If you could have anything in the world as long as it made you happy, what would it be? Fame? Fortune? Stunning good looks?
Now, any of these things might make you happier. But not nearly as much as you think they would. Because as it turns out, life circumstances have little effect on happiness.
Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky discusses this ‘happiness set-point’ in her book The How of Happiness. Her research suggests that only 10% of happiness comes from life circumstances, while 50% is genetically predetermined and the remaining 40% is the result of your personal outlook.
So, two major takeaways here:
- The things we often believe will make us happy — money, success, good looks — likely won’t.
- 40% of our happiness is determined by our own actions and attitude.
Here are 7 simple tips to help you maximize that 40% and build a happy brain.
Redefine What You Control
One of the biggest drivers of success and happiness is the belief that we control our future — that our actions matter. But as we discussed in our first post on happiness, our brains have evolved to overestimate threats and therefore focus on them even when they’re out of our control. As a result, we end up feeling powerless and hopeless.
But deconstructing a threat or worry and focusing exclusively on what you can control, eliminates needless worry and allows you to take action toward a goal. For example, instead of worrying about the results of an upcoming sales meeting, realize that ultimately you don’t control the decision of this potential client. If they don’t like your product or price, that’s not up to you. But the decision to practice your pitch and get feedback from your boss? That is.
Change Your Counterfacts, Change Your Attitude
A counterfact is an alternative scenario your brain creates to help make sense of a past experience. When you think ‘what if’ or ‘if only I had…’ that’s counterfactual thinking.
New York Times bestselling author Shawn Achor, in his book The Happiness Advantage, illustrates counterfacts with this example:
Imagine you walk into a bank. There are 50 other people in the bank. A robber walks in and fires his weapon once. You are shot in the right arm.
Are you lucky or unlucky? Well, it depends.
On one hand, a gun was fired into a crowd of people, many of them children, yet no one was killed. Yes, you were shot. But it’s only a flesh wound. You could have died.
Now, on the other hand, you just got shot in the goddamn arm. This kind of thing never happens, and there were 50 other bodies in the room. Why couldn’t one of them have absorbed the bullet?
How you feel about this situation depends on which set of counterfacts you use as a comparison. But, here’s the thing: counterfacts are hypothetical. They’re invented. They can never affect reality because they pertain to events that have already happened. So why not choose the one that makes you feel better?
Like, instead of losing your shit over rush hour traffic, sit back in your padded seat, stream your favorite high school hip-hop playlist, and remember that people once had to travel on horseback and in covered wagons.
I recently stumbled on a quote from Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius that’s relevant here:
Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.
Don’t Use Facebook as a Benchmark for Happiness
Heavy Facebook usage is now being linked to increased rates of depression. The problem is that social media broadcasts a distorted reality, one that inflates your peers’ happiness and, by comparison, undercuts yours.
For example, if you’re in your early thirties, then your News Feed is littered with smiling young families. You’ll see first steps, first birthdays, and trips to the zoo. Now, if you’re single, seeing 500 #mywholeworld hashtags everyday might make your life seem empty. But you don’t see the whole picture.
As a new parent, I’ll tell you that anything on Facebook is the best 5% of fatherhood. I won’t post a selfie of me changing a blowout at 4AM. And I’m not going to ‘go live’ to stream some petty argument I had with my wife because we’re both on 3 hours of sleep.
Facebook isn’t a timeline; it’s a highlight reel. It’s a place to post accomplishments, vacations, and fancy dinners with fancy friends. It’s the top 5%, 100% of the time. You can’t measure your life against your newsfeed.
Cancel the Noise
External noise from social and other media isn’t all we have to worry about. There’s that voice inside our head, too. Internal noise is anything negative that distorts reality — a bias, expectation, or preconception.
Noise prevents us from chasing our goals and being happy. It tells the male nursing student that nursing is for women. It’s one bad public speaking experience that reminds you to never speak in public ever again. Or it’s that Justin Bieber song that you kinda dig but force yourself to hate because you’d rather be spiteful than express any positive emotion for the Biebs.
Our brains receive up to 11 million pieces of information every second but can process only 40. So when we fixate on noise, it comes at the expense of positive information. You won’t realize that you can, of course, improve your public speaking with practice or that the rate of male Registered Nurses has increased every year since 1970. And you won’t realize that someone’s persona shouldn’t impact how you feel about his music, no matter how big the shithead.
Stay in the Present
People spend 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than the present. We contemplate the past and worry about what might (or might not) happen in the future. And because our negativity bias makes our brains magnets for negative stimuli, 70% of this ‘mental chatter’ is negative. So not only do we miss out on the moment right in front of us, but we do so often in favor of worrying and self-criticism.
Take in the Good
In his book Hardwiring Happiness, author Rick Hanson stresses the importance of savoring positive experiences, a process he refers to as ‘taking in the good’.
He writes that because positive emotion triggers the release of your brain’s feel good chemical dopamine, staying with a happy moment, and giving it your undivided attention, prolongs dopamine inputs to your brain, which can make it react more intensely to good experiences in the future. So you’re basically training your brain to attain increased levels of happiness, much like building muscle at that gym.
Opportunities to take in the good are everywhere. Take 30 seconds to watch a sunset or sunrise. Smell the fresh bread while you stand in line at Jimmy John’s, and once you get your sandwich, savor every bite because eating activates your brain’s reward center. But make sure you really focus. If you eat while scrolling through Facebook reading some political rant from your old roommate, you’ve missed an opportunity.
Schedule Activities to Undo The Effects of Stress
Another topic discussed in our first post on happiness was that stress once was the key to survival. When our ancestors encountered a threat, like that of a man-eating predator, stress activated the fight-or-flight response preparing them to act quickly and either fight or flee.
In small doses, stress is fine and even beneficial. But in today’s fast-paced work environments, where stressors can pile up by the minute, our bodies overload on the stress hormone cortisol and we experience chronic stress — that feeling of overwhelming anxiety now shown to be linked to the 6 leading causes of death. Fortunately, there are activities that are scientifically proven to undo stress and make you happier, and we’ll cover them in detail in our next post…