When it comes to happiness, my mind immediately wanders through my childhood and inevitably lands on Charlie Brown. Mere mention of Charlie Brown or any of his friends makes me long for tiny Christmas trees and oversized great pumpkins. Chances are if you’re Gen X you remember the musical, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. And maybe, just maybe, you sang the song Happiness in your school choir. I did and I’m old enough to have seen it come around for a second time at my daughter’s school. It’s a brilliant song, filled with lyrics pointing to simple pleasures, alongside standout deep as hell concepts as, “And happiness is being alone every now and then.
And happiness is coming home again. “ In short, Happiness, makes me happy. But why?
Many of us can agree that happiness is one of those things that we know when we feel. But for those who study happiness, a definition coined by research psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky has become the standard. Lyubomirsky defines happiness as, the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well -being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” And this definition has set the standard for how happiness is studied by Lyubomirsky and others. And studied it has been. In fact our very own CAL Berkeley is home to the Greater Good Science Center, where researchers have been studying the hard science of happiness for years and applying it to all aspects of life, school and work. Cultivating happiness, has become their mission.
But where does it start? Neuroscientists have discovered that the mind creates what is known as a negative bias. Research scientist Rick Hanson refers to the mind as, “velcro for negative experiences, and Teflon for positive ones.” A basic evolutionary survival tactic, our brains learned very quickly to store and recall negative experiences over positive ones in order to learn from them. And this has served us well. We have learned all sorts of things from this storing of negative information. Even simple things, like going to the bathroom before we leave the house. Making sure we bring water on a hike, and wearing shoes on really hot sand. The problem with negative bias is that it takes at least 5 positive interactions to make up for one negative one. Ouch!
And this is due to how as neurons fire together, they wire together. And when we are simply going through life with an inherent negative bias, those pathways are being reinforced. Teaching our minds to strengthen around positive experiences instead of negative ones is where happiness becomes paramount. Not only does happiness improve other aspects of our lives, but it really helps reshape the pathway of negative bias. Here are just a few of the findings the Greater Good Science Center has discovered about happiness: Happiness improves our health, strengthens our relationships, leads to more money and greater success, encourages us to be more generous, better able to cope with stress and trauma, and facilitates creativity and big picture thinking. In other words, happiness is kick ass!
Here’s the hard science. Lyubomirsky found that roughly 50% of happiness is determined by our genes. OMG and 10% by our life circumstances. The remaining 40% depends on our daily activities. Yuck, that’s not so happy, but I think we have learned on this podcast, that small increments can lead to massive change. So let’s look at that 40%. How can we fill that up and cultivate some fucking happiness? The Greater Good Science center offers the following science based activities to get that 40 filled:
Experience awe, engage in best possible self thinking - or imagine your life and relationships going as well as they possibly could, then write this down, use what is known as mental subtraction of positive events, visualize what your life would be like without the good things you have, photography, then write about things that are ,meaningful to you, and connect with and spend your time with people you care about. Also, Charlie Brown.
For more on HAPPINESS listen to JOY IS NOW Episode 64 with Sonya Philip