By: Julia D’Addurno
Spring is in full swing and most of us have begun to clean out our spaces as well as try new things to make way for a new season and beginning. Why not try adopting a brand new perspective?
Most people fail to realize we have the capacity to change our perspective and, in turn, take control of our overall happiness more than we believe. Even though most of us believe that our experiences and circumstances in life are mostly reflective of our overall happiness, it’s been revealed that factors such as financial resources, career, weather and climate, physical appearance and other external conditions in our lives only account for 10% of overall happiness (Lyubomirsky, S., & Della Porta, 2010). That is a really small percentage considering how much importance we place on them. The majority of the time, when we encounter setbacks in our life, we try to fix the external things but our control of the outer world is limited, temporary, and illusory.
So if the events that occur in our lives don’t account for the majority of our happiness, then what does? Research on happiness has concluded that our happiness levels depend 50% on our genetics. A research study on happiness conducted by David Lykken and Auke Tellegen (1996) examined 1300 sets of identical and fraternal twins. The identical twins reported similar levels of happiness, while fraternal twins exhibited more variance in their subjective well-being. These results indicated that nearly half of our happiness can be determined by genetic factors. The other half is comprised of life’s circumstances and how we respond to them (Lykken, D., & Tellegen, A., 1996). This includes the 10% on the circumstances under which you live, and 40% on our intentional activities – our actions, attitude and optimism, and how we handle situations.
Of course the concept of happiness is more complex than this. Happiness is mostly subjective, so there is no real formula for it. However, our genes interact with such other factors as our circumstances, environment, and actions, which all play an important role in determining our overall sense of well-being and satisfaction in life.
We can’t control our genes or most of the events that take place in our lives, but there are ways to control our experience of reality simply by changing our interpretation of it. Shawn Achor, an author and advocate in positive psychology, discusses this phenomenon in his book Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. He explains: “It’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality” (Achor, 2010).
So how do we do this?
Activating dopamine in the brain is one way to increase levels of happiness and alter your perspective. Dopamine is one of the many neurotransmitters in the brain, and it has a huge impact on our overall mood and well-being. Some of the ways in which we activate dopamine in our daily lives include:
Expressing Gratitude and Optimism
Focusing on what you’re grateful for is one of the ways you can shift to a more positive mindset. Taking some time to reflect on what you’re thankful for allows you to take time for yourself and remember positive events and accomplishments from each day.
It’s no surprise that physical activity in general is one of the best things you can do for not just your body but your mind. It increases the production of new brain cells, slows down the aging of existing brain cells, and increases levels of dopamine. Various studies have shown that exercise can reduce feelings of anxiety, tension, and anger, and increase feelings of vigor (Gauvin, 1990; Gauvin and Spence, 1996; Steptoe et al., 1989; Yeung, 1996). In a study on the association between exercise and well-being, those who exercise were found to be more satisfied with their life and happier than non-exercisers at all ages (Stubbe, J. H., De Moor, M. H. M., Boomsma, D. I., & de Geus, E. J. C., 2007).
Meditation & Mindfulness
There have been countless studies on the health benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Many of the results have shown that meditation increases levels of dopamine and counters feelings of stress, which leads to greater overall satisfaction. According to Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth, we’re happiest when we are mindful of the moment, and we’re the least happiest when our mind is wandering (Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T., 2010). Those who practice mindfulness learn how to stay in the present moment and regulate their emotions better than those who don’t.
Sometimes we simply need help to see the brighter side of things and someone to show us a different perspective. Most research has shown that a good therapeutic alliance is a reliable predictor of a positive clinical outcome (Horvath, A. O., 2001). Positive psychology is often used in treatment to enhance positive emotions, engagement, and meaning in a person’s life.
Although these ways of increasing dopamine and well-being in our life can be beneficial to us, it’s important to remember that happiness is just one emotion and humans aren't built to experience only one emotion. Changing your perspective in a more positive way means looking at what you have and shifting your focus to what makes your life great. What are you thankful for? What do you enjoy doing? What makes you feel good? These are the aspects to focus on and find pleasure in. These are the aspects that factor into the 40% of our happiness. Practicing a more positive lifestyle will create a happier outlook and make us a little more resilient to some of life’s setbacks.
Achor, S. (2010). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. New York: Broadway Books.
Horvath, A. O. (2001). The alliance. Psychotherapy: Theory, research, practice, training, 38(4), 365.
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.
Lykken, D., & Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness Is a Stochastic Phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7(3), 186-189. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/stable/40062939
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. Penguin.
Lyubomirsky, S., & Della Porta, M. D. (2010). Boosting happiness, buttressing resilience. Handbook of adult resilience, 450-464.
Stubbe, J. H., De Moor, M. H. M., Boomsma, D. I., & de Geus, E. J. C. (2007). The association between exercise participation and well-being: a co-twin study. Preventive medicine, 44(2), 148-152.