Happiness breaks the mold for those pesky naysayers always claiming that too much of a good or pleasurable thing is inevitably bad. Happiness, while seemingly so simple and self-explanatory, is truly a complex phenomenon.
For such a desirable commodity, it is definitely worthwhile to do a bit of enlightened research. To increase understanding and therefore control it is important to focus on three aspects of happiness: the nature of the stimulus; the comparison dynamic; and the biological underpinnings. With greater knowledge and control, a game plan can be set up to increase life happiness.
The Nature of the Stimulus for Happiness
If asked, “what would make you happy?”, most people rattle off a list of expected items, such as more money, more friends, a bigger house, a better car, ad nauseum. Surprisingly, studies have shown that more is not necessarily better. Using the major stimulus of winning the lottery, it has been determined that within a year following the event, the average winner’s happiness was often only slightly better or about the same as preceding the win. In fact, more frequent minor positive events often have a greater impact on psychological well-being than less frequent major rewards.
Another aspect of the positive stimulus is its expectedness. Finding a dollar bill on the street by accident can make one happier than being paid an expected $15 for doing a job. Finally, the degree of involvement in the stimulus event is important in determining happiness. Being on the winning team in which you played a very active role makes one happier than being on the winning team in which one did little to nothing.
Comparative Values in Happiness
Much of the value of a stimulus or a reward lies in its worth compared to other rewards. In Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang’s Welcome To Your Brain, a situation is described in which earning $10,000 a year less would make one happier than earning more. Someone earning $50,000 a year compared to the average pay of $40,000 a year for that job would be happier than making $60,000 a year when the average job salary was $70,000. Individuals are happier because they are earning more in comparison to others.
People tend to be unhappier when they have to choose among many options in a store than when there are fewer because there is the greater tendency to compare what was purchased to all that was available in the store.
Linked with comparisons in determining happiness is the phenomenon of expectations. When we have unrealistically high expectations, we tend to be unhappy more often given that the results usually are not aligned with our desires. This is not to say that the key to happiness is walking around with low expectations. In fact, having more positive expectations in general is linked with happiness.
The Role of Biology in Happiness
The study of genetics has yielded fascinating and useful information about happiness. Obviously, when major stressors occur, such as divorce, loss of health, death of a loved one, and unemployment, there is a significant dip in happiness. What is fascinating, however, is that with time most people return to near or to at what appears to be a happiness baseline with which they were born. Studies of twins raised apart and together reveal the surprisingly minor role played by life events and situations in overall happiness. One estimate is that these life events play only a 10% role in determining happiness, while 50% of happiness is based on the biological baseline. Thus, the remaining 40% is available for individuals to use to create their desired level of happiness!
Searching deeper biologically, we come across the reward neurotransmitter dopamine which is inextricably linked with happiness. Dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure and well-being. When one expects a reward, dopamine is released in response. Likewise, when one has a desire, dopamine is also released. Therefore, behaviors that increase dopamine and thus pleasure tend to be self-reinforcing. This is how we learn much about positive behaviors and tend to increase our pursuit of them. It is up to individuals to choose healthy rather than unhealthy behaviors and thoughts.
In association, when an expected reward is not received or a desire is unmet, dopamine levels plummet and distress and even a sense of threat are experienced. Having positive expectations in general increases dopamine levels. Besides pleasure and happiness, even problem solving and cognitive performances improve with greater dopamine .
Game Plan to Maximize Happiness
Given that we have an approximate 40% of latitude within happiness to control and create, there are specific measures to take to increase the likelihood of faring well:
- Schedule frequent, small positive events daily
- Practice behaviors that lead to positive outcomes
- Minimize or extinguish daily or repetitive irritating hassles
- More sex correlates with more rewarding activity and the sex-happiness link does not diminish with more sex
- Daily think about several positive events that occurred and what caused them/write them down
- Write a daily gratitude list and review it several times a week
- Maintain positive but realistic expectations
- Strive to be open-minded and accept change as a given
- Step away from self-absorption and be of help to others several times a day
- Watch out for irrational thinking and blowing minor negative events out of proportion
While there is evidence of a biologically based pre-established baseline of happiness, the good news is that it is not fixed. In addition, the fact that right thinking and positive behavior have a powerful impact on experienced happiness ought to make most people significantly happier.