by Bret Contreras March 09, 2012
One of the best things that you can do for others is take good care of yourself. Chances are your loved-ones care deeply about your health and well-being, and therefore it pleases them to see you happy. When you realize that you are responsible for your actions, your thoughts, and your attitude, your pathway to happiness becomes evident. In this two-part series I’m going to teach you a little bit about happiness. Being happier will make you a better friend, family member, partner, teacher, coach, therapist, trainer, or lifting partner. Part I will focus on the research and quotes, and part II will discuss the specific steps that I’ve taken to reclaim my happiness.
What Does the Research Say About Happiness?
It’s a bit strange consulting the literature regarding happiness. Let’s be honest – anyone performing a search on PubMed for the term “happiness” probably isn’t very happy. Indeed, several months ago I came to the realization that I wasn’t very happy, and my first step was to learn a bit about happiness through PubMed. Below is a summary of my understanding of what is currently known in the research on the topic of happiness.
What are Happiness and Well-Being?
Well-being or happiness requires at least two crucial ingredients: positive affect or pleasure (hedonia) and a sense of meaningfulness or engagement in life (eudaimonia). Happiness is a composite of life satisfaction, coping resources, and positive emotions. Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the foremost experts on the topic of happiness, confesses that years back his definition of happiness was too narrow; resting primarily upon three legs – positive emotion, engagement, and meaning, with the overall goal as increased life-satisfaction. Now he believes that the overall goal is improved well-being, and has added positive relationships and accomplishment to the mix.
There are two primary aspects of well-being; emotional well-being and life-evaluation. Emotional well-being has to do with the emotional qualities involved in everyday life – the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection that make someone’s life pleasant or unpleasant. Life evaluation has to do with the thoughts that people have about their lives when they think about it.
A year after most lottery winners win the lottery, they’re right back to their previous level of happiness and no happier than ordinary people. For this reason researchers have proposed that we have a baseline level of happiness and that it’s difficult to permanently elevate it. Recent research elucidates the challenges of staying happier; the gains in well-being following a positive life change are typically eroded via two processes. First, a bottom-up process whereby individuals receive declining positive emotions from the positive life change over time, and second, a top-down process whereby individuals quickly aspire to gain even more positivity.
The U-Shaped Curve of Happiness over the Life-Cycle
For the most part, happiness follows a U-shaped curve over the life-cycle, with happiness reaching a minimum during middle age (30-40 yrs old) and being higher during adolescence and advanced years (peaks during teens and seventies). This is related to the stress involved in the responsibilities of marriage, child rearing, career decisions, and financial dilemmas. Moreover, the U-shape is more pronounced in males than it is in females. Probably related is the fact that marital happiness follows a similar U-shaped curve.
The Shifting Meaning of Happiness over a Lifetime
Younger people tend to associate happiness with excitement, but as they age, they tend to associate happiness with peacefulness. This change seems to be driven by a change in focus from the future to the present as people age. This has many effects such as purchasing behavior and methods utilized to increase one’s happiness.
Why are Happy People Happier than their Less-Happy Counterparts?
Happy people become more satisfied in life because they develop resources for living well, not simply because they feel better. They also experience more frequent positive “in the moment” emotions, which increases resiliency and life satisfaction. This suggests that experiencing frequent spikes of joy and satisfaction throughout the day is at least as beneficial as simply having a good outlook in life.
Improvers of Life Evaluation
Having sufficient income to meet your basic needs, maintain a suitable standard of living, and have ownership of conveniences increase one’s evaluation of his life, as does increasing one’s education. Material prosperity is much more related to life evaluation than it is to emotional well-being.
Improvers of Emotional Well-Being
Meeting psychological needs, being in good health, caring for others, experiencing adequate social interaction, learning, having autonomy, using one’s skills, receiving respect, and being able to count on others in an emergency improve positive feelings about one’s life. Psychosocial prosperity is much more related to well-being and positive thoughts than it is to life evaluation.
Can Money Buy Happiness?
This is a bit ambiguous in the research as the literature shows complex and conflicting results on money and happiness. Income appears play a role in happiness, but one study showed that there’s a ceiling at $75,000, meaning that increasing income past this level does not improve emotional well-being. Life-evaluation continues to rise with increased income well-over six-figure salaries, but increased income doesn’t lead to greater happiness, it doesn’t relieve unhappiness, and it doesn’t reduce stress.
Having low income has been shown to exacerbate the emotional pains associated with divorce, illness, and loneliness. Affluent and disadvantaged populations do indeed experience greater symptoms of depression, but this isn’t solely related to low income as the relationships with poor health, physical disability, and social isolation factor in considerably as well. Low income is associated with both low life evaluation and low emotional well-being. But increased income isn’t the only solution as high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness.
Thinking about time rather than money improves happiness. When you focus on time, you end up spending more time with friends and family and less time working, which makes you happier. However, when you focus on money, you end up working more and socializing less, which does not improve happiness.
Wealthier individuals do not savor (the ability to enhance and prolong) positive emotional experiences and they receive less total enjoyment from various experiences, and this outweighs the positive effects of their increased income. Access to the best things in life may actually undercut one’s ability to enjoy life’s small pleasures.
In terms of employment, being paid by the hour increases happiness as it promotes an economic evaluation of time-use. Non-hourly working counterparts aren’t quite as happy. Rank income, not absolute income, plays a role in life satisfaction. This means that increasing your income won’t make you happier if everyone else’s income is raised proportionately – what will make you happier is if your increase in income places you at a higher rank amongst your peers.
Factors Important for Improved Quality of Life
Good relationships with both the close world (self, partners, friends) and the distant world are important for possessing a superior quality of life, as is having a good overall view of life. Possessions, money, status, and work aren’t important to global quality of life or self-assessed health. Self-perceived physical health, self-perceived mental health, and satisfaction with health are much more important for quality of life. What one sees, evaluates, and experiences what he has, his level of consciousness, and his attitude toward life and others; not what one actually has, are the factors that are truly important for improved quality of life.
A general perception exists that meaning in life and happiness are essential to the concept of a good life, with money being relatively unimportant.
Spending Money on Others is More Important for Happiness than Spending Money on One’s Self
Research shows that how people spend their money is at least as important as how much money they earn. Specifically, spending a greater percentage of one’s income on others leads to greater happiness and buying someone something increases happiness more so than buying something for yourself.
We all have our moments of unhappiness, loneliness, sorrow, and depression. However certain people experience these feelings much less often than others. Moreover, certain people are simply happier and more fulfilled than others and this doesn’t appear to have much to do with material goods or high achievement, but rather a good outlook on life and high quality relationships. Past a certain point, money won’t buy you happiness. And though comfort is nice, it can make a person bored which is why we need to continue to challenge ourselves. Yet it’s important to understand that continuous conquests won’t make much of a difference in our happiness; we need to be content with what we have and appreciate our relationships.
There’s a definite genetic component to happiness, but happiness is also highly dependent on thoughts. Little things like smiling, mindless meditation, and noticing what you’re grateful for can make a big difference in your quality of life. Finally, no matter how hard it is, it is imperative that you forgive people.
When I learned that positive thinking and healthy thoughts cause structural changes in the brain (just like resistance training does in the muscles), and that money isn’t the secret to happiness, I started focusing on more fruitful aspects of happiness which allowed me to make excellent decisions related to my well-being. I’ll elaborate on this in Part II. I’ll conclude Part I by providing some quotes on happiness.
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature. ~ Marcus Aurelius
Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence. ~ Aristotle
So much sadness exists in the world that we are all under obligation to contribute as much joy as lies within our powers. ~ John Sutherland Bonnell
Success is getting what you want, happiness is wanting what you get. ~ Dave Gardner
The happiest people seem to be those who have no particular reason for being so except that they are so. ~ William Ralph Inge
Happiness is an attitude. We either make ourselves miserable, or happy and strong. The amount of work is the same. ~Francesca Reigler
The secret of contentment is knowing how to enjoy what you have, and to be able to lose all desire for things beyond your reach. ~ Lin Yutang
The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our Attitudes. ~ Charles R. Swindoll
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