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How Happy Do You Want to Be?
by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, September 2012

Some of my friends say, "You are only as happy as your least happy child" while others, when asked what they want for their loved ones, respond with, "I just want them to be happy." I don't doubt this for a moment. What I would like us all to realize is that as exercising helps one's physical body to be healthier, toned, and "in shape" so it can function optimally, keeping one's brain "in shape" in order to maximize the capacity for happiness also requires careful cultivation and "exercise."

Fortunately (happily?) there is quality research in the fields of positive psychology and happiness at our fingertips. Each of us can make changes in our daily life that affects our wellbeing and overall life happiness. We each have within us, and available to us, ways to change our brains and our attitudes. We do have control over how happy we want or allow ourselves to be. When we think about what happiness is we may have a variety of definitions. For most of us the feeling is one of a deep, peaceful, and centered contentment.

Happiness is deep within and can be cultivated. Essentially, we appear to control up to 50 % of our happiness levels. The rest is likely pre-determined by our genes and our environment. People who research happiness and brain function such as Seligman, Diener, Lyubomirsky, Gilbert, Achor, Dweck, among others, emphasize the value of regularly focusing on new sources of gratitude daily, journaling, exercise, meditation, and performing random acts of kindness, as key elements to changing the brain in positive ways that significantly affect people's levels of happiness. This then affects their attitude, health, productivity, relationships, and overall quality of life. Of course there are other components such as relationships and having experiences. Relationships are very important to long term happiness. Solid social connections (or a strong, healthy, committed marriage) seems to contribute to one's happiness. And more and more we understand the value of having and/or sharing experiences (as contrasted to buying more stuff) as an important part of happiness. So, get out there and do something! Take a hike, visit the zoo, see an exhibit at a museum, go on vacation. We are more likely to enjoy the re-creation of the moments of an experience in the "re-experiencing" and "re-telling" and our emotional "revisiting" will likely raise our level of happiness.

If we raise the level of someone's positive attitude, they will probably be healthier and in many ways, more successful. What many of us are "running after" does not, in fact, contribute to increasing our happiness. Money does not buy happiness. Once we get to a certain level of income that is enough to pay our bills and help us to maintain a lifestyle we are comfortable with, more money does not bring us happiness. People who enjoy life with the means they have available and do not feel compelled to be envious or jealous about their neighbor's achievement or wealth, are happier. They do not feel a need to have more in order to show that they are better than someone else. This appears to be true except when we give money away. People who give money away appear to have greater levels of happiness than those who do not give it away.

Speaking of money, people often talk about how happy they will be if they win the lottery. Seems to be (and much research supports this) that winning the lottery makes people happy in the moment but that happiness is not sustained and after a time. The lottery winners (anywhere in the world) return to their "pre-lottery win" level of happiness. So play the lottery if you like but don't expect your level of happiness to change over time. Leave THAT to the "brain changers" discussed above.

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