What I have learned about "happiness"

Have you found the road that leads to happiness?
Have you found the road that leads to happiness?

Recently I watched a superb and inspiring documentary that speaks about the crown jewel that every human person is searching for - HAPPY. The film takes the audience to different parts of the world and examine what being happy means to different people. It's fascinating to listen to what happiness researchers as well as common people have to say about this topic.


If you were to google "happiness" today, I bet you're gonna get tonnes of results. In the last decade of so, this topic has been studied, reviewed and discussed extensively. Everyone seems to have opinions about it. To feed my curious mind, I too got into the action and started to read and give serious thought about what being happy means to me.


Today, I like to share with you what I have learned about happiness over the years.


1. Happiness is a state of mind, not a goal.

Ask a random person on the street what is his/her goal in life and chances are the answer is "I want to be happy." That's exactly where the film started.


I was introduced to a person who is found to be as happy as any American in the film. Manoj Singh is a rickshaw puller who lives in Kolkata Slum in a tarped house with his family. He is happy that he has a job and he is happiest when he returns home to the smiling faces of his children and wife. In addition to his family, he leans on the strong support of his community. He claims that he is very happy.


By any standard, Manoj's living arrangement is harsh and far from luxurious. How can he be happy?


In It's all in Your Head, the author claims that true happiness comes not from material or external factors. Rather it is from internal factors and that happiness is a mental and not physical state.


Another book presents findings that life circumtances, be it positive or negative, contributes only 10% to overall happiness. Would you like to harbour a guess what contributes to the rest of 90%? You will get the answer later in this post.


In recent years, I begin to realise and consider myself to be mostly happy. Is my life perfect? Are all my dreams fulfilled? Hardly. I have been out of a "proper job" for the last 3 years. There are still many things that I like to pursue and yet I can categorically say that I am happy.


Main reason is because I am mindful and grateful for all blessings and opportunities that life has given me. My younger self certainly has a different notion of what happines looks like but my experience teaches me otherwise. 


2. Happiness doesn't come from tomorrow, it comes from today.

"I will be happy when I lose that last ten pounds."

"I will be happy when I get that IT bag."

"I will be happy when I find my prince charming."

"I will be happy when I have a baby."

"I will be happy when...." (Fill in the blank for yourself)


We hear this all too often and personally, I am guilty of point four. Ladies and gentlemen, we have all succumbed to "arrival fallacy". We think that we will enjoy lasting happiness when the desire of our hearts materializes. It makes sense right? Hold it for a moment.


Dan Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness cautions that people often overestimate how much impact both good and bad events can have on their future happiness. Our foresight of tomorrows and overestimation of the satisfactions we derive tend to be inaccurate.

Recall the time when you have finally gotten your prized possession. How long did the happiness last? How long did it last till you set your eyes on the next "IT item"?


Herein lies the problem, which psychologists term as hedonic threadmill; our goal is visible and yet it is beyond reach because we constantly adapt. When we pin our hopes on future, we miss the good that is in our lives today because our attention is not there.


Hedonic threadmill doesn't only occur for material possessions. I remember watching a hilarious musical where the protagonist started at the bottom of the rank and slowly making his way to the top. When he eventually became the CEO of the company, he asked himself, "What's next?"


Living in the future almost always doesn't bring us happiness but misery. When we keep looking at what's missing in our lives, it is hard to be mindful of what is going well. The secret really is to practice gratitude. Start by drawing your attention to what is going well in your life right now. Make a list of it and keep that list accessible so that you can always refer to it.


3. Think of happiness as a learned behaviour

I mentioned that happiness researchers have found that there are three factors that determine happiness and one of them is external circumstances (10%). The other two factors are genetic set point (50%) and intentional activities (40%).


The idea of set point for happines is similar to the set point for weight in that they are predetermined. Some people are just happier than others and vice versa. External circumstances refer to whether we are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, thin or fat etc. Interestingly it only contributes to 10% of our happiness. I guess this provides a good explanation as to why Manoj is happy.


We have little control over our genetic predispositions and some of the life circumstances are beyond our control. The good news is we have the power to increase or decrease our happiness by focusing on intentional activities and behaviours as well as changing our mindset and attitudes. 40% is a lot for us to maneuver if we make the decision to choose happiness. Coupled with proactive actions, living a happier life is certainly within reach.


I tend to agree with the experts that we need to think of happiness as a skill like how we learn how to play the violin or golf. It seems weird to consider that we need to "work" at being happy. If you look at it in the other way, we do work at being happy by working on getting the promotion at work, rising the rank, getting a better paid job etc. These are mostly targeted at external circumstances though.


The film ended with four suggestions for intentional behaviours or activities, which I find myself fully agreeing. These are:


  • Engage in play. Create opportunities where we can have fun either on our own, with family and children or friends.


  • Go for new and novel experiences. Get a new hobby, travel, try out a new sport etc. I am a firm believer of going for new and novel experiences. This stint has provided me with invaluable opportunties to stretch myself and the boundaries. Whenever I overcome a challenge or encounter a new experience, it brings me great joy and satisfaction. My husband and I seek out opportunities to have new experience all the time.


  • Build a strong relationship with your spouse, family, friends and community. People who have extensive network of support tend to be happier. Get involved in community whose missions or goals are aligned with yours. This often brings meaning and fulfillment to your life.


  • Practice gratitude, which is one of the ten forms of positivity. Gratitude enables us to be mindful and grateful for what we have. It also helps to keep us in the here and now instead of in the past or future.


4. Choose to live a flourishing life.

The last thing that I learned about "happiness" is that I should not be overly focused on the word "happy". In Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson explains that "happy" is overused and its meaning is too broad to be meaningful. It is way better to focus and cultivate on the ten forms of positivity. "Happy" is also easily confused with pleasure. Here's a lovely quote to differentiate the two:


"Happiness is different from pleasure. Happiness is something to do with struggling, enduring, and accomplishing." ~ George Sheehan


Lastly, I choose and strive to lead a flourishing life that involves positive emotions, ongoing engagement, solid relationships, meaning and accomplishment. To choose something also means having to give up old habits, mindsets and thinking. It an be a slow, long and painful process. Yet, I am optimistic and hopeful that I can train my muscles little by little.


Would you join me in living a more flourishing life? What are your thoughts about this topic? Let's chat.




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