Nobody has ever demonstrated a clear correlation between the circumstances of life and happiness. It’s entirely possible the guy living in the mega-mansion with supermodels using his anatomy as playground equipment is the most miserable person on earth. Though there are certainly circumstances that can prevent happiness, they are much less frequent than people tend to believe. If you aren’t happy in your life it’s far more likely the problem lies within yourself, not in your surroundings and circumstances.
As an example, in the last 15 years I’ve dealt with repeated eye surgeries to prevent blindness, kidney failure, kidney transplant, divorce, employer bankruptcy, multiple broken bones, a subarachnoid hemorrhagic stroke, and the slow death from cancer of both my parents, as well as the usual random craptastrophies of life. Yet for most of that time it’s also been the happiest period of my life.
If you’re in prop trading or alternative medicine that perfect correlation may have you rushing to emulate such an obvious path to happiness, but it’s not quite that simple. The baseline level of each person’s happiness appears to be largely genetically determined. Events, both good and bad, push you away from that level for a while but are quickly adjusted to and soon you’re back where you started. Lottery winners tend to take about 6 months to complete the round trip. Major health problems have more lasting effects on happiness, but less you’d expect and significant mean reversion still takes place within a short period of time.
That doesn’t mean you’re stuck with what your genes have ordained. Looking at an early photo of me (here) it’s pretty clear I wasn’t blessed with the most cheerful genes around, but I’ve stumbled into a few ways to game the system and squeeze more satisfaction and happiness out of life. Here are some to try:
- Mindfulness: It’s hard to enjoy anything without paying attention to it, and life is no different. Paying attention to the little things focuses your mind on the present, and in doing so eliminates many of the negative emotions people experience. Guilt and regret concern the past. Anxiety, worry, and doubt concern the future. Spend more time in the present and your default state is bound to improve.
- Relationships: Nobody else can make you happy if you can’t be happy by yourself, but being in a loving, sexual relationship definitely greases the skids. Since you unavoidably spend more time with yourself than anyone else, start by being in one with yourself (my ophthalmologists have assured me that wasn’t the cause of my eye problems).
- Challenge: When things come too easily it’s hard not to feel bored and purposeless, and spend too much time dwelling on your lot in life. Finding something that uses your abilities to their limits generates a sense of engagement, purpose and satisfaction.
- Exercise: A subcategory of challenge but with the added benefits of decreased stress, improved health, increased energy, and better sexual function. Regardless what else is going on in life completing an hour of exercise gives you a feeling of control and capability that is hard to match.
- Humor: When you lose the ability to laugh at life you are sunk. I’ve yet to be in a situation where I couldn’t find something to laugh about. Whether telling my dad the last time I saw him that “if I’d known I’d be wiping your ass someday I would have changed my own damn diapers” or simply coming up with a ludicrous restatement of a news story, there’s always some way of looking at things that can lift the spirits of you and those around you. Take a step back and appreciate the ridiculousness of it all.
- Variety: New experiences, new ideas, new skills, new people – it really doesn’t matter what you choose. No matter how great today was, if you had to live it every day for the next 10 years it would quickly lose its appeal. A sense of mystery about someone makes them more attractive and it can do the same for how you feel about yourself. Keep yourself guessing a little. Try something new. Act like a child. When is the last time you were on a swing set or monkey-bars, or jumped in a puddle? Of course people will think you look foolish – that stick up their butt impairs proper neural function – but secretly they will be totally jealous.
- Practice: Much of your emotional life is the result of habitual patterns of thought. If you find yourself feeling negative, derail that train of thought by taking the opposite side of the argument; point out the fallacious assumptions behind your view. If you do this often enough your mind will tire of being frustrated and streamline the process by not starting down that track in the first place. Have part of your brain become the internal auditor of your self talk. You’ll be surprised what it finds.
- Let it happen:. Humans are very poor at predicting how they will feel in future situations, and in predicting what will make them happy. Turning happiness into a struggle, dependent on having X, Y and Z before you can be happy, virtually guarantees you will never find it. Happiness, like every other emotion, evaporates when examined too closely. Opportunities for happiness are everywhere. Don’t try to force it.
Focus on one or two things on the list for a while each day. It’s an impossible goal to be happy all the time, and probably not advisable either. Ups and downs are a necessary part of coping and motivation, but limiting the downs to near your baseline level rather than the darkest reaches of the cellar is definitely achievable.
It’s a limited time offer so [gently] pull that stick out of your butt and get started!
For further reading:
Happiness: The science behind your smile, Daniel Nettle
Happiness: The Nature and Nurture of Joy and Contentment, David Lykken
The Psychology of Happiness, Michael Argyle
Stumbling On Happiness, Daniel Gilbert