Do you ever look at your dog (or a friend’s dog, or a dog at the park) and think He looks so happy. I want to come back as a content dog in my next life! With all the research and studies being done on the science of happiness lately, you don’t need to wait until you’re next life. You can be happy right now.
Today I watched a documentary titled, simply enough, Happy. This 2011 film is directed by Roko Belic and follows happy people all over the world to find out what makes them so gosh darn happy. It’s an inspiring, feel good watch and I’ve jotted down the 10 key points of this film to help you get started.
1. 50% of our happiness levels are determined by our genes. This is called our genetic setpoint.
“Most of us are born with a certain range of happiness that we fall in most of the time.” -Sonja Lyubamirsky, PhD. Professor of Psychology at UC Riverside
The rest of the pie has to do with circumstances (job, social status, age, etc.) and intentional activity (aka what you do). The great part about the intentional activity is that you get to choose what that is. You can change your actions.
2. From your teenage years onward, you’re slowly losing dopamine synapses and dopamine neurons.
So you better use it or lose it – in this way, the brain is similar to any muscle in your body. Find experiences that release dopamine, the neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for feelings of pleasure and happiness. The best way to do that is through physical activity. Studies show that aerobic exercise is the best releaser of dopamine, especially if you do it in novel ways. Examples: exploring outdoors, playing sports, or just playing in general.
3. Being “in the zone” is optimum for happiness.
You know when you get really focused on something you’re doing – whether it be playing the piano, playing a sport, dancing, working on a project, or whatever else – that you lose all sense of time and you don’t want to stop until you’ve finished? That’s being in the zone, also known as flow. People who experience flow on a regular basis are happier than those who don’t. When you’re in the zone you’re in control, you forget your problems, you forget yourself, and your ego disappears. Over time it builds the feeling that life is worth living. That’s why having dreams, goals, and passions are so important.
4. “In general, people do really good when things go really bad.” -Daniel Gilbert, PhD. Author of Stumbling on Happiness
We tend to think if only something really good would happen (getting the promotion, getting married, having your dream home) then we’d have everlasting happiness, but in reality even when we get those things the joy quickly fades. The same thing goes for when bad things happen to us. We think we will be devastated forever, but that devastation quickly fades as well.
Accepting all of your life (the good and bad) is part of healing. It’s never too late to heal and start over. Bad things can lead to great things. You can make a choice.
“One of the key ingredients to happiness is being able to recover from adversity more quickly.” -Tim Kasser, PhD. Professor of Psychology at Knox College
5. The hedonic treadmill is one of the main enemies of happiness.
What’s the hedonic treadmill? It’s the natural tendency we have that no matter how much social or financial status we gain, we adapt and we always want more. In America we’re about twice as wealthy as we were 50 years ago but studies show that our happiness levels have remained stagnant.
Studies also show that once a person’s basic needs are met, more money doesn’t equal more happiness. Our values are a key component of happiness.
Extrinsic goals are those focused on rewards, praise, money, image, and status.
Intrinsic goals are focused on personal growth, relationships, and community feeling (a desire to help).
Guess which group tends to be more depressed, unhappy, anxious, and less vital?
Factoid! Japan is the least happy of the wealthy, industrialized countries in the world. Since having to rebuild after WWII, Japan has emphasized economic growth and material prosperity above all else. Karoshi is a real trend over there – it’s the occurrence of death from working too much.
6. In the country of Bhutan, the main goal is to have happy citizens, not a high GNP.
“Humanity needs a higher goal for development and that is Gross National Happiness.” -Dasho Kinley Dorji, Ministry of Info & Communication, Government of Bhutan
The people of Bhutan believe happiness lies within the self, not external circumstances. In their country, law states that 60% of the land must always be forest. Monasteries and schools are protected by the state, and there are other rules to keep the language, dress, and architecture intact. Pretty cool, huh?
7. “Having a lot of friends is happiness.” – senior resident in Okinawa, Japan
This is a big, recurring theme in the documentary, which leads me to believe this is the number one key to happiness. Funny enough, as unhappy as the mainland citizens of Japan are, their islander counterparts in Okinawa are overflowing with joy and vitality. The villages in Okinawa contain large clusters of some of the oldest living residents in the world. What are they doing right?
First off, they grow their own veggies (sans pesticides) and share them with friends and family. Okinawans work hard, maintain cultural traditions, and put a lot of emphasis on family and community.
“Icharibachode means when you meet somebody you are already brother and sister, even if it’s the first time. We feel that you should do no harm to anybody. That is the icharibachode spirit.”
When someone in their village dies, they cremate the body and put the ashes in a communal coffin where all the ashes mix together.
Factoid! “Monchu” means one family in Okinawa.
But how does community actually make people so happy? Being part of a community makes people switch from thinking What don’t I have? to What do I have? It gives a sense of purpose. What can I share? We all need something bigger than ourselves to care about.
“Social bonding, social interaction, and cooperation is programmed to be intrinsically rewarding to humans.” -P Read Montague, PhD. Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine
8. “To laugh is very important…Sometimes I pretend to be a buffalo.” -Kunda Bo of the San Bushman tribe
What made us happy before before we had internet, video games, and television?
In Namibia, there’s a group of people living there that are more closely related to our ancient ancestors than any other group currently on the planet. They are the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. They live off the land and depend completely on one another.
“It doesn’t matter what we’re doing. Just being together…that’s what makes us happy.”
It can really be that simple. The bushmen feel responsible for each others health and well being. The entire community participates in the healing process if a member becomes sick. This not only displays the importance of community, but of compassion as well.
“My real guru to teach me the value of compassion is my mother…compassion, from birth, is in our blood.” -Dalai Lama
It’s in our blood thanks to the compassion our mothers show us before we are even born.
9. Certain kinds of meditation can impact happiness and mood better than powerful anti-depressants.
“We, through intention, can change our brain.” -Richard Davidson, PhD. Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at University of Wisconsin-Madison
Studies show that counting your blessings on a regular basis can make you happier. An even more effective method is committing acts of kindness.
One of the interviewees in the documentary, Andy Wimmer, has been volunteering for over 17 years at the Home for the Dying & Destitute in Kolkata, India, founded by Mother Teresa. By caring for these individuals, Wimmer has learned acceptance, tolerance, and that every life is precious. It gives his own life fulfillment and meaning:
“My life is like a loan given from God and I will give this loan back, but with interest.”
10. Think of things bigger than yourself, not just your own happiness, but be authentically you through it all.
“We should really be thinking of happiness as a skill, which is no different than learning to play the violin or learning to play golf.”
The formula for happiness is not the same for everyone, but the things we love to do are the building blocks for a happy life.
I adore the final thoughts of the film: Play, have new experiences, embrace friends & family, do things that are meaningful, and appreciate what we have. These things are free. And with happiness, the more you have – the more everyone has.
So go have fun, help others, laugh at your friends’ jokes (which is what is happening to me below) and remember that you only have one life, no do overs.
You can watch Happy on Netflix and check out thehappymovie.com
Photo credit for the Happiness chart: