Like lobbing a tennis ball and bowing the cello; like running marathons and understanding calculus; like writing haiku and winning video games, daily practice moves us toward mastery, or in Malcom Gladwell’s words, expertise.
“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”
Let’s face it. Some of us will never master calculus or video games no matter how many hours we put in. Each of us has inherent strengths and limitations. Your zooming will be another person’s challenge and her zoom your challenge. Except for those exceptionally gifted outliers who have multiple or extreme talents and strengths, each of us will develop mastery or expertise to a level on a continuum. There’s only so much room at the high end for a great singing voice, Amy Winehouse. Or an ability to move words around into brilliant prose, David Foster Wallace. Or…right time right place right business acumen, right combination of many strengths, Mark Zuckerberg. You get the picture. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. Just as practice alone does not guarantee expertise; inherent abilities don’t guarantee mastery. If you have developed expertise in any area, you know it wasn’t just nature or practice. You have to have both.
The math experts have already calculated that 10,000 hours is 4 hours of practice a day, 365 days a year for 6.85 years.
Mastering happiness with practice
What about happiness? Can happiness be mastered with practice? Or is happiness limited to those who are genetically predisposed to being happy? A guarded yes and no. You may recall from the article More Happiness…Please? that researchers have determined that we can change 40% of our experience of happiness through intentional activities. The other 60% is divided into what’s referred to as base level happiness (50%) and external stuff like cars, houses, vacations, income (10%). Researchers also believe that money buys happiness but only up to $50-$80k a year, depending on the study you read. I’m not sure if those numbers apply to living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Manhattan, and other expensive places in the US, or what living on $50k a year is like in more affordable communities. I haven’t seen any research that includes cost of living or population density when determining the income to happiness ratio. Cost of living and income aside for a moment, we’re only talking about 10% of our experience of happiness.
Happiness practice: Intentional activities
We can’t do too much about our base level of happiness or positive affect. Are you an Eyore or a Tigger? Do you wear rose-colored glasses or dark shades? Are you more of an optimist or doubter? There is no right or wrong. Like the strengths continuum, each of us falls somewhere on the happiness base level / positive affect continuum. Genetics, chronic mental and physical health challenges, effects of environment and early childhood experiences–nature and nurture–all contribute. Therapy may help, but it’s important to normalize your expectations about happiness. Martin Seligman, PhD. (Authentic Happiness, 2004, p. 35) wrote about his friend Len who he described as reserved. Successful in business and leisure activities, but not so in relationships, Len’s ability to think logically and inability to emote warm, fuzzy feelings contributed to his becoming a champion bridge player and multi-millionaire. After hearing from women that there was something wrong with him, and years of psychoanalysis, Len took Seligman’s advice and moved to Europe. Sure enough, in a new culture that moves at a different pace than the US and values introversion more than extroversion…he met a woman he married and found acceptance.
Trait or state?
Happiness is a trait and a state. “A trait is a relatively permanent individual characteristic” while a state is “…a temporary change in one’s personality” (allpsych.com). Joy, pleasure, and all of their synonyms–delight, jubilation, triumph, exultation,rejoicing, gladness, glee, exhilaration, exuberance, elation,euphoria, bliss, ecstasy, rapture, and happiness–are states. You might experience pleasure, a state, when you eat Three Twins organic mint confetti ice cream on a cake cone, or take a hot bubble bath on a cold day, or play with FOO your Frenchie or Ziggy your cat.
Trait happiness is how you feel overall most days regardless of the activity, environment, or even state of mind (for the most part).
Happiness here in Southern California, in the shadow of Hollywood, is an extroverted, gregarious, flashy, almost superficial series of activities strung together in an endless stream of pleasurable states that look like trait happiness. When the activities end, though, so might the “happy” feeling. And so there is a sense of frenzied reaching for that next hit of pleasure. That’s not to say that happiness cannot be achieved through activity.
Trait happiness is an inner sense of peace, calm, contentment, acceptance of self, others, and the life experience. This is the Buddhist definition of happiness or in Bhutanese, chogshay.
Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom on the eastern edge of the Himalayas best known for its measurement of GNH…Gross National Happiness. The Bhutanese word “chogshay” loosely translates to a fundamental contentment that is independent of a person’s current emotional state.*
For instance, someone could be in the throws of rage or feel horrendously ill, but their underlying sense of well-being could still be intact. At first, the notion of chogshay was completely alien to Cordaro [Daniel Cordaro, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley and Yale University], who was used to defining well-being in terms of what he had, how he was feeling and what he was striving for. But through a process of recognizing the universality of many human emotions, and after completing a round of Buddhist meditation in Thailand, Cordaro experienced the chogshay state.(livescience.com)
Everyone’s jumped on the happiness bandwagon. If you search “how to be happier” on Google (26.8 million results), on the first page alone, you will find articles from some reputable and lesser known sources.
3 Ways to be Happy on WikiHow.
How to be happy: Tips for cultivating contentment on Mayoclinic.org
All of the how-to lists reference Positive Psychology articles and books and the studies scientists have been doing for the past two and a half decades. Reading these articles can feel overwhelming. Or, like New Year’s resolutions, exciting and promising for a few days or a week.
Cultivating happiness takes time, dedication, and determination. In other words, practice, practice, practice. Do what Jonathan Haidt (The Happiness Hypothesis) has his students do. Choose one step, way, suggestion or tip for increasing happiness. Practice that for a day. At the end of the day, agree (with yourself or a partner) to do it for another day. And so on until you’ve practiced for a month. Journal your experience of happiness. Many people begin with gratitude. What are you grateful for? Make a list of three things before going to bed each night.
- I’m grateful for my physical and mental health.
- I’m grateful for FOO my Frenchie.
- I’m grateful for clean, running water.
You get the idea.
Or, if you’re not feeling particularly grateful, try this more basic practice. Smile when you think of it. Smile and take a breath. The act of turning up the corners of your mouth changes your sense of well-being. Try it. 🙂
Give and receive 8 hugs a day.
Or do as the Bhutanese do and think of death five times a day (bbc.com).
After 10,000 hours of practice, you should, according to Gladwell, achieve mastery, but if all the science is accurate, you won’t have to wait that long. You may even feel happier right away!