What really makes us happy?  What kinds of things, daily activities and such, are associated with genuine happiness? Using evidence from the study of human evolution, psychology, sociology, and neuroscience, we begin to realise that there is a nuanced web of contributors to happiness.  Exercise, sleep, achievement, and genetics/predisposition are most commonly discussed when people talk about how to be happy, but these are just the tip of the iceberg.

In regard to exercise, when we look to the research on exercise's relationship to our happiness, there's a moderate association between physical activity and well being. So really, there is support for the idea that a happy mood is associated with moderate-intensity exercise. However, there's nuance here; the perspective of the exerciser and the feeling that a person puts into exercise helps influence elevated mood in relation to exercise.  So it isn't just the exercise alone, it is also the mindset/intention of the activity.

When we look at research on sleep, we see that people who sleep in a more regular, comfortable, and non-interrupted way score higher for happiness and feelings of well-being than poorly-rested people.  But, people who sleep better are often better at self-compassion and self-regulation than those who cannot or do not sleep well.  So again, there is more to it than the sleep alone.; it is also the relationship with the self.

As for achievement, when researchers asked people about their academic and social achievement goals as well as their level of happiness, they found that people who reported a sense of achievement both academically and socially rated themselves as being happier than those who reported feeling little or no achievement. It is possible however, that the relationship between achievement and happiness are counter-dependent, meaning that it is possible that those who were happiest were also grittier/more perseverant, had higher levels of confidence, and who had a simpler definition of achievement. Perspectives and attitudes go hand-in-hand with the activites and achievements.

Discussing genetics/predisposition, when we look at the numbers, approximately fifty percent (50%) of our happiness is due to our genes - this is what we often call "base-level" happiness.  This is just what we were born with - the bit we cannot really change.

Ten to twenty percent (10-20%) of our happiness relies on our life circumstances. This number can vary, because it has to do with being richer or poorer; healthy or unwell; estranged or supported by family; more or less attractive to others; affected or not by natural disaster; and other things that are often out of our control.

Thirty to forty percent (30-40%) of our level of happiness depends upon the way we think; how we respond to different things in life; what we do and don't do; how we go about doing the day-to-day activities involved in living.  This is the stuff we can control.

Looking at those figures, we can see that we have a whole lot of control; especially when we consider that it's likely what we DO control has an effect on the 10-20% that is relative to circumstances.  When we change the way we think about happiness; when we take the appropriate level of responsibility for our contentment with life; and when we make a committed effort to take charge of our own wellbeing, it changes us and has an effect on the situations and environments in which we find ourselves; which affects how happy we may feel.

Obviously, our commitment or not to our happiness won't prevent natural disasters or the death of a loved one, but it can put us in a better habit of how we handle difficult situations and stress. Over time, our improvement in our responses to stress will change the thoughts and feelings we have when we come up against stress the next time. After a while this can make us more likable, maybe then getting a better job in a happier place, or inspire us to spend more time of each day with helpful and kind people rather than demanding unhealthy people.  Or, maybe being a resilient person can make us more attractive to others and boost our happiness in that way.  There are so many ways in which we have control over our contentment and can influence our own positive outlook, soimply by learning how to better manage stress.

We can see clearly that exercise, sleep, a sense of achievement, external factors, and our genetics are all elements affecting our happiness. However, the research shows that there are many other elements contributing to our happiness; things that have a deep impact on our general feeling of wellbeing and contentment.  These contributing factors are:

Awe & Wonder; Compassion & Empathy; Confidence & Self-Compassion; Engagement & Flow; Forgiveness; Good Relationship & Social Connectivity; Gratitude; Laughter & Play; Mindful Awareness & Meditation; Mindset & Perspective; Novelty; Perseverance & Grit; and Simplicity & Satisficing.

Awe and Wonder refers to a feeling often described as spiritual, although it isn't necessarily religious. It would be more apt to say that it refers to an experience of feeling interconnected. It also refers to feeling of being taken aback by the beauty and enormity of the universe and everything.  It is a feeling nearly everyone has experienced at some point in their lives.  The regular openness to this feeling, and the regular experience of this feeling, is often reported by people who see themselves as happy and content in general.

Compassion and Empathy refer to a person's ability to recognise and understand the life circumstances and emotions of others, as well as the ability to deeply connect and relate to those circumstances and feelings.  This is more about an emotional connection than about sympathetic understanding.

Confidence and Self Compassion are meant to describe the way in which we live with, and relate to, ourselves.  People who are kind to themselves, and those who have a trust and belief in themselves, tend to be happier than those who are hyper-critical of themselves or who are self-defeating.

Engagement and Flow are described as being how well you connect to the jobs and projects that you take on in life.  It is the act of being engrossed in what you are doing, focusing really intently, feeling mentally stimulated, and ultimately getting a sense of accomplishment from the task. This could be work, hobbies, volunteerism, crafts, art - anything that sparks.

Forgiveness is about allowing yourself to let go of grudges - against others as well as yourself.  It allows you to free up mental and emotional space that is currently being taken up by negativity that serves no purpose or gain. It isn't about admitting that the act or situation was right or even okay; it is about refusing to let the past event disturb the good things that could be happening now.

Good Relationships and Social Connectivity refers to the way in which we as humans are hard-wired for interconnected relationships (tribal groups) and how we benefit most from trusting, supportive relationships - both the giving and the receiving aspects.

Gratitude has shown to be important in developing an optimistic perspective on life, and supporting a generally contented mindset. It assists us in approaching difficulties with a more gracious perspective.

Laughter and Play (Positive Emotions) are pretty self explanitory.  People who feel these emotions, and who participate in activites that promote positive emotions, are more likely to feel they are happy people. As well, there are documented health benefits that are directly associated with laughter.

Mindful Awareness and Meditation can be a powerful tool in helping us to develop and maintain many of the other qualities listed here and, as such, it has it's own section here on the website. It develops our relationship with, and interpretation of, what is happening right now, in the moment. It enhances our ability to focus and to exercise the executive function of our minds. By using these mental exercise techniques, we can limit the number of times we experience "fight or flight" reactions, and we can become more balanced and in control of how we think and behave. We can develop what is refered to as, "wise mind."

Mindest and Perspective describe the way in which we approach difficulties and failures in our lives, as well as the way we view a person's ability to grow or change. Developing a growth mindset and a resilient perspective can positively influence our experience of life, and improve our overall sense of wellbeing.

Novelty refers to new experiences. It is known that, although new things can increase positive emotions, it's temporary because the novelty eventually wears off and we adjust to the "new thing."  Having a stable and simple life, peppered with many positive new experiences, tends to keep people happier.  It's important to find a balance between a sedentary and predictable life and a random, unpredictable lifestyle.

Perseverance and Grit contribute to happiness in that they allow us to achieve long-term goals and to see the fruits of extended effort over time. This contributes to the earlier-discussed aspect of achievement in relation to happiness.  Improving our tenacity when approaching tasks (learning to accept and appreciate failures) can improve our confidence, enhance our ability to recognize potential and possibilities, and can ultimately increase the level of achievement we experience, because we do not easily give up.

Simplicity and Satisficing have to do with paring-down too many choices. It's about learning to be agreeable with what is available at the time, rather than stressing over the abundance of too many options. Often times we think of having a lot of freedom and choice as being a good thing, but too much choice can actually keep us preoccupied and stressed because we are constatly trying to weigh things up what will or might serve us best.  Ever wonder why Simon Cowell always wears (basically) the same outfit every time you see him?  He's been simplifying/satisficing so that he can spend more time focusing on his massive career, which it seems offers him access to engagement and flow...  It's not a coincindence!

If you feel you'd like to discuss  plans and possibilities to increase your general sense of happiness and well-being, please use the Contact Page and get in touch with me for a free consltation.


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