At one point or another, you’ve probably thought might be something wrong with you because you can’t seem to get and stay happy.
No matter how many self-help books you read, counselors you talk to, or prescription meds you take, happiness just isn’t sustained.
You experience moments of relief from unhappiness but you always end up back where you started.
Unhappy? Join the party…
If this experience sounds like you then you may be in good company. One study shows that only about 30% of Americans report being “very happy.” And yet, we live in a world where people are seeking happiness more than ever.
Why then are we more medicated, addicted, and reporting higher rates of depression and loneliness than ever before? It appears that the more we seek out happiness the more we are missing the mark.
How High School History Class Shaped Our Happiness
The desire for sustained individual happiness is a relatively new concept. You may remember from your high school history class learning about John Locke, who coined the phrase “the pursuit of happiness,” which was later used by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.
Until around this time period (we’re talking 17th-18th century), happiness was viewed as mere chance or luck. In fact, the root hap means just that in Old Norse and Old English and dates as far back to Roman and Greek philosophy.
Locke’s declaration of happiness being a birth right helped move society from viewing pleasure as a sin to pleasure as a day to day experience. However, we have evolved the concept to a point that we now feel ashamed or bad when we aren’t experiencing happiness.
According to Darrin McMahon the author of Happiness: A History, “The idea of happiness as our natural state is a peculiarly modern condition that puts a tremendous onus on people. We blame ourselves and feel guilty and deficient when we’re not happy.”
No wonder we are experiencing some of the highest rates of depression and anxiety in the history of time when we not only experience unhappiness, but in turn judge ourselves for not feeling happier!
So, then, how much happiness can one expect to experience and how much of our individual happiness really is left up to chance?
A Little Green and a Little Gene
We are only in control of approximately 40-50% of our happiness. The remaining 50-60% is dictated by our life circumstances and genetics.
Although there is some truth in that age-old adage that money can’t buy happiness, up to a certain dollar figure this isn’t so. According to an evaluation of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, people reported higher rates of happiness as they made more money until they reached $75,000 where their happiness levels began to plateau.
Being able to provide for your family and maintain a stable quality of life is integral to individual happiness and might account for as much as 30% of how happy a person feels. This is often why marginalized populations or those experiencing the brunt of a poor job market are more likely to report lower rates of happiness.
Yet, genetics also plays a significant role in individual happiness. Research by Jan-Emmanuel De Neve shows that individuals with a longer version of the 5-HTT gene were 8.5 times more likely to report being satisfied or highly satisfied with their lives.
Although, no one gene is attributed to happiness alone and we know that chemical imbalances may impact how a person is perceived and thus treated in society, which affects quality of life, and you guessed it…happiness.
So you’re saying there’s a chance? Yes, 40% to be exact!!!
So, while much more of our happiness may be up to chance than we’ve been led to believe for the last 300 years or so, what are we to do with the remaining 40% that we do have control over?
A study by the National Academy of Sciences found that there are two types of experiences that lead to feelings of happiness; eudaimonic and hedonic.
Eudaimonic experiences stem from a place of purpose, meaning, belonging and giving; such as being connected to a cause for the greater good. Hedonic experiences come from more self-centered, pleasure-based activities such as enjoying sex, ice cream, or buying a new car.
While both eudaimonic and hedonic experiences bring about a sense of happiness, they are not created equal. In this study it was found that those who engaged primarily in hedonic activities had immune systems that resemble individuals who have experienced on-going adversity.
Whereas those engaged in primarily eudaimonic activities were found to have immune systems that were more resilient to bacterial and viral infections. In fact, their immune systems showed a reduced risk to major illness like cancer and heart diseases.
This isn’t to say that hedonic experiences should be avoided, but that ideally they would be experienced in balance with more eudaimonic activities. And it is worth noting that not all eudaimonic experiences bring about a sense of heel-clicking happiness, but they do provide a deeper sense of meaning and overall well-being.
So, the moral of the story?
Maybe we aren’t failing in our attempts to be happy as much as we have unrealistic expectations of what happiness really is. Here are two suggestions to do better:
- Rather than beating yourself up for times you feel unhappy, simply allow yourself to experience your emotions without judgment.
- Also, take an honest look at how many hedonic and eudaimonic activities you engage in weekly or monthly. If you notice you engage in more self-centered activities, consider connecting with a cause you care about or increasing your time with loved ones.
Maybe life isn’t so much about feeling happy as it is about making meaning out of our days.
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Abby S. Howard is a Psychotherapist and Emotional Eating Coach at Change, Inc., a St. Louis Counseling and Psychiatry practice. She helps people enhance their well-being and break free from thoughts and behaviors holding them back in life. Download her free guide, 101+ Ways to Feel Better in Your Body Now. Contact her for counseling at 314-669-6242, or firstname.lastname@example.org.