It is a question for the ages. Scientists, theologians, philosophers, artists, and psychiatrists from every era have posed the question —“what makes us happy”— in one form or another. The greatest spiritual thinkers teach how to create and experience happiness, yet often these practices don’t yield the results we expect.
Consider the positive-thinking movement. While nearly every spiritual practice speaks to intentions of positivity being one of the most powerful tools to create happiness, in the last 20 or so years, we’ve taken it a little too literally. “All I have to do is think positive thoughts and everything will work out!”
We all know that this isn’t true. In fact, it sets us up for inevitable failure. We can’t “feel good” all the time (nor are we supposed to), so when things don’t work out, we blame ourselves for not thinking positively enough. Not a very sound structure for creating happiness, is it?
So what is the formula? What is the secret to creating happiness?
The answer is nuanced and begins with something called the Happiness Baseline. We all have one. Also referred to as the Hedonic Treadmill, it’s defined as the observed tendency for humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive (i.e., winning the lottery) or negative (i.e., breaking a leg) events. We tend to revert to a general level of content we feel on any given day that goes well. For some, it’s the sense that things are flowing and everything is okay. For others, happiness can be influenced by personality and genetic factors, as well as life events.
It’s important to know that our happiness will always return to our set baseline. In fact, research by Dr. Ed Diener, author of “The Pursuit of Happiness” and professor of psychology at the University of Utah, found that even after exceptional events (like the aforementioned winning the lottery or breaking our leg), we will return to our baseline.
Dr. Diener studied happiness and found that a majority of our sorrows come from seeking the wrong things. We look for happiness in the physical world: money, career, status, nice cars, beautiful homes. We seek to change our external circumstances as a means to create happiness. According to Dr. Diener, this is where we get tripped up. He compared people on the Forbes’ list of wealthiest Americans with the general population and found that they were only slightly happier than average, with a whopping 37% being less happy than the average American.
Perhaps the Notorious B.I.G. said it best, “Mo Money Mo Problems.”
This is because of that happiness baseline. The wealthiest people may have all the physical “stuff,” but their happiness baseline is the same as someone who has much, much less.
If we want to become happier, we need to raise our happiness baseline. Based on research from Sonja Lyubomirsky, a Ph.D. at the University of California Riverside, there are three components that make up our happiness baseline.
- Our genetic set point. This is our natural predisposition for happiness. Some of us have a higher set point. And it may be genetic (see a 2013 Psychology Today article, Can Happiness be Genetic?). While it isn’t something that researchers have found a way to change, it only accounts for 50% of our experience of happiness.
- The next 10% is made up of our external circumstances: our money, possessions, status, and anything existing in the physical world.
- The magic lies in the other 40% known as voluntary activities. It is here where we can raise our overall happiness baseline. We do so in one of two ways: changing our thoughts or changing our actions (interestingly, one will always lead to the other). It goes back to an age- old kabbalistic teaching: thoughts create reality. Where we focus our consciousness is what we expand. When we hold a consciousness of negativity, we create more negativity. When we shift our consciousness to one of positivity, we experience the endless blessings meant for us. Spend your time as positively as possible, and watch the positive changes that occur.
Eight Tools to Greater Happiness
- Keep a gratitude journal. It actually doesn’t even need to be a journal. It can be a note you keep on your phone or the post-its you place at your desk. Writing down three things that you’re grateful for every day has been proven to drastically change your sense of well-being and joy.
- Forgiveness. So many of us walk around heavy with the weight of failed relationships, mistakes, and regrets. When we forgive ourselves for our past errors, we more easily extend that forgiveness to others. Forgiveness is the doorway to compassion, and when we release ourselves and others, we free up to create new experiences that will bring about happiness.
- Create a vision. What vision do you hold for your life? What steps are you taking to get there? Without establishing a clear path to your most fulfilled life, you won’t be able to manifest it.
- Release your fears. Fear is a thief of joy, and while there are various forms of healthy fears, many are illogical and only serve to hold us back. Examine, challenge, and eradicate them. Is a phobia of public speaking inhibiting you from going after that promotion? Is a fear of flying keeping you from your dream of visiting Paris? Take steps to let go of these fears for good. (Check out my book, Fear Is Not an Option, if you want to learn more).
- Exercise. Moving your body improves your mood. Whether it’s a class, a neighborhood walk, or a dance party in your living room, make a point to move every day.
- Sleep. When we’re short on sleep, our body experiences a cascade of chemical shifts that affect our mood, focus, and general health. Prioritize sleep, and you’ll set yourself up for greater happiness.
- Connect with loved ones. Human beings thrive on connection. Science has shown our relationships affect our ability to heal, grow, and experience greater levels of peace, fulfillment, and joy. The power of connection is evidenced in the longest-running scientific study of happiness. After studying a focus group of 238 Harvard sophomores for nearly 80 years, researchers walked away with one unanimous takeaway: good relationships help us live longer, happier lives.
- Share. There are studies upon studies that support the connection between sharing and happiness. From a kabbalistic perspective, when we share with others, we create more Light in the world and in our lives. Transformational sharing actually benefits us more than the person with whom we share. Kabbalists practice this type of sharing because they understand that the most sensible way to further our own interests, is often NOT to pursue these goals directly but to look after other people’s interests.
While we may have been conditioned to think that our happiness lives outside of us, happiness is an inside job.
Change your thoughts, and your actions will change; change your actions, and your reality will change; change your reality and your happiness baseline changes.