Are we truly happy? What does happiness mean in complex and fast-changing times like these, and how can we ensure that it is in the cards for us?
These questions and others are addressed in Jonathan Haidt’s “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.” A social psychologist, Haidt finds answers in a variety of places, including religious writings, the military, and wisdom from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Plato, the Dalai Lama, Nietzsche, Muhammad, Meng Tzu and Freud.
Happiness is Temporary
The fact is that what makes me happy does not necessarily make you happy. And happiness over time can wane because, as human beings living in an ever-evolving world, we are hard-wired to adapt to our surroundings.
What does that mean? Haidt talks about a 1978 study that compared the happiness and contentment levels of lottery winners and those paralyzed in horrible accidents. Naturally, at the time of each life-changing event, the lottery winners were over the moon and the quadriplegics were the polar opposite, to say the least.
But then, over time, both groups adapted to their own “new normal” and reverted to the levels of happiness they experienced prior to their worlds being shaken up. All this happened within a year.
As Haidt sums up: “People’s judgments about their present state are based on whether it is better or worse than the state to which they have become accustomed.”
So when things are really good, we adapt to expecting really good things. And if those expectations are not met, even if things are still better than most others would expect, we are spoiled and become disappointed—and unhappy. Quadriplegics do not expect as much as millionaires do, so anything that beats their expectations of zero can make them happy.
In other words, people’s happiness mostly depends on the relationship between their external circumstances and those of their recent past.
Doesn’t Genetic Predisposition Have a Role?
Haidt says we all have a fixed set point for happiness that varies from person to person based on genetics. But that set point is actually a range, and Haidt says that between 50% and 80% of our happiness genetically is predetermined.
And we have control over where we are in that 50% to 80% range, based on external, non-genetic factors. One set of external factors is the conditions, whether static (eg your age, race, or your height) or variable (eg your wealth, or marital status). The other set of external factors is the voluntary activities in which you engage (eg meditation, exercise, learning a new skill or taking a vacation).
The Happiness Formula
I love seeing concepts expressed as mathematical formulas, and here is the one Haidt offers up:
H (happiness level) = S (set point or range) + C (conditions) + V (voluntary activities)
- S is genetically predetermined, so we are stuck with that but it is a range
- C cannot be controlled very much by the individual
- V can affect where we are in the S set range as well as our overall happiness level.
As it’s the V variable that can make us happy, regardless of our S and C, it really is in our control how happy we can be.
Here are just some of the V or voluntary, activities that Haidt recommends to add to our H, or happiness:
- Remove sources of noise. It creates stress and impairs cognition.
- Meditate. It results in increased self-esteem, empathy and trust.
- Avoid conspicuous consumption. It’s a zero-sum game that will never end.
- Find a job we really enjoy. OK, that is obvious. You will find “flow” and you’ll be “in the zone.”
- Invest in our marriage and/or most important relationships. We never adapt to interpersonal conflict.
- Play to our strengths. Find out what they are at www.authentichappiness.org.
- Be virtuous and do good for others. It feels good.
- Be part of a hive. As it spoke to me the most, this concept deserves an explanation. Evidently, one of the things that makes us happiest is doing something that a larger group is doing at the same time, whether it is engaging in a dance class, praying at a house of worship, being in the military, or doing yoga at the gym. Synchronized movement has been shown to create harmony and happiness. Even working out with weights in a solitary workout while others are working out separately gives me that feeling of being part of something larger.
Haidt suggests many other voluntary activities as well in addition to this list.
The bottom line: While happiness is an equation with some fixed numbers, we ultimately can exert control over some of the variables and lead happy and contented lives.
Esther Friedberg Karp is an internationally-renowned trainer, writer and speaker from Toronto, where she runs her QuickBooks consulting practice, EFK CompuBooks Inc. Consistently in Insightful Accountant’s Top 100 ProAdvisors, she has been named to the Top 10 twice.A ProAdvisor in three countries, she has traveled the world with Intuit, spoken at QuickBooks Connect in San Jose and Toronto, among other places, and has written countless articles for Intuit Global.
Esther has been named one of the “Top 50 Women in Accounting,” a “Top 10 Influencer” in the Canadian Bookkeeping World, and is a repeat nominee for the “RBC Canadian Women’s Entrepreneur Awards.” She counts among her clients many international companies, as well as accounting professionals seeking her out on behalf of expertise of their own clients for her in multi-currency and various countries’ editions of QuickBooks Desktop and Online.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-410-0750.
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