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So You Think You're Happy?

What exactly is happiness? A feeling? A state of mind? A level of accomplishment? You probably can't answer that, and there's a good reason why. Happiness is a very individual thing -- it's different for each of us.
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Girl drawing smiley face on to a wall
Girl drawing smiley face on to a wall

What exactly is happiness? A feeling? A state of mind? A level of accomplishment?

You probably can't answer that, and there's a good reason why. Happiness is a very individual thing -- it's different for each of us.

In the July 8, 2015 Science and Tech section of New Statesman Gibraltar, Tosin Thompson tries to sort it all out. He says that the stimulus for happiness is subjective and thus hard to measure objectively, but he gives it a try. The Oxford Dictionary says happiness is "the feeling of being happy." I call that a non-answer.

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Tosin says according to a Wiley Online Library search, 50,522 results were found for the word "happiness" and 409,708 for the word "depression."

Pleasure and meaning are words that describe happiness in contemporary psychology. Dr. Martin Seligman, a positive psychologist, added a third component to the definition: engagement. This refers to living a good life of work, hobbies and family friends.

Psychologists, using these three components, have developed a scientific term for happiness called "subjective well-being (SWB)." This is defined as a person's cognitive and affective evaluations of his or her life. These evaluations, according to a 2012 paper on SWB, include emotional responses to stimuli as well as cognitive judgments on what is satisfying and fulfilling. That makes SWB a combination of feelings of fulfillment and life satisfaction.

In identifying this across the real world, approximately 50 percent of our happiness is determined by our genes, 40 percent by our daily activities and the last 10 percent by our circumstances. That leaves us with a 40 percent opportunity to make our own happiness.

In the Asian Journal of Psychiatry in a 2015 study, they measured student's psychological well-being and happiness. The sample was of 403 high school students. They measured life satisfaction, hopefulness, self-efficacy, perceived stress, happiness, and general health status using self-reported written questionnaires. It was concluded that there was a significant relation between happiness and psychological well being.

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, in a talk, compared happiness to optometry in terms of subjectivity.

"Optometry is another one of those sciences that is built entirely on people's reports of subjective experience. The one and only way for an optometrist to know what your visual experience is like is to ask you, 'Does it look clearer like this or (click click) like this?'"

I reviewed an infographic by Webpage FX regarding some of the studies on the science of happiness. It's too extensive to cover here, but I recommend you check it out for yourself. A couple interesting findings were:

1) Married people were 10 percent happier than unmarried people.

2) Around the world, consumerism is the biggest suppressant of happiness.

3) Around the world, the happiest people live in:

  • Iceland 94 percent
  • Denmark 91 percent
  • Sweden 91 percent
  • Netherlands 91 percent
  • Australia 90 percent

4) Healthy people are 20 percent happier than average people

5) People in the highest income bracket are about 3.5 percent happier than average income people

As a psychotherapist, people often come to me suffering from depression. How are the two linked? Shawn Achor, author of the New York Times bestselling book The Happiness Advantage (2010), and founder of the Institute of Positive Research and GoodThinkInc., says the opposite of happiness is not unhappiness but apathy, which is the loss of joy we feel moving toward our potential. For more of what he has to say, watch segments of Achor's two-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey.

I like some research I recently read based on an article from UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, which studies positive psychology. Psychologist Aimie M. Gordon makes some very simple but useful recommendations.

The studies done indicate that we often get more pleasure and happiness from our memories than most other things. The kinds of memories are usually very ordinary, not necessarily the momentous occasions.

She suggests the following:

1) Take a photo a day -- Try to make it a ritual, so you'll do it. At the end of a year, make a yearbook.

2) Capture context -- Don't try to improve on reality or whitewash it, just put it down the way it happened. It will later be interesting to you the way it really was.

3) Record an average day. You can write a "day in the life" post or journal.

4) Reconstruct yesterday -- Take the time one morning to reconstruct everything you did the previous day in brief episodes. (went to work, ate lunch, etc.) then answer questions about each episode (what were you doing, who were you with, how did it feel).

5) A more manageable journal -- Journaling in all its forms can be a great way to work through personal and professional issues and reflect on your current life and future goals, but it's often too time-consuming. If you try and think about a few things that you feel were interesting from your past and then write about them, it will help to narrow down the choices.

I think these are good and easy to follow suggestions and can be helpful in creating more happiness for yourself. I would add one more thing.

Keep a pad and pen next to your bed. At least once a week (more often if you can) write down whatever you can remember of your dreams as soon as you wake up. After you gather 7 or 8 or these, sit down and try to see if you find any patterns. This can help you tell what's bothering you and also what you are seeking. It can relieve anxiety and help you feel more hopeful and thus happier.

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