One of the best definitions of happiness I have ever read comes from the psychiatrist David Burns who described happiness as, simply, “feeling good.” In more technical terms, we could say that happiness is a mental state (which, by the way, is the exact same thing as an emotional state, since all of our emotions are mental) characterized by contentment, inner peace, satisfaction, and well-being. I have always suspected that a pretty good indicator of one’s level of happiness is the extent to which one is excited about the future; unhappy people seldom believe they have anything to look forward to. Happiness is not the same as pleasure, which is a powerful feeling of satisfaction from a specific experience (eating a good meal, scoring the winning goal, laughing at a comedic film, or experiencing a sexual encounter). Happy people tend to have a great deal of pleasure in their lives, but it is not accurate to say that they are happy because of the pleasure; in fact, there is evidence that the opposite is true: happy people don’t necessary have more pleasurable experiences than unhappy people, but rather derive more enjoyment from pleasurable experiences than unhappy people do. They see the world differently; to use a cliché, they are more likely to describe the glass as half-full.
Recent research in genetics has revealed what many people have long suspected: happiness is, at least partially, an inherited trait. It explains a lot, doesn’t it? We all know people who are miserable and dour, regardless of how good their life gets, and we also know people who are painfully perky and upbeat, no matter what trials and tribulations come their way. Psychologists differ on the details, but some suggest that as much as 50% of the variation between individuals in life satisfaction is due to genetics. But what about the other 50%?
I’ll always remember the well-intentioned but incredibly unhelpful advice from a high school guidance counsellor who wagged his finger at us grade eight boys and said, “Happiness is a choice! You can be as happy as you want to be!” At the time I just assumed he was right and that my inability to be happy meant I was defective (on top of everything else). I realize now that he was wrong. Happiness is not simply a choice. It isn’t merely an act of the will. But one intriguing finding from the growing field of positive psychology (the branch of psychology that, essentially, studies happiness) is that while genetics play a significant role in shaping one’s happiness, life circumstances make a surprisingly small contribution. Once we remove the strong role of genetics and the mild role of environment, there’s a huge gap left over, and that gap has to do with our outlook. The oft-quoted, overly simplistic idea that happiness is a choice actually does have an inkling of truth, and it is found here.
I often like to ask my students the following question: “Suppose one man wins a lottery for millions of dollars, and another man is severely injured in a car accident, becoming a quadriplegic. In one year, which man is happier?” Most students are savvy enough to suspect a trap–even if I asked them “What is 2+2?” they would be suspicious–and so instead of saying “The lottery winner”, which is what they probably honestly think, they say, “The quadriplegic.” A few of them even roll their eyes as they give the answer they think I want to hear.
In fact, it is something of a trick question; neither answer is correct. On average, after one year has passed, both men will be as happy as they were before their life-changing experience. So a happy person who wins the lottery will be happy one year later, and an unhappy person who becomes a quadriplegic will be unhappy one year later. But what about a miserable person who wins the lottery? He will, no doubt, experience a tremendous boost of short-term pleasure, but within a year (even less, according to most psychologists) he’ll be back to his grumpy old self–all that will have changed is his financial status. What about a positive, optimistic person who becomes a quadriplegic after a car accident? In the short term she will be emotionally devastated, perhaps even losing the will to live. But within a year, she will, in all likelihood, be a positive, optimistic quadriplegic, the kind of person who dedicates her life to helping raise awareness of her condition and helping others who find themselves in a similar predicament.
This isn’t all due to genetics. The fact is that a significant contribution towards one’s state of well-being can come from a decision to see things in a certain way. John Milton put some of the wisest words ever spoken in the mouth of Satan in Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Self-help expert Tony Robbins once asked, “If you wanted to find something in your life to be happy about, could you find something?” It’s an intriguing question. I suspect that our level of happiness has something to do with how we answer this question–and how often we ask it in the first place.