Abraham Lincoln once said “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be,” and maybe he was right. Why else would book store shelves be groaning with the weight of books on how to make yourself happier, especially since-according to happiness research-earning lots of money will not even make authors of happiness books happier once they have enough money to satisfy basic needs.
Although many people believe you are born as either a Susie Sunshine or a Gloomy Gus, recent happiness research challenges this assumption. Pages of data have been compiled and analyzed by scientists, journalists and just plain happiness seekers who write how-to-be-happier manuals, a growing genre of books that attempts to lure readers with such promising titles as Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth; The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World; and Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment.
Now who wouldn’t want daily joy and lasting fulfillment?
But can plunking down $10 or $20 on a book really make you happier? Ian Smith, M.D., author of Happy: Simple Steps to Get the Most Out of Life, would likely say “yes.” He recently told Ann Curry on NBC’s Today show that research shows about 50 percent of one’s happiness is genetic and hard wired into the brain. “You’re born with it, you can’t do anything about it,” he said. “However, there’s 40 percent which you can control.”
That variable 40% is what Smith focuses on in his newly published happiness how-to book in which he shares with readers specific behaviors and attitudes they can adopt that will boost their happiness level, such as practicing random acts of kindness (for instance, putting two dollars in a vending machine with a note, “If you need it, take it. If not, leave it.”) and viewing the world more optimistically.
(In case you did the math and are wondering, happiness researchers believe the other 10% of one’s happiness is based on environment or circumstances.)
Smith told Today’s Ann Curry that if you are born with a happiness set point of two, you can raise it to a three or four by positively affecting the 40% of the happiness you can control. If Smith and the happiness studies are correct, just a couple of percentage points could make the difference between someone enduring a lifetime of misery or being almost as happy as the average Joe or Jane.
In an attempt to raise her own happiness set point, author Gretchen Rubin experimented with various happiness boosting techniques and documented them in her clever and engaging New York Times best seller, The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Rubin’s book recounts the year she spent “test-driving” happiness concepts from the worlds of science, philosophy, religion, poetry, history and popular culture- from Plutarch to the Dalai Lama to Oprah.
As part of her research, Gretchen Rubin launched her own personal “happiness project,” a quest to discover which attitudes and behaviors actually made her happier. Because not all happiness boosters are universal, Rubin challenged her readers to launch their own personal happiness projects, and her success story has sparked numerous personal and group happiness project spin-offs across the country. With Rubin’s book now being published in dozens of languages, her happiness project has turned into a movement that could result in global mood warming.
With the growing acceptance that one’s happiness level is not carved in stone at birth, such happiness book authors as Ian Smith and Gretchen Rubin may finally dispel the old popular notion that happiness is not worth pursuing, a belief that is epitomized by philosopher Eric Hoffer’s oft quoted remark, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”
It turns out the truth about happiness seeking may be counter-intuitive. Given the plasticity of one’s happiness set point, the pursuit of happiness may be not just an unalienable right under the U.S. Constitution, but a worthwhile personal journey for which one of the new how-to-be-happier books may provide a helpful road map.
Today show, NBC; April 30, 2010