Health, Mental Health

Can We Manufacture Happiness?

Part 2 of a 3 Part Series on Happiness

Michael Decker

5 minute read

“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory”

–Albert Schweitzer

In the first installment of three delving into research and musings on happiness, we examined The World Happiness Report 2020. The Report detailed the happiest countries and cities in the world, at least as economists have attempted to quantify it. The Report is the work of optimists, people who believe that people can know what happiness is, they can measure it, and entire societies can actively strive to make themselves happier. Others would be inclined to disagree, especially those of a philosophical bent. 

In 2005, a groundbreaking study by psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon found that one half of what they termed ‘chronic happiness’ – long-term happiness and not simply brief moments of joy or widely dispersed episodes of satisfaction – was highly contingent upon one’s genetics. They argued that one inherited about fifty percent of one’s baseline propensity for happiness. Lyubomirsky’- and Sheldon’s article gained notoriety in no small part for the neat pie chart that assigned percentages of total propensity to happiness to three factors: genetics and unalterable characteristics such as personality type comprise the happiness ‘set-point’, circumstances, and intentional activity. 

Despite the 50% assigned in their controlled study to a series of factors beyond an individual’s control or influence, the fact that 10% was apportioned to circumstance and the remaining 40% to intentional activity was cause for optimism that many missed. Previously some researchers had assigned as much as 80% of sustainable happiness to genetic causes. One even likened individual efforts to become happier with willing oneself to grow taller. While Lyubomirsky and Sheldon have endured ample criticisms over the intervening 15 years, they believe the merits of their initial study and that subsequent research bolsters their claim that happiness can be significantly altered by one’s personal will to do so. 

There is no magical elixir to make oneself happy – at least not one that will last (see Part 3 on the chemistry of happiness), there are certain components shared by those who work in that 40% space where volition plays a role. Among these practices, the setting and attainment of goals plays a sizable part. 

Goal-setting as an intentional and lived act will resonate with anyone who has read Viktor Frankl’s brilliant Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl describes some of the things that make life meaningful, children foremost among them. While many of us do not believe that the future is real, we behave as if we do. One’s physical children are obviously a huge part of the region of intentionality, but Frankl did not restrict himself to physical children. He wrote at length about ‘mental children’, which he tied to one’s ideas of leaving something behind and, in doing so, somehow leaving the world a slightly richer place than one found it. Others might call this legacy. 

Whatever we name it, clearly several goal-setting elements are a part of its expression; one’s legacy goes to the heart of what each person values and is invariably deeply personal. However, legacy so-called, is slow to unfold and is only partly dependent on one’s personal agency – in fact, it requires an audience, someone to receive benefit from it, to engage with whatever ‘mental children’ one has left behind, whether that come in the form of a book or a bequest of a billion dollars for the underprivileged. While we will not see the effects of our actions in the form of posthumous legacy, we clearly act on the vision of this imagined gift. There is clearly something powerful about the fantasy of ideas and deeds living beyond our individual selves, and the effort, planning, and goal-setting required to achieve this expression might be seen to offer a whole series of avenues through which we might derive happiness, both in the moment and over many years. Often one’s ‘mental children’ are born out of one’s career choices, which themselves are usually indicative of choices, decisions about which we feel passionate and which many experiences have helped us render with a heightened sense of meaning.

One risk to happiness generated from successful achievement is ‘hedonic adaptation’. Humans have evolved to be extremely adaptable. This trait undercuts the lasting happiness boost that successful milestones might otherwise offer up to us. Setting attainable goals in the short-, medium-, and long-term provides means by which we can gain a happier life. When one time horizon has disappeared into the rear-view mirror, we still possess something to challenge, inspire, and perhaps awe us. 

Additionally, setting and achieving goals not only in different times, but throughout different aspects of our life matters. Our active exploration of personal, professional, and spiritual areas of our lives presents space in which to grapple with a great variety of objectives that touch different parts of ourselves and our communities. Each bears different horizons, different markers of success, and different imprints on our overall sense of meaning and well-being.

Another key component of chronic happiness is a balance of productive solitude and time spent with friends and family. While the latter is most obvious to many modern individuals, the need for positive, self-regenerating and restorative time alone is less clear and culturally less accepted. But moments of positive solitude are vital for mental restoration. They are crucial too for future planning and personal assessment, where one determines honestly where one is on the chosen path, and – depending on the level of concern or potential looming failure or success – how one might reset or otherwise adjust that path.

Obvious, but still difficult to practice, is mindfulness expressed in gratitude. This does not require one to be religious or even particularly spiritual. However, reminding yourself often about the benefits that have been bestowed upon you, by chance, by genes, upbringing, or by the creator, is important leavening in the bread of happiness. Practicing gratitude not only releases endorphins and lessens stress hormones, it gives rise to mental alternative scenarios so vital for us to understand context and our place in the world. Alternate realities, are, after all, most useful when they approximate as near as possible experience as you have lived it. Those moments when you think, “If I had not done this small thing, the consequences could have been immense”, in both a positive and negative way, foster a sense that you are on the right path. Such moments also may offer up a little humility: perhaps had you not hit that switch when you did, the whole train might be off the track. However, the fact that you did hit the switch is cause for cautious optimism. So too is the notion that we have some ability to change our own mental outlooks and feel a little better, despite the suffering that life brings our way.

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