Happiness is?

Leading researchers offer insights into what brings us joy

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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, July / August 2012

What would really make you happy? Winning the lottery? Getting a new job? Pursuing a lifelong dream?

The quest for happiness is universal. Most people like being happy, yet defining happiness isn't easy. Happiness is a subject that interests humankind, and over the last few decades there has been significant research on happiness. In our efforts to understand what produces that real sense of satisfaction and meaning in life, researchers have gathered insights from people all over the globe. And while the answers may seem simple, they may not always be easy to achieve.

True happiness is more than a fleeting feeling or emotion; those change throughout our day. Happiness or "subjective well-being," as it is referred to by researchers in the field of positive psychology, is a longer lasting, more stable state of mind or mood. Happiness, in this sense, is how satisfied and meaningful our lives are, based on our own personal assessment. It begins with the question "Am I truly happy?" And knowing what to look for in the answer may help us to achieve more happiness and meaning.

You may be thinking that happiness depends on the individual. After all, what makes me happy may not be the same things that make you happy. While there are differences among individuals, groups, cultures, and even countries, there are a surprising number of key ingredients of happiness that cross all boundaries.

In his book, The World Book of Happiness, teacher and journalist Leo Bormans asked leading researchers from all over the world to share their findings on happiness and distill their research into key ingredients. The result is an intriguing collection of what we currently know about happiness from different places on the globe.

While a number of questions remain unanswered, this information can help us gain insight on what makes us happy and think about how we might want to channel our energy and time to the things that really matter most to us and give us the greatest satisfaction in life.

Many people think that they would be happier if they had more money, and they would be right, to a point. People do benefit from living comfortably and having access to other resources. It may be surprising to learn that money only goes so far in terms of happiness. Beyond a comfortable existence; more money does not buy us any more happiness. One Australian study found that money increased people's happiness up to a gross household income of $100,000 and beyond that, people were not much happier. The researchers point out that once a person has what they generally need and want, money cannot solve other issues in a person's life like a bad marriage or troublesome children.

What about getting a new job? There is a link between what a person does with their time and happiness. The key ingredient is having a sense of meaning and purpose. It has less to do with status and achievement and more to do with feeling that your job or role is making an important contribution and that your efforts make a positive difference in your life and in the lives of others.

What about pursuing your dreams? The research does link happiness to being able to control your life and make decisions for yourself - this is called autonomy. People who feel stuck and unable to make positive change in their lives are less happy than those who make those changes. Our own perception of our ability to change is individual, and some of us are more comfortable making changes while others will focus on the reasons why they can't make a change.

But how much influence can we have on our own happiness? Some of us see the glass half empty rather than half full, and that's not likely to change, right? Well, researchers also wondered about how much of a role genetics plays and how much is within our own hands. One Californian researcher found that each of us seems to have a "happiness set point," which is like a baseline we return to, even after major challenges and triumphs. Some of us have a higher set point for happiness while others' set point is set lower. They have to work harder to keep an optimistic outlook. This research shows that about 50 per cent of our happiness is related to this set point, another 10 per cent is attributed to life circumstances and the remaining 40 per cent represents factors that we have the capacity to change. These are things that we make choices about that directly affect our satisfaction and happiness in life.

All of the studies on happiness and life satisfaction point to the importance of positive social relationships as a key ingredient of personal well-being. The research tells us that we benefit in a variety of ways from having rich, meaningful connections to others such as through our family, friends, colleagues and the wider social community.

Why are relationships so important? Well, it turns out that relationships play a big role in our day-today lives. Challenges and problems are eased with the support of caring people, and good times are more fun when shared with others.

And finally, happiness comes easier to those who are able to experience gratitude for what they already have in their lives. We spend considerable time and energy striving to succeed and to make more money, only to discover that the things that truly hold the most significance in our lives are right in front of us, every day.

We all experience happiness to some degree, and in fact, most people say they are quite happy. It's good to know that we have the ability to take the time to think about the ingredients that matter the most to us so that we can discover our own recipe for happiness.

Laurie McPherson is a Mental Health Promotion Co-ordinator in the Winnipeg Health Region.


Five key ingredients of happiness

Nurture positive, meaningful relationships with others

Spend time and share the ups and downs of life with close family and friends.

Focus beyond yourself

Find ways to contribute and give back through helping others, sharing your talents and skills, embracing your spirituality.

Live with gratitude

Look at what you already have in your life, show appreciation to others and find three good things about your day.

Lead your own life

Recognize your ability to make positive change in your life, see beyond the barriers and learn something new.

Have fun!

Live in the moment, see the good side of life, share a laugh and celebrate what's right in the world.

Source: The World Book of Happiness: The Knowledge and Wisdom of One Hundred Happiness Professors from All Around the World, Leo Bormans, Firefly Books, 2011.


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