The Evidence-Based Guide to Happiness
“All of us want to be happy, even if we don’t admit it openly or choose to cloak our desire in different words.“
Sonja Lyubomirsky from The How of Happiness
In January of 2009, Adolf Mercke put on his coat quietly. He told his wife that he was going into his office for awhile, and drove to the railway tracks near his home. Then, he laid down on the frozen railway tracks, and patiently waited for his death.
At the age of 74, Adolf Mercke was a German billionaire and one of the richest individuals in Germany. He ran a massive business empire consisting of pharmaceuticals, cement manufacturing and recycling, and vehicle manufacturing.
Shortly before he committed suicide, Mercke had suffered huge financial losses amounting to a few hundred million euros. The disconcerting thing was that when Mercke died, he was still a billionaire, with six billion to his name.
Part 1: What is Happiness?
Looking for happiness in beautiful Greece
More than two thousand years ago, Greek philosopher Aristotle concluded that humans sought after happiness more than anything else. Two thousand years later, happiness is still very much a desired state of emotional being for most of us.
Happiness has always been a fascinating subject, but one that seems to defy common sense. For one, individuals (i.e. billionaires) whom we believe would be quite happy do not seem to be that happy after all.
According to Wikipedia, happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being, defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. It shares synonyms with other positive emotions, such as contentment, pleasure, satisfaction, joy and delight.
To put it simply, our layman, non-scientific understanding of happiness is the experience of positive emotions.
However, thanks to the advance of positive psychology, science has began to weigh in on the subject of happiness. Using detailed methodological approaches, big-time psychologists study about what happiness is, and if and how we can be happier.
Let us start with some big ideas on happiness.
01 | Happiness is not the same as Pleasure
The first big idea is that happiness and pleasure are not the same.
When most people seek happiness, they are actually really seeking pleasure. Pleasure is the surge of intense, positive feelings that you experience when you buy a branded bag, go out with friends, eat good food, or get a promotion at work.
Me, when I see chocolate. Or cake.
While pleasure is correlated with happiness, it does not cause happiness. For instance, an individual is seeking pleasure when he or she drinks alcohol. Alcohol helps to create a pleasant hum in our senses, which allows us to disengage from reality for a short period of time. We do feel good after drinking alcohol. However, the act of drinking alcohol does not lend itself to happiness, which is clearly the case when one becomes an alcoholic.
Pleasure tends to masquerade itself as happiness. It does a very convincing job, as we do feel good. However, just like an alcoholic who continues to reach out for another bottle, pleasure is always short-lived and just quite never enough.
“When most people seek happiness, they are actually really seeking pleasure.”
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02 | Happiness is not a Destination
Most people believe that reaching a certain destination in life will bring about lasting happiness. This pushes them to work towards achieving certain goals, such as having success at work, increased wealth, or having the perfect relationship.
Although this seems very logical, many have also shared that they do not quite feel the sense of happiness they had imagined after reaching their goals.
This is because of two reasons.
Firstly, this is because we are generally quite bad at estimating how good or how bad we will feel when something happens. We tend to overestimate the value or pleasure of something that we do not have, such as a new car or a job promotion.
Everybody is evolutionarily programmed this way. When was the last time you thought that you absolutely had to have something (a.k.a. Coldplay concert tickets) because it would complete your life?
Secondly, this is because of something called hedonic adaptation. We tend to adapt to the changes in our life circumstances pretty easily, so what initially seemed so special to us quickly becomes the new norm.
You would have imagined that winning the lottery would be a life-changing experience. However, researchers actually found that lottery winners are not any happier than any one of us one year after winning the lottery.
03 | Happiness exists on a Continuum
Most people believe that happiness, and whatever is on the flip side of it, exists as two distinct categories. This means that if we are not experiencing the intense, positive feelings that masquerades itself as happiness, we believe that we are not happy. At the same time, if we are feeling unhappy about something, then we cannot be happy.
This perception of happiness as an either-or emotional state makes it extremely difficult for us to be happy. In fact, the odds are pretty much stacked against us. This is because life is never perfect, and there will always be things that do not quite fall into place.
But does that mean that we are not happy?
A more helpful way to view happiness is to perceive it on an infinite continuum. With that, people stop trying to fit themselves into the ‘Happy’ or the ‘Unhappy’ camp. This also means that it will not be possible to find the happiest person on earth, because anybody can choose to be infinitely happy. Pretty awesome idea.
Hence, instead of searching for the answer to ‘How can I be happy?’, a more useful question that we should ask ourselves is, ‘How can I be happier?’ The first question is one that has no answers, because it assumes that the state of happiness is permanent once you get there. It is also unhelpful because it implies that we are not happy, which might not be the case.
What matters more is where you are on this continuum and how you can move yourself towards being happier.
“A more useful question that we should ask ourselves is, ‘How can I be happier?'”
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04 | Happiness is in the Process
“Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.”
Tal Ben-Shahar from Happier
If happiness is not in the destination, then what exactly is it?
Happiness lies in the process of living a personally meaningful existence. Whatever is personally meaningful to us, happiness is in both the exciting and mundane parts of the journey. Instead of being a temporal emotional state dependent on external circumstances, the experience of happiness comes from within.
While it is certainly exhilarating to receive a promotion or get a new car, it is important to recognize that the simple things are a part of our journey as well. It is about being okay with the mundane tasks, such as paying taxes and doing household chores.
Part 2: Is it Possible to Be Happier?
The answer is yes, to a certain extent.
Research has found that for both positive and negative life events, happiness levels tend to return to a set baseline after a certain period of time. Remember those lottery winners who were not any happier than they were before one year after winning the lottery?
Our baseline happiness, or happiness set point, is a level of happiness that we naturally tend to gravitate to. This baseline level differs from individual to individual. This means that a naturally grumpy lottery winner is going to be slightly less grumpy for a certain period of time, before returning to his original grumpy version.
What contributes to our baseline level?
50% of our baseline happiness is determined by our genes. Another 10% is determined by our life circumstances. This leaves us with the remaining 40%, which is where our actions can make a difference.
Part 3: How Can We Be Happier?
“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.”
Becoming happier is something that takes work.
Think about your profession or a hobby that greatly interests you.
Just like you work on getting better every day …
If you are looking for something that makes you happier instantly, then I would like to call you out. What you are trying to seek is pleasure, and this is not a guide on pleasure. To be honest, I think we are all very good at seeking pleasure already. #toughlove
01 | Express Gratitude
Research has found that people who consistently express gratitude are happier, more energetic, and have better physical health. They are also less likely to be depressed, anxious or stressed.
The practice of gratitude helps us to appreciate the things that we already have. Increasing positive thoughts about our life circumstances has an impact on our mood and other physiological functions in our body.
Expressing gratitude can be a personal practice through the form of a gratitude journal. It can also be an activity done with a friend or a romantic partner.
Bliss is an app that contains a collection of positive psychology exercises related to gratitude and happiness. I used the app for my daily gratitude practice before switching to pen and paper journaling (see below). I like how the exercises guide me to reflect a little deeper.
Currently only available for Android and Google Chrome
The Five Minute Journal is a structured daily journal that encourages you to start and end each day with gratitude. It helps you to focus on the good in your life, become more mindful, and live with intention.
Also available as an iOS app
The SELF Journal is a structured 13-week daily journal that allows you to pen down gratitude at the start and end of each day. It is an excellent tool for goal planning, and daily action planning, keeping you focused on what is important. I am currently on my second journal, and I love it!
02 | Cultivate Optimism
Did you know that you can learn optimism?
Being an optimist or pessimist depends a lot on our explanatory styles. Our explanatory style is the way we explain to ourselves (i.e. our self-talk) why we experience a particular event, whether it is positive or negative.
Two people can face the same situation but look at it in entirely different ways. For example, two people may face the same situation of not being able to find a job. An optimist may attribute this to the poor economy, while a pessimist may attribute this to his or her own inadequacies.
These thoughts lead both individuals to feel entirely different about themselves. When viewing the situation as not personal and not permanent, the self-worth of the optimist is intact, and he or she continues on with the job search. In contrast, the pessimist starts to feel bad about him or herself.
The first thing you can do to cultivate optimism is to take note of the things that you are telling yourself.
When your partner cancels on you for your date, you immediately think that he or she is losing interest in the relationship.
Challenge that thought. Is there evidence for what I think, or am I making an assumption? How can I find out if what I think is true? What other reasons are there that he or she might cancel?
You can use this worksheet on challenging negative thoughts that I frequently use with my clients as part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
03 | Practice Acts of Kindness
Research has found that people who consistently practice acts of kindness experience a significant boost in their happiness levels.
These acts may be as simple as giving up a seat on the train, making charity donations, or buying a gift for someone else. Doing good for others requires us to recognize their needs, shifting our attention from ourselves to others. These interactions are also usually positive experiences (surprising a friend with a cake!), which generates plenty of positive emotions.
Just in case you are wondering where to start, New Life Stories is a non-profit organization that we have been very proud to support. The organization provides children of incarcerated mothers with essential educational skills such as reading and pro-social skills. You can help by donating books, volunteering as a reader, or making a cash donation.
04 | Nurture Social Relationships
“If you want to predict how happy someone is, or how long she will live (and if you are not allowed to ask about her genes or personality), you should find out about her social relationships.”
Johnathan Hadt from The Happiness Hypothesis
Research has found that the quantity and quality of our social relationships make a difference to our happiness. People who were very happy were found to have strong ties with their friends and family, and commitment to spending time with them.
An important aspect of these social relationships was the ability to self-disclose and talk about personal issues. People can have many friends whom they spend plenty of time with, but still feel lonely if they are unable to talk about their personal life.
Make consistent effort to set aside time for your friends and family, and make sure that that time counts. Express appreciation for them, celebrate their successes, and support them in their downtime.
05 | Develop Coping Strategies
What do we do when we feel angry, sad or anxious?
Bad things happen sometimes, and sometimes things do not quite go our way. There will be days whereby we will wake up feeling terrible, maybe for no good reason at all.
Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were two severely depressed individuals, who managed to deal with their mental demons and do great work.
The truth is, it is impossible not to experience negative feelings. How do we fight these feelings when they come, and still make sure that we function well?
Build up a tool box of coping strategies that belongs uniquely to you. What works in making you feel better, and what does not? It could be going out with your friends, having a workout, singing karaoke, or cooking. Keep experimenting with what works for you, and don’t stop until you get a tool box of Swiss army knives.
Bonus | Living to your greatest potential
“If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”
Abraham Maslow, the psychologist behind the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, describes the good life as one directed towards self-actualization. Self-actualization is not just an end state of being, but the act of living up to our fullest potential. It entails continuously working towards being a better version of ourselves.
Instead of working on our weaknesses, one way to live up to our fullest potential is to build on our strengths. Martin Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology, suggests finding ways to use our signature strengths in our everyday lives. This helps us to gradually move from approaching our daily work as a ‘job’, to a deeper, more emotionally satisfying ‘calling’.
Take the test: VIA Character Strengths
What are your signature strengths? How can you use them every day? How can you use your signature strengths to forward something that is greater than yourself?
Part 4: The Expert Panel
Martin Seligman is the founding father of positive psychology, and the elected President of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998. He first identified happiness as the focus of positive psychology, then refined it to well-being. Some of his big ideas are PERMA as the five measurable aspects of well-being, and the focus on building core virtues and signature strengths for a good life.
Learned Optimism (2006)
Authentic Happiness (2004)
Dan Gilbert is a social psychologist and writer. He is the author of the international bestseller Stumbling on Happiness. His TED talk on happiness has been viewed over 14 million times. Dan Gilbert is the researcher behind the fascinating study on lottery winners and paraplegics, and on affective forecasting.
The Surprising Science of Happiness (TED Video)
Stumbling on Happiness (2005)
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian positive psychologist. He researches extensively on the topics of happiness and creativity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi came up with the concept of ‘flow’, which is a mental state of being whereby one is fully immersed in the process of the activity. Increasing the number of flow experiences in our lives increases our well-being.
Tal Ben-Shahar is a consultant and lecturer in the areas of positive psychology and leadership. He created the most popular course in Harvard University to date, ‘Positive Psychology 101’.
His big ideas include the four archetypes of people – the rat racer, the hedonist, the nihilist, and the happiness archetype.
The Pursuit of Perfect (2010)
Sonja Lyubomirsky is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. She researches extensively on the topic of human happiness. Some of her big ideas are the concept of baseline happiness, gratitude, optimism, and acts of kindness as ways to increase happiness.
The How of Happiness (2009)