Featured, Society & People

The Happiness Files

It seems Happiness is going around. Boston College has already exhibited symptoms thanks to the smash hit music video, “Happy,” produced by Sean Casey and the Office of News & Public Affairs. We had the privilege of an evening with Dr. Arthur C. Brooks, Social Scientist and President of American Enterprise Institute, during which he broke down for us The Secret to Happiness. A captivating speaker and a rich character, Dr. Brooks was equipped with a wealth of interesting and valuable findings on the sources of happiness that he synthesized into an articulate and uncomplicated presentation. He epitomized the fulfillment he spoke of, and adeptly left his audience uplifted with a relevant and renewed sense of purpose.

Serendipitously, I spent this past Saturday watching the 2011 documentary Happy between my morning coffee and an early-afternoon air-saxophone jam session. (In my own recent studies, I have found that a quick and easy route to happiness is the musical genre House Sax and the complementing activity of Hot Sax, demonstrated here by Jimmy Fallon–special thanks to Rachel Rudder for discovering the world of Sax House.)

Not terribly surprising were the overlaps between the findings of the psychologists and government officials in the film and much of what Dr. Brooks spoke about. The documentary’s various narratives well exemplified the manifestations of the often-surprising data on the nature of happiness by which I was so moved.

In outlining a few slivers of data I have found particularly interesting, I hope to make happiness and the secrets behind it just a little more contagious.

Community activities in Okinawa, Japan, home to the most long-lived people.

The Three Major Determinants of Happiness

The chart at left is from the documentary, Happy, and varies slightly from Dr. Arthur Brooks’ findings. Through studies of twins with identical genes, it has been discovered that 48-50% of a person’s baseline happiness and general mood is genetic. Dr. Brooks sorted the other two categories slightly differently from the chart’s characterization, and considers “Life Circumstances” to include all things going on around a person, including achieving big goals that have been set intentionally.

Because of nuances in parameter definition, Dr. Brooks designated this category as a 40% determinant of happiness, leaving the last factor, “Decisions & Values,” to account for 12% of happiness. Dr. Brooks emphasized the need to maximize this 12% over which we have direct control, and therein lays his secret formula.

This Okinawa farmer speaks of the flow she enjoys in her work and routine.

Faith, Family, Community, Work. The balance of energy and focus between these four categories makes for optimal happiness. Dr. Brooks noted that the solution to achieving fulfillment and happiness is not money, and explained that a better measure was “earned success,” one’s belief that they have created value with their life. Two people with similar backgrounds and a common sense of earned success are equally likely to consider themselves very happy, even if one of those people earns eight times as much money as the other. Above a basic level of subsistence, money does not buy additional, sustainable happiness.

Professor of Psychology, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, PhD, uses the term “flow” to describe a related phenomenon, which includes what athletes refer to as “being in the zone” and which can occur during exercise, hobbies or work. Those who consistently experience this flow in some area of their life are more likely to be happier regularly.

These ideas are consistent with two lists Professor of Psychology, Tim Kasser, PhD, offers, illustrated in Happy:

Extrinsic Goals

1. Money

2. Image

3. Status/Popularity

Intrinsic Goals

1. Personal Growth

2. Relationships

3. Community

Kasser notes the opposing nature of these two sets of motivators, and recognizes that the former leads to dissatisfaction and continuously unfulfilled desires no matter how much is acquired. Contrarily, when Intrinsic Goals are achieved, satisfaction and happiness increase.

Both Dr. Brooks and the psychologists of Happy debunk the idea that achieving big goals will result in sustained happiness and, conversely, that facing adversity and tribulations will result in sustained unhappiness. Dr. Brooks used the example of a person receiving a 100% raise: he or she would feel happier for a period of six months before returning to the baseline level of happiness. He also cites research on paraplegics that has shown happiness levels returning almost all the way to normal just six months after their accidents.

Bhutan, a South Asian country on the east side of the Himalayas, has recently taken a new approach to measuring its merits. Dasho Kinley Dorsi, Ministry of Information and Communications official for the Bhutan government, recognizes that GDP is not enough and contends that humanity needs a higher goal. Gross National Happiness, a topic Dr. Arthur C. Brooks has literally written the book on, is the measure Bhutan has adopted to assess its achievements. Dasho Kinley Dorsi points to the shifting mindset associated with the adjustment, which refocuses the country in a way akin to a large-scale shift from rewarding extrinsic goals to incentivizing intrinsic goals.

As studies of happiness become more widespread and analyses become more conclusive, we can use what social scientists and psychologists have laid out for us to refocus on the values that are naturally the most fulfilling for us and for others. Despite the growing pains of a quickly globalizing world and the march of technology and efficiency, the basic secrets of happiness remain innate and intrinsic. Here’s hoping everyone catches it.

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