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40% Happiness depends on our decisions

Looking at the glass half-full or half empty? That is not the question. The glass is refillable!

Do you tend to see the glass as half full or as half empty? In any case, you are missing the point!

I was recently honored to give a keynote speech on happiness, during the Global Wellness Summit. The idea that I shared with the audience is that happiness can be cultivated and grown.

Happiness, love, meaning, purpose, relationships, all these matters to everyone. Even more, renowned doctors and researchers have proved that they help us live longer and live better.

So the question is: Is happiness for all? Or just for those born with an aptitude for it? Is happiness learned and shaped by your family values or your childhood? Is there something we can do to grow happiness?

We all know some people that tend to see the glass as half-empty, people that no matter the good things that happen to them in life, always seem to find a sign that things will, in the end, turn out for the worse. A friend of mine preaches: “Always expect the worse, you will never be disappointed.”

On the other hand, we all know some people that tend to see the glass as half-full. 

We all know optimists and pessimists, and conventional knowledge says they were born like that or maybe, their family reared them to see the world like that.

So let us try to see if our happiness is determined by our genes or our education. Let’s explore if happiness is determined by nature or nurture.

The most famous research to decide whether happiness is in our genes is known as the Minnesota Twins Study (1979, Bouchard). The researchers achieved to find and gather more than 60 pairs of identical twins (monozygotic) who had been separated when they were three weeks old, and who had been reared apart in adoptive families. Identical twins happen to have identical genetic makeup. Some of these twins were raised in the same State, by families with similar background and values, others were raised in different countries.The researchers wanted to see if twins that shared 100% of the genetic information could have different levels of happiness, intelligence, sociability and other personality traits; or if these traits were determined by upbringing. The different twins were reunited by Bouchard, Likken, and Tellegen, the researchers, when those twins were in their 40s. Before that meeting, the participants did not know of the existence of a co-bother or co-sister.

Let me take the example of two twins who came to the convention organized by the researchers to exemplify some similarities that the researchers found. James Lewis and James Springer were one of the couples of twins of the study. None knew about the existence of the other. Both James had married to a Linda, both James had got divorced from a Linda and had got married to a Betty. Both James had had a dog, and both had called his dog Toy.

These coincidences kept happening with many participants. A couple of twin women, came to the meeting wearing exactly the same cloths. Leaving aside these mystical coincidences, the researchers looked into their psychological measurements and found significant similarities in personality traits and intelligence. The researchers concluded:

“ It may be that trying to be happier is like trying to be taller, and is therefore counterproductive” Lykken and Tellegen

This conclusion was largely published by media, including titles like the NYT. Popular media, talked about it saying that trying to change your happiness will just get you frustrated.

In a witty class at Harvard University, professor Tal Ben Shahar explains that people have two different reactions to this statement. People excited about the self-improvement trend, but disappointed with the “recipes” of self-help books, tend to be relieved. They feel deceived by a flourishing industry that tells us happiness is just thinking positive, doing this or that, and basically, if you are not happier is all your fault. Therefore for these people, it is a relief to learn that happiness does not depend on oneself. If the research is right, then it means that if we want to change our level of happiness, we need to change our biology, our genes.

There is another reaction, different to relief, and that is a reaction of resignation, of feeling hopeless and helpless.

Was the study right? We now know that the study was only “partially” right. The problem with the study is that it took the average twins’ observations and extrapolated them to the whole. If we look at the average man and women, we conclude that it is impossible to survive in ice water more than 15 min. So we could infer that it is therefore impossible to survive in ice water. But what if we looked at Win Hof, a man that is capable of surviving in ice water 1 hour, 13 minutes and 48 seconds?! The question would no longer be if we can survive in cold water; but how can we learn to survive in cold water.

The problem with the average is that is just that, an average that does not help us learn from those who master the art of living longer and better lives. “A friend of mine, a sociologist, went to one isolated village in France to study longevity. He met the oldest woman in the village, and she asked him what he was looking for. My friend told the old lady he wanted to know what was the average percentage of deaths per age group in the village. The woman, after thinking said, well, in all age groups of this village the average is one death per person!

The researchers of the Minnesota Twin Study looking closely into the twins’ results again and saw there were also twins that had opposite results regarding happiness, despite identical genes and similar circumstances.

One of the researchers David Lykken in an interview to the Times magazine said: “I made a dumbed statement in the original article. It is clear that we can change our happiness levels widely – up or down.”

The question then is no longer “is it possible to change?” but instead “how it is possible to change, and how much we can change our happiness?”

During ten years, I have the chance to learn from some of the most amazing and prestigious researchers of our time. One of them, Sonya Lyubomirsky concluded that happiness depends 50% on our genes; and 10% on our circumstances. The other 40% depends on our choices. All these percentages are an overage, so, as you know, that they might be higher or lower for some people. In all cases, when you are mindful of your choices, it can have a significant impact on your happiness.

Do I mean by that, that to maximise our 40% influence on happiness we need to become optimists? My answer is no. Being optimistic and positive all the time is not the solution. The solution is not looking at the glass half-full. Sugarcoating the reality is not a good strategy. As some humorists put it: “When you are in a tunnel, the pessimistic looks at the rails, the optimistic looks at the light at the end of the tunnel, and the realistic looks at the train coming.”

Things do not happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best of things that happen. The solution is then not looking at the glass as half-full, but refilling the glass.

Let me tell you some of the things researchers have proved to increase happiness in your life or just at work:

* Purpose: Find things that are meaningful to you, not those defined by external forces (power, money…). Some have the chance to be able to find a meaningful job; others not, but they can still find ways to do their job in a more meaningful way. Finally, some might engage in meaningful activities outside of work, as long as they can have some balance in their life. And this takes us to the next component of happiness: balance.

* Balance: Do you cultivate things that you care about (health, friendship, work, family)? Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their biggest regrets. Among the top 5, we find “I wished I had worked less and I wished I had stayed in touch with my friends.” We have choices to make regarding the time we spend on the things that matter to us. And even when we cannot always devote the time we wish, we can always choose the simplest way of giving quality time. The secret to this is to be present when we are doing something.

* Agency: it means freedom to choose our (re)actions. We cannot always control the circumstances, but we can always do something about them. Victor Frankl wrote in “A man’s in search of meaning” that even in the worst situations when human beings are deprived of the basic needs and freedoms, we can always decide of our reactions. In his own words: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

* Compassion: Being tolerant and compassionate with others’ choices, values, and with ourselves. The hardest critic and worst enemy we sometimes have is our own judgment. Be kind and compassionate with others and with yourself.

* Recognition: one of the most powerful fuels of human nature. A caveat is that many parents think giving positive recognition to their children will make them happier and smarter. There is a whole new research field on how and when to provide positive feedback. To be transformational, positive feedback should not be finding a positive thing to highlight no matter the outcome. Positive feedback needs to be saved for praising the effort of someone confronted with a real challenge for them. It is better to reinforce and appreciate the effort that the outcome. Praising the outcomes seems to deter children from trying challenges if they are not sure to succeed while praising the efforts encourage children to go beyond their comfort zone.

* Learning: as opposed to popular belief, we are not born with a certain number of neurons that irreversibly start to die at a certain age. Instead, our brains are plastic, that means that we can help neurons (re)connect, we can light them on. Learning gives us pleasure, reinforces our self-esteem, and gives a sense of purpose. Learning something every day is a pillar of happiness. And looking at the success of Ted talks, it looks like it works.

* Relatedness: The longest study on happiness, (Harvard) found that the most important ingredient for happiness is having intimate relationships.

* Experiences: having more positive than negative experiences counts for our happiness. But the most common mistake is thinking that we shall try to avoid experiencing negative emotions. There are two kinds of people who do not experience negative emotions like envy, anger, jealousy…., the psychopaths and the dead! We need to give ourselves permission to be human, a “license to exist” experiencing the good and the bad. On the other hand, we also need to train better in appreciating and savoring the positive experiences of our everyday life. We do not savor what we take for granted. We appreciate health when we are ill; we appreciate the sun, when it rains, we sometimes appreciate people when they are no longer among us. Do we need to wait for something extraordinary to happen, so we appreciate the treasures of life?

Finally, I wanted to tell you that a secret of happiness is to keep innovating and surprising yourself. Luring happiness is like luring love. You need to invest yourself in keeping the interest, in surprising the other. Is the small novel things in our day to day that create excitement. Exotic creates erotic. It is as valid for couples, as researched sociologist Daryl Bem, as it is for happiness.

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