More happiness…please?

The good news is: you may have more happiness.

The not-so-good news: You’ll have to work at it…every conscious moment of your life.

There’s more good news. But first, let’s look at what scientists have learned about happiness. According to neuroscience research, human beings have a predisposition for negative thinking. “Bad” experiences stick to us. “Good” experiences slide off.  Think of this as the velcro/teflon effect.

Isabel,* 35, single, no children, is a loan officer at Greenville State Bank. She earns enough money to live comfortably, but she has developed a habit that isn’t doing her any good. She shops online every night; she spends weekends at the mall. She worries about the money she owes and wonders why all the shoes and clothes in her closets don’t make her feel happier.

“In the moment, when I’m looking for something to buy, even up to the time I hand over my credit card, I feel happy, almost giddy. I imagine how a jacket or pair of boots will change the way I feel about myself. But from the time I click Confirm or walk out of the store, my mood drops and drops and drops until I regret yet another unnecessary purchase.”

We can all identify with Isabel. She has learned, as we all have, the myth that spending = happiness, or that shopping is entertainment. This belief can lead to disappointment, guilt, shame and a feeling of dissatisfaction…not happiness.

Isabel’s doing the best she can with the information she has. Shopping = momentary pleasure, not long lasting happiness. More stuff does not = more happiness.

Excuse the metaphor cliche, but have you ever burned your hand on a hot stove? If you answered yes to the stove or another painful experience, you know that your brain stored that experience in Never-Do-That-Again memory. Had some difficulties in childhood? Your brain held on to those experiences too. Someone broke your heart? You get the idea. Scientists believe that this mechanism protects us from future harm. Unfortunately, it goes too far. Even when the danger is long gone, the brain holds onto the memory. The off switch is buried somewhere in the experience. To make matters worse, when too much “bad” piles up, we can’t think our way out of it. We look for ways to alleviate feelings of sadness or low self-worth. If you are like most people, you’ll need a guide to show you the way out.

Set-point or range of happiness

In the documentary, Happy (2012), Sonya Lyubomirsky, PhD.  explains how we can turn the downward spiral around. She shows a colorful pie chart with three unequal slices.

Lu how of happiness pie chart

Pie piece one is the set-point or range of genetically influenced happiness.

Pie piece two: circumstances.

And pie piece three: intentional activities.

The difference in set point can be observed in babies in the newborn nursery of a hospital, on the playground of a preschool, and from parents’ reports about their children’s “temperament.”

We are unique from day one. Some of us smile from first breath to last. Others, stumble our way through life with a cloud overhead. You’ve heard the expression glass half-empty? Half-full? Like everything else, base level happiness (or fear, or sadness) lies on a continuum. From what scientists understand now, this piece makes up 50% of our experience of happiness.

Circumstances: More money will make you more happy

If you feel less happy than you would like to be, you might think that a different job, more money, a bigger house, or a sexier car will bring you bliss. You may have even tried buying things because you’re certain that new pair of shoes or the 75-inch HDTV will do it for you. And you may have noticed that yes, buying is exciting…for a few hours, a day, maybe two. The excitement of shopping, planning, anticipation wanes along with the dopamine rush. So for a quick high, definitely buy something new. For a lasting bump in happiness, consider this: the same body of research indicates that circumstances (socioeconomic status, age, location, etc.) contribute a surprisingly low 10% to our overall experience of happiness.

Money is important, says Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., but not as much as you’d think. We need food, clothing, and shelter to feel safe. But, according to research again, money increases the experience of happiness up to about $50,000-$80,000 a year. Does that mean if you’re earning less than that, you doomed to depression. NO! Remember that research only looks at groups, not individuals. You might be one of those lucky people who’s genetic set point for happiness is high. Or, something else.

Intentional Activities: More happiness = 40%

You might have already done the math (or looked at the pie chart). Fifty per cent of happiness can be attributed to genetics. Ten per cent has to do with where you live and how much money you earn. What about the other 40%? That’s the really good news. You can change your experience of happiness with Intentional Activities, or what you choose to do. That 40% slice of the pie represents the control you have over your experience of happiness.

Increasing happiness: Novelty

Scientists, again, have discovered that we can increase our level of happiness by increasing novelty in our daily lives. Do something as simple as take a different route home from work, or enroll in a class, or eat a meal of ethnic cuisine you haven’t tried before. In other words, the human brain loves new experiences…and change?

Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Hold on. In Hamlet’s words, “There’s the rub.” The conundrum. The contorted face behind “What the…” If the road to happiness depends on changing the way you live, what about the risk-avoidant amongst us who do not feel safe with difference and change. Are we doomed to a state of eternal unhappiness?

Stephen Porges, PhD. (2011) found that without a foundation of safety, nothing creative or bold can happen. Creative and bold means venturing away from safety, doing something different, against the tide, unpopular, RISK-y. For some, even taking a new route home from work threatens that safety and homeostasis. Besides, isn’t safety, not change, what most of us grasp for, work towards, long after? A place to call home, our own little piece of terre firma. A dependable car to drive. A set of family and friends on whom we can depend for love, kindness, acceptance, and support?

Let’s slow down this happiness gig

We’ve all done this. You read a book or an article, you get excited, you fantasize about the new you. A day or two passes, you forget about the book and go back to your previous mode of operation. Sounds a lot like Isabel’s shopping. That’s why we’re going to take this S-L-O-W. Change is scary. Pick one new thing to do every day for a week. Notice what happens.

Unpleasant/negative/bad experiences wire the brain. Pleasant/positive/good experiences rewire it.

The rest of the good news

The more good news I mentioned in the beginning of this article is this. You can have all the happiness you want. Intentional activities rewire the brain and lead to more and more happiness. But don’t believe me. Try it for yourself. Let me know what you learn.


The How of Happiness web site, Sonya Lyubomirsky, PhD. Professor of Psychology at the University of California Riverside

Happy (2012) a documentary

The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation, (Porges, S., 2011)

Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming depression with mindfulness and self-compassion. (Goldstein, 2015)