A few months ago, I published a piece that cautioned against the industrialization of happiness, comparing the recent explosion in books, apps and programs promising a shortcut to happiness to the fad diets and questionable exercise machines that the fitness industry has grown fat off in recent decades (pun absolutely intended). Well, lately I have been experimenting with the character strength of judgment (you can learn about your own character strengths for free with the Values in Action Institute), and as a result I decided to consider the subject from a different point of view. Could happy being the new skinny actually be a good thing? I set out to learn more.
As it turns out, happiness has more in common with a slender frame than just the people trying to make a quick buck off the hopes and dreams of the masses. The "how" of physical fitness and happiness mimic each other in several ways...
It's In Your Genes
How many times have you heard someone bemoan their genetics when talking about their weight (perhaps you've even used this excuse yourself)? Much like our physical attributes, a large portion of our happiness is inherited -- around 50 percent, according to research by Sonja Lyubomirsky. But before you throw the idea of becoming happier into the same basket as the idea of fitting into your favorite jeans from 10 years ago, pause to consider that there is another 50 percent as yet unaccounted for!
You Are What You Eat
When it comes to our physical health, this mantra is almost universally understood and accepted. Why then is it so hard to accept that our mental state is largely a byproduct of the ideas we consume and allow to reside in our minds? This concept is far from widely understood, and much less accepted -- after all, our happiness is so heavily influenced by things outside of our control -- our job, our boss, our partner and our children. Even the weather can play an important part! But according to Sonja Lyubomirsky's research, only 10 percent of our happiness is influenced by those external circumstances, compared to 40 percent that is directly attributable to the activities that we intentionally take part in.
Three primary factors influencing happiness, from research by Sonja Lyubomirsky et. al.
This is a great time to pause and consider:
What activities are you doing on a daily basis to make yourself happier?
There is no prescribed list of these activities, because they are different for everyone. For some people a mindfulness or meditation practice does the trick, while others prefer a more adrenaline-charged pursuit. It may be in the realm of ideas or action, alone or in community with others. In short, it doesn't matter what everyone else does to make them happy -- what matters is that what you are doing makes you happy, and that you do it every day.
Do You Even Lift, Bro?
Look around your network and have a guess as to who you know that is actively cultivating happiness. How can you tell? It's not the toned abs or enormous biceps that we look for in people who attend to their mental and emotional wellbeing. Instead, it's a presence. A sense of engagement in the tasks they carry out. An interest in the world around them, and the community they live in. They may not be the cheeriest people you've met -- I know many people who are deeply happy but don't show it in the outgoing and bubbly way we have decided is the way happiness "should" look.
And what about you? Are you taking responsibility for that 40 percent of your happiness that is in your direct control? If not, don't dwell on it -- just start doing something that makes you happy. Not something that distracts you or numbs you against your unhappiness, but something that genuinely interests you and energizes you. Right now.
If you're still reading, I'm assuming that you're one of the people who are actively cultivating happiness. Fantastic! In that case, I'd love to leave you with a couple of great resources to help you keep doing it. Envision Kindness is a wonderful nonprofit dedicated to sharing acts of kindness across the globe -- you can even share your own stories and experiences with their global community. And if you're looking to supercharge your personal happiness practice, the outstanding (and free!) Science of Happiness course by UC Berkeley and edX is starting on Sept. 8, running for eight weeks. It's a great primer on the subject and is sure to teach you something new to include in your daily practice.
Whatever your current level of happiness, the key thing to take away is that, just like your physical fitness, it is completely within your control to improve. And so I guess that happy being the new skinny may not be such a bad thing after all.
This piece first appeared on Light Yourself Up.