This article first appeared in Issue 14 of our free digital magazine CURIOUS.
It’s the best thing in the world and the one thing we all want more of. Thankfully, you don’t have to be rich, beautiful, or even particularly cool to get it. Elusive though it may seem, happiness is in fact a skill that can be cultivated, and while we can’t necessarily control the events that trigger our moods, there are things one can do to become a more cheerful person.
What is happiness?
In case you haven’t noticed, life ain’t all rainbows and unicorns, and even the most joyous people occasionally have the smiles wiped off their faces by misfortune. Yet experts say that happiness and sadness aren’t mutually exclusive, and that true contentment requires an ability to accommodate negative events and emotions.
“Happiness in life as a general overarching characteristic actually includes unpleasant experiences and our ability to channel difficulty and adversity into growth and learning and forming of community and relationships,” Dr Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, told IFLScience.
Factors like money, fame, power, or even the Oval Office were all far less likely to bring lasting happiness than close bonds with family and friends.
“If you think happiness means pleasure and entertainment and maximizing material comfort, then you are never going to be happy,” she explained. “You will be on what's called the ‘hedonic treadmill’, and that’s connected to a persistent sense of disappointment.”
In other words, genuine happiness depends upon much more than just nice experiences, and our overall disposition is shaped by how we orient ourselves vis-a-vis the world on a mental and emotional level. In 2014, Simon-Thomas and her colleagues launched a course to help people learn this skill, and found that participants’ subjective happiness and life satisfaction increased by 5 percent after 10 weeks of training.
Breaking down the content of this course, Simon-Thomas explained that the opportunities for adopting new ways of thinking and boosting happiness are spread across three main domains. “One category of change has to do with relationships and social connection; the second has to do with one’s threshold for experiencing positive emotions. I call that positivity; and then the third is resilience, or the ability to manage setbacks, difficulties, failures, and adversity.”
Connection is the key
It’s pretty well established that social connection is the single most important contributor to a person’s happiness. Among the wealth of research highlighting this is the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been tracking the physical and mental wellbeing of a cohort of individuals – including former US President John F Kennedy – for over 80 years.
While many of the study’s original participants have now passed away, the findings have unambiguously revealed that deep, meaningful relationships are what make people happy. Other factors like money, fame, power, or even the Oval Office were all far less likely to bring lasting happiness than close bonds with family and friends, and participants that enjoyed such relationships also tended to display lower stress levels and better physical health.
To survive in the wilderness you generally need to be more alert to danger than to beauty, so our brains have developed to focus on the negative over the positive.
Working on one’s ability to relate to others is therefore among the most effective ways of enhancing happiness. “There are a lot of skills that fall under connection,” said Simon-Thomas. “Including things like making friendly conversation with people who you don't know, out in your day-to-day life, so that you feel that sense of interpersonal trust and common humanity.”
As daunting as that may sound, a recent study found that people who were instructed to strike up conversations with strangers on their commute in Chicago consistently rated their journey to work as more enjoyable than those who sat in silence. Learning to break the ice, then, may just be the key to a more joyful life.
Prior to bothering their fellow commuters with a bit of human connection, the participants in the aforementioned study all predicted that talking to a stranger would end in shame and embarrassment. Such pessimism is representative of the so-called “negativity bias” that colors our outlook on life and causes us to forever look on the not-so-bright side.
Clearly, possessing this in-built misery mechanism is a major hindrance when it comes to finding happiness, although from an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense to be down in the dumps. After all, to survive in the wilderness you generally need to be more alert to danger than to beauty, so our brains have developed to focus on the negative over the positive.
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Fortunately, the brain is also plastic, which means it’s possible to create new neural pathways and alter our habitual ways of thinking. It’s an old cliche among neuroscientists that “neurons that fire together wire together,” and when it comes to increasing happiness, this cheesy adage is particularly apt.
“The more we practice focusing on one kind of idea, or awareness, the more salient that idea or awareness becomes on a routine basis,” said Simon-Thomas. “So we'll think of things that are positive more readily if we practice thinking about things that are positive.”
For example, learning to savor the more magical moments in life and cultivating gratitude – both of which can be achieved by keeping a diary of all the things one is grateful for – can help us to develop a more joyful state of mind and enhance our potential for positive emotion.
There’s an important distinction to be made between thinking positively and burying one’s head in the sand. Sometimes, life genuinely is just a bit rubbish, and in such instances it’s much healthier to acknowledge and experience those prickly emotions than to just try and put a brave face on – something Simon-Thomas calls “toxic optimism”.
“It would never be my advice as a happiness expert to cover up real harm with some veneer of positivity,” she said. “Optimism has to be grounded in real benefit, not as a strategy to justify harm.”
Cultivating gratitude for the things that we appreciate has also been shown to help mitigate the effects of negative experiences.
Rather than simply suppressing sadness, then, we need to learn how to relate to trauma, adversity, and disappointment in ways that are adaptive and constructive. Numerous skills and practices can help with this, some of which are as simple as labeling our emotions in real time so that we can better connect to and understand them.
“If we can say, ‘oh, this is sadness’, then right away we connect to ‘oh, I've had an experience of loss, and this loss is important to me, and it matters’,” said Simon-Thomas.
Cultivating gratitude for the things that we appreciate has also been shown to help mitigate the effects of negative experiences. “There are several studies that point to the benefits of practicing gratitude and a lesser likelihood of suffering from post-traumatic stress after a potentially traumatic event,” she explained.
“There's something about exercising gratitude that leaves you with this outlook that there is goodness in your life. And that makes people more capable of managing difficult experiences.”
So, how much happier can we be?
While working on social connection, positivity, and resilience may help us become happier, our overall disposition is also partially governed by genetic factors that can’t be changed. For instance, one study found that a single genetic variant controls the way in which the brain’s emotional centers respond to positive stimuli, leading the authors to conclude that heritable factors may account for up to two-thirds of our ability to experience happiness.
It’s also unclear exactly how much improvement one can achieve from happiness training. A recent review found that the vast majority of studies on happiness strategies lack scientific rigor, meaning that while there is obvious value in cultivating these skills, better data is needed to properly track their impact.
Realistically, then, no amount of practice is going to transform Eeyore into Tigger, but with a bit of gratitude and social connection, you might just find that life isn’t so bad after all.