybe this occurs whenever you’re skiing down a mountain, the wind whooshing through your ears. Or perhaps you lose yourself in painting, your focus possessed by the fluidity of your brush strokes. Positive psychology deemed this positive mental state as “flow,” and considers it an important ingredient in happiness. In fact, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor and author of “Finding Flow,” wrote a whole book about what it means to flow and how investing our time in flow activities can help increase our happiness each day.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a “sense of effortless action [people] feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as ‘being in the zone,’ religious mystics as being in ‘ecstasy’ [and] artists and musicians as ‘aesthetic rapture.'”

You can enter a flow state during a number of activities, as long as you are completely absorbed in whatever it is that you’re doing. Whether it’s a physical activity such as yoga or running, or a more sedentary endeavor such as reading or praying, you must see the activity as enjoyable and voluntary in order to achieve the appropriate conditions for flow. Even though you are participating in something you take pleasure in, flow is actually indicated by the absence of emotion and depletion of self-consciousness. You allow yourself to let go and forget any worldly conquests, focusing only on your intrinsic wellbeing and essentially improving your mental state. It’s no wonder why starving artists will follow their dream despite their lack of financial security—they experience flow on a daily basis, finding happiness in doing what they love.

Help Others to Help Yourself

In “Happy,” scientists demonstrated how having positive goals and showing compassion toward others can actually release dopamine in your brain, a chemical linked with happiness. Altruistic deeds also stimulate the left frontal cortex of the brain, which researchers have deemed the “happiness center.” Not only does helping others improve personal wellbeing, people say that these genuine acts of kindness add meaning to their lives. The average investment banker may spark with joy each time he earns a million dollars for his company, but there is no long term, intrinsic reward like nursing a sick person to health or giving food to a homeless person.

Loosen Your Grip on Things and Strengthen Your Relationships

While many will measure their wealth in accumulated objects, the happiest people find fortune in strong relationships. Belic proved the positive powers of human connection in his spotlight of a single, Danish mother of two. Living in a multi-generational housing community with about 30 other people, money is tight and personal space is scarce, but she declares to be happy nonetheless. She appreciates having large extended family on which she can rely, especially when it comes to helping care for her children. In fact, Denmark consistently rates as the happiest nation, and most Danish people believe they have someone other than a family member they can rely on.

Having this sense of community and strengthening ties to people whom we can love and trust is an important aspect of happiness. Although independence is often required, it feels good to have a friend you can lean on every once in a while.

While it is easy to sit down and create the perfect formula for happiness, contentment varies among people and is determined by personal choices, interests and experiences. It is important to establish a sense of self-awareness before combining the ingredients of the recipe. Once you know what you want out of life and what may stand in the way of your happiness, it is easier to adjust the formula to your needs. Happy people do the things that make them happy, and once you identify these things, you can truly connect with the person you are meant to be.

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