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Does Sustainable Happiness Really Exist?

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For many of us, happiness seems like an abstract concept, with no measurable goals or outcomes. As such, the pursuit of happiness may seem unattainable or even frivolous. However, a 2007 study by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon found that there are clear steps that you can take to increase your level of happiness.

In this article we explore these scientifically proven techniques and give actionable steps that you can take in your own life.

Why bother?

Happiness has been shown to have positive correlations with career success, better relationships, increased creativity, enhanced physical health and a longer life expectancy. The benefits are not just on an individual level – longitudinal studies have shown that countries with higher levels of happiness were able to better withstand crises such as the 2008 global recession and the Fukushima disaster.

Uncontrollable Factors

Many influential people push the narrative that happiness is all a mind-game, however Lyubomirsky & Sheldon found that there are some basic needs that must be fulfilled in order to find true happiness. Wealth is an obvious factor, however it affects happiness only to a limit. In one study of wealth and happiness, it was found that variations in income only make a difference at the lowest income brackets, and once a basic living income is achieved the curve straightens out. This means that, all other factors aside, someone earning $1M is unlikely to be much happier than someone earning $100k.

Similarly, health does have an impact on happiness insofar as it may limit freedom and satisfaction with life. However, in most cases even health factors can be overcome by re-evaluating happiness goals and making them more achievable with regards to one’s personal circumstance.

Finally, perhaps the most important determinant of happiness is genetics. Though it can be altered throughout childhood and beyond, there is evidence that disposition and a tendency to cheerfulness do have genetic factors. In fact, one twin study was able to accurately predict the happiness of twins raised in different parts of the world by ranking their levels of neuroticism and extraversion and plotting these against existing data.

What can you do?

By recognising that there are uncontrollable factors at play when it comes to achieving happiness, we can identify the factors that can be controlled and create strategies to maximise their effectiveness. The three activities listed below have all been scientifically proven to increase happiness in individuals:

  1. Goal setting. A 2006 study found that people’s ability to resist social pressures and to pursue self-endorsed goals was a major contributor to future happiness. Setting goals, both small and large, is a simple way to trick your brain into a sense of achievement and increase your happiness over time.
  2. Healthy lifestyle. While it seems a simple fix, a healthy lifestyle really can lead to happiness. Diet and exercise both play a big part in mental health and well-being, and impact the “happiness hormones” which lead to a feeling of satisfaction.
  3. Mindfulness. A wide-ranging concept, mindfulness is basically living in the moment and having the power to control any negative thoughts before they impact your mood or actions. Mindfulness can be improved through practice, or through activities like meditation, yoga and controlled breathing. For some people, apps like Headspace and Calm can help guide you through simple mindfulness exercises. If negative thoughts and feelings persist, strategies like therapy or counselling can help.

If you’re struggling to find happiness, start slowly with just one of the above and commit to making it a habit. For more resources and expert advice on finding happiness, check out the Exec Reset podcast.

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