Are you happy? Or, are you happy?

Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.
— Omar Khayyam

It is 2:00 am, the house is quiet but our mind is not.  Alone with our thoughts, we may ponder the question of happiness, that elusive prize which we pursue - whether we admit it or not.  What is happiness?  Am I happy?  Can I be happy?  Will I ever be happy?   Why is it so elusive? 

There are almost 84,000 books with "happiness" in the title on Amazon and some 353,000,000 citations in Google.  The sheer size of these numbers is an strong indicator that we humans think about and write about happiness - a lot.  Personally, I am happiness-interested but not happiness-obsessed.  I have lived long enough to know that happiness is subjective, cyclic, and elusive.  There are highs and lows.  Happiness, as well as sadness, anger, isolation, and lostness are part of the human experience. 

Being happy and being unhappy are both part of our human estate.  The question is, can we tip the scales to favor of greater happiness?  I believe the answer is yes and over the last year, I have run across several studies and writings that have given direction to this aspiration.  Specifically, I have learned:

  • DNA.  Humans are hardwired to favor the negative over the positive.  To be more happy is effortful.
  • Pumped Up and Dumbed Down.  Our "reptilian brains" are easily triggered and the "fight or flight" response diminishes our ability for clear thought and communication.
  • Two Types of Happiness.  Research is showing that there are two types of happiness i.e., happiness experienced and happiness remembered.  There are both large and small things that we can do in our lives to increase our level of both experienced and recalled happiness. 

Happiness and DNA

In his interesting book Hardwiring Happiness, Dr. Rick Hanson, describes the innate "negativity bias" that is part of our human nature.  He says that "even when we feel relaxed and happy and connected, your brain keeps scanning for potential dangers, disappointments, and interpersonal issues.  Consequently, in the back of your head, there's usually a subtle but noticeable sense of unease, dissatisfaction, and separation to motivate this vigilance." (pp 29-30).  

While the neuroanatomy, chemistry, and research is extremely complex, here is the simplified version of what this negativity bias feels like.  The most primitive parts of the brain, often called the lizard or reptilian brain lights up and triggers the emotional limbic brain which results in that all too familiar "fight or flight" response.  Our bodies are flooded with chemicals such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol.   We are ready to fight or flee and that is potentially life-saving if there is real danger.  However, as Hanson observes, that this sensitive to threat, real or perceived, becomes even more sensitive over time. 

Pumped Up and Dumbed Down

While Dr. Hanson describes the biology of our easily triggered "flight or fight" response, in their landmark book Crucial Conversations, Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler, do a stellar job of describing the physiological experience of the "fight or flight" response in a section aptly named "When it Matters Most, We Do Our Worst."  While the authors are specifically addressing "crucial conversations" i.e., those in which the stakes are high, positions in opposition, and strong emotions, their description is widely applicable to our everyday experience.

When faced with a threat (real or perceived):

Two tiny organs seated neatly atop your kidney's pump adrenaline into your bloodstream.  You don't choose to do this.  You adrenal glands do it, and then you have to live with it….. And that is not all.  Your brain then diverts blood from activities it deems nonessential to high-priority tasks such as hitting and running.  Unfortunately, as the large muscles of the arms and legs get more blood, the higher-level reasoning sections of your brain get less.  (pp 4-5)

So here we are, genetically biased towards to the negative, a bias that becomes more sensitive over time.   When the flight or fight response is triggered and chemicals flood our systems, we are least capable of higher order reasoning.  This is not the prescription for happiness and neither is it the end of the story.  We are not condemned to mindless reactivity, there are actions that we can take to help shift the happiness equation in our favor.  Let's start with a discussion of two types of self and two types of happiness.

Two Types Selves and Two Types of Happiness

In his thought-provoking TED Talk, Nobel-winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, makes the distinction between our "experiencing self" and our "remembering self."   If we are asked about our happiness in the present moment, assessed to be about a 3-second interval, we are responding as an "experiencing self."  However, if we are asked about our happiness with respect to a past event or time-frame, we are responding as the "remembering self."   These two selves, according to Dr. Kahneman,  have distinctive perspectives on happiness.  Kahneman observes in this extract of his TED Talk:

The distinction between the happiness of the experiencing self and the satisfaction of the remembering self has been recognized in recent years, and there are now efforts to measure the two separately... So in recent years, we have begun to learn about the happiness of the two selves. And the main lesson I think that we have learned is they are really different. You can know how satisfied somebody is with their life, and that really doesn't teach you much about how happily they're living their life, and vice versa. 

Improving our Happiness Experience and Memories

Connecting the dots between research and the great insights of others in order to derive pragmatic solutions to everyday life is what I aspire to do.  Sometimes, the connections between these ideas and the implications seem more coherent then is the reality and this is one of those instances.  That being said, here is what I believe today about our ability to nudge our lives towards greater happiness. 

Thriving in the Blue Zone

After my husband died, I found myself faced with a series of major life decisions.   As is typical in my life, a book came my way that made a huge impression on my thinking and on my actions.  The book was Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way by Dan Buettner.  Buettner's research was sponsored by National Geographic and involved in-depth visits to locales where residents scored particularly high in terms of happiness.  He and his research team visited Denmark, Singapore, Mexico, and San Luis Obispo, CA.  While his research findings make a great read, the real value in the book for me was the final chapter entitled Lessons in Thriving.  Buettner translates his research into a set of practical ways in which we can improve the quality of lives, and consequently, our degree of both experienced and remembered happiness. 

Generously, Buettner shares his major findings on his Blue Zones website which includes a happiness test which yields personalized recommendations for improving our happiness.   This site is well worth exploring.

Taking in the Good and Tracking the Moment

Dr. Hanson in Hardwiring Happiness, mentioned earlier, does not just describe our "negativity bias" its associated biology, but he offers a prescription for helping counter this predisposition.  He describes a process of "taking in happiness."  The first step in this process is to have a positive experience.  These experiences can be the small things in life such as a kind word, a beautiful sunset, a quiet moment in relationship, a compliment or a success.  Rather than just letting these experience flit past our awareness, Hanson suggests that we mentally enrich the experience.  We pay attention.  We appreciate.  We absorb the experience.  We extend the moment.  This process of having a positive experience, enriching it, and absorbing it can help create a powerful counter force to our inherent negativity bias.  We give happiness a chance.

As an aside,  Hardwiring Happiness is a tough read, but if you would like to hear the "Cliff Notes" version of Dr. Hanson's findings, I recommend Todd Henry's interview with him on the Accidental Creative podcast (21 May 2015) on iTunes or at Accidental Creative.  

Based on my own lived experience, there are times in my life, especially when I am over-programmed and distracted, the details of my experience just seems to pass by, almost as blurred images seen beyond the window of a speeding car.  The images are out there, impersonal, blurred, lost in time and space.  When I reflect back at the end of the day, my memories are fragmented and there is a sense of disconnectedness and ennui.  Is that all there is?  In contrast, when I make a conscious effort to appreciate the small things in my life, to be grateful, to be moved, to be kind, and to be engaged, when I, in Hanson's words, "take in happiness," I look back on the day and feel blessed.   Even in the midst of the chaos that often characterizes our lives, we can find happiness - if we know where and how to look.