It’s the evening before Thanksgiving. My husband, Joel, has been sick as a dog all day (vomiting, etc.) and I’m fairly certain our Thanksgiving tomorrow isn’t going to be a formal affair. That’s okay – I’m actually not a big one for holidays, and I’m cool just chillin’.
But it’s still a bit of a bummer, so instead moping around feeling sorry for ourselves we decided to watch a documentary entitled “Happy.” (You can stream it on Netflix.)
My favorite documentaries dump massive amounts of data on me. “Happy” doesn’t do that, but man – what great reminders.
First, it seems that about 50% of our happiness depends upon genetics, which is somewhat out of our control. On top of that, about 10% is reliant upon the kinds of things we usually associate with what will make us happy, i.e. the quality of our possessions, how much money we have, how attractive we are, where we live, etc… So, depending upon how you see things, around 60% of happiness is arguably beyond our control (depending upon things like the country you live in). That means a full 40% of our happiness is up to us.
Happiness is the result of dopamine, a neurotransmitter our brain releases that make us feel good. We have a limited amount of them, and it seems to fall under the ‘use it or lose it’ policy. When we exercise them like a muscle, we retain our dopamine neurotransmitters. When we don’t use them, they start to go away and there’s no real evidence that they ever come back. So, ombviously it’s important to make sure we DO use the.
There are a few things that we need as a baseline. We need to have our basic needs met, such as food, shelter, and so on. Interestingly, however, while there’s a significant difference in the happiness between someone (in the U.S.) making $5,000 a year and someone making $50,000 a year, there seems to be no discernable difference in happiness between someone making $50,000 a year and someone making $50,000,000 a year.
Making money is called an extrinsic motivation, and is joined by things like image and status. There is very little relationship between these extrinsic motivators and happiness, and in fact they may actually be in competition with each other.
What is far more influential are called “intrinsic motivations,” things that feel good internally when they are done. They pretty much make up that entire 40% of controllable happiness.
One major intrinsic motivation is “flow,” a state where we feel ‘in the zone’ and lose time due to pleasure in an activity. It relies on mastery and interest, like playing an instrument at which you’re getting better and better.
Other intrinsic motivations are personal development, relationships, values, social bonding, cooperation and having a ‘spiritual’ side, or seeing life as being bigger than yourself.
Studies all indicate that extrinsic motivation seekers are generally more depressed and feel less vital, while intrinsic motivation seekers report less depression and more vitality.
An example of this is post-WWII Japan. After the devastation of the war, Japan focused on rebuilding the country and creating material prosperity. It became woven into their culture, and now Japan is entirely focused on material prosperity – an extrinsic motivation. While they’ve accomplished amazing things, it’s come at a price. They are the least happy of the wealthy countries. Working oneself to death is common enough for them to have a word for it: Karoshi.
There is a major exception to this in Japan, the island of Okinawa. The inhabitants of Okinawa enjoy exceptionally long lifespans (people frequently live to over 100 years old). Their culture encourages relationships with people from different villages and ages, and get together regularly to discuss the day. One woman was quoted as saying, “Having a lot of friends is happiness.” They even cremate their dead and mix their ashes to remain ‘one family’.
According to mind mapping technology, meditation that focuses on compassion and loving kindness increase happiness, as well as having it last longer than most anti-depressants. Focusing on love, cooperation, compassion and relationships actually changes the physicality of our brains.
The documentary lands the plane with this quote “If we spend a few minutes every day to exercise happiness, compassion and love, the entire world would really change. Think of it as a skill, not different than playing the violin or golf. Play, new experiences, friends and family, doing things that are meaningful, appreciating what we have. They’re free. With happiness, the more you have, the more everyone has.”
So, while you’re enjoying your turkey tomorrow (or, since you’ll be reading this on Thanksgiving, today) and thinking of things you’re grateful for, ask yourself if you can incorporate a meditation on gratitude, love, compassion and happiness in your everyday life. Just a few minutes could truly change the world.
p.s. Try these exercises for happiness:
Every Sunday write down 5 things you’re grateful for as a family tradition.
Commit random “acts of kindness,” i.e. put quarters in a stranger’s parking meter, or visit a nursing home.
Antonia Dodge is a co-founder of Genius Awakening, a business designed to help people leverage their own mental processes to optimize productivity, communication, job satisfaction, and most importantly – happiness. She has over 10 years in applied psychoanalytics, profiled hundreds of people, and consulted for companies such as Zappos, Zappos Insights, Hot Topic Media, Oracle and Voyage Media. She has helped developed over 20 high level trainings, products and resources and served on the leadership team to plan and orchestrate TEDxSinCity, an independently organized TED event held in Las Vegas, Nevada.