“Happiness is not something the world owes you or can give you. It is not passive. It is not rest… Happiness is an activity of the soul in accord with excellence.” ~ Norman Melchert, philosopher, author, professor
I’ve been taking a fascinating continuing education class on Positive Psychology. The field of psychology has been largely focused on disease, but for the last 20 years or so, there has been a growing trend of looking at the positive side, looking at what makes people resilient and happy. What a fantastic idea: instead of singularly looking at what’s wrong, let’s look at what’s right!
We hear so much about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but statistically, a person is just as likely to experience Post-Traumatic Growth from a challenging event. At the beginning of my career, I worked with a number of cancer survivors. Many of them, even those who had recurring disease and who knew they would die from their cancers, would tell me it was the best thing that ever happened to them. They viewed their cancer experience as a wake-up call, to recognize what was truly important and discard petty grievances and stresses that didn’t matter.
Two of the prominent researchers in Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, PhD and Ed Diener, PhD, have quantified a formula for happiness:
Happiness = Genetic Set-Point + Circumstances + Voluntary Variables
Your genetic set point is what you’re born with. I think of it as how optimistic or pessimistic you naturally are. This accounts for about 50% of your happiness, and as something you’re born with, you can’t really change this.
Your circumstances — where you live, the things that happen to you — account for about 8-12% of your happiness. Surprising? Sometimes in the Western world in particular, we believe that we need more, more, more to be happy. But many studies have shown that’s not the case.
So the remainder of happiness, anywhere from 38-42%, is made up of voluntary variables. This includes the ways in which we intentionally intervene on ourselves, our choices of thought and action.
The exciting news here is that while we can’t change our genetic set-point and may have limited control on our circumstances, we absolutely have control over the voluntary variables. This is why people say you can choose to be happy. I also think of the “glass half full” concept here. If you have a glass with your favorite beverage in it, do you consider it half full or half empty? Are you focusing on what you have or what you don’t have? And of course, there’s always the slightly sassy answer about being thankful you even have a glass!