The Magic Happiness Formula (That Science Actually Endorses!)

In this post:
1. My class on happiness at the University of Pittsburgh at Titusville
2. Happiness: Genetics vs. Circumstance
3. Happiness: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic
4. Positive Activity Interventions (PAIs)

A couple of questions before we begin:

What percentage of happiness is genetic – inherited and generally cannot be changed?

What percentage of happiness is a product of circumstance?

For the last five years, I have taught a class at the University of Pittsburgh at Titusville on happiness. I begin each semester telling the students that I can guarantee them much happier lives, if they give me 15-30 minutes a day for a month. I then clarify that I am not a guru, religious leader, or self-help charlatan. Instead, I can explain in detail how to scientifically become happier. I then ask them, how many of you, if I guaranteed increased happiness, would do this? At least 90% of their hands go up, the other 10% proves there are always jaded skeptics (my people!) in the room.

I then make the claim that no matter how much I prove that scientifically they could be happier, the vast majority of them will not take me up on this happiness miracle. Why? Simple. Culture is powerful; and, the solutions I will suggest go against American cultural beliefs. I further suggest that the reason I know they will not do this is because I study, research, and teach these simple ideas, yet I do not do most of them regularly. From the American cultural background, it is incredibly difficult to change the way we view happiness.

Now, back to the questions from above. What percentage of happiness is genetic – inherited and generally cannot be changed? Less than 50%. For a few decades, 50% has been generally agreed upon. However, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, has some exciting research that suggests this number is actually much lower than 50%.

What percentage of happiness is a product of circumstance? 10%. This is the number that Americans struggle to believe. For most of our lives, we are told that happiness comes from circumstance – good luck, money, graduation, job, marriage, children, and on and on… These are called extrinsic factors. And, they are not effective approaches for increasing happiness. Even when Americans are convinced that happiness does not come from material items or achievement, it is in our cultural DNA. It is nearly impossible for us to shake this idea.

So, what is the other 40 – 80%? What is the magic formula? What is the roadmap that you will not pursue? The primary reason that most Americans will not follow the road map is that science shows that happiness is a practice. It is something that takes time and commitment. Though, when the reward is so great, it is a relatively small amount of commitment. They are primarily intrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivators are focused on: Autonomy (independence), competence (ability / personal growth), and relatedness (Connection with others / Positively contributing to the community). When, we focus on these areas, we can become happier. But, in an individualistic culture that focuses on extrinsic motivation, it is more difficult than it seems.

So, here it is; 15 – 30 minutes a day of these activities will scientifically produce a happier life. Choose one or more of these things to do each day and scientifically, you will be happier:

First, Positive Activity Interventions (PAIs) have been proven highly effective (“The How, Why, What, When, and Who of Happiness”):

Writing letters of gratitude – as little as one letter a week has been shown to be highly effective in as little as 2-3 weeks (“A Short Introduction to Happiness”). A study showed that students who wrote thank you notes every Sunday night for one full college semester reported dramatically increased levels of happiness.

Counting one’s blessings – If you are religious, it can be as easy as spending a few minutes each day thanking God for your blessings each day. Even at our worst moments, we have things to be thankful for – breathing, family, etc. If you are not religious, thanking the universe is just as effective scientifically. Personally, I have found hiking to be a great time to practice this. As I walk, I spend a few minutes thinking of all the ways I am thankful for each person in my life and for other things as well. When I practice this, I have felt happier overall. Unfortunately, I do not consistently practice this, so the benefits come and go.

Practicing optimism – Imitating the behaviors of happy people. Okay, okay, I know this one sounds like the heart of quick fix charlatans… But, this is why these charlatans are often successful. There is a kernel of truth in what they claim. The problem is not the kernel of truth, it is that they over-promise with their claims. Watching what happy people do and mimicking it is scientifically proven to increase happiness; it is just not the magic formula that quick fix charlatans claim it is (Name it, Claim it preachers – I am looking at you here!).

Photo by Anna Shvets on

On a personal level, I have experienced this in my own life. I once had a roommate that was one of those irritating always smiling happy people. I never understood it. Then, I was going through a break-up that felt devastating. It felt like my world ended. Then, my irritatingly happy roommate came to visit. She said, “I have a secret. I am not always happy. I struggled with depression for most of my life. Then, I had a friend convince me to ‘fake it until I make it’. I didn’t want to fake it. I didn’t believe her. But, I did it. At first, I didn’t feel any happier. But, then, over a few days, it started to feel a little better, then a little more, etc. Eventually, my depression felt more manageable. It didn’t go away, but it was much more manageable.” Let me be clear here – I do not suggest that depression can be cured by pretending to be happy. However, scientifically, it can help a bit. And, the quick fix charlatans, have made it so that even the suggestion of mimicking happy behaviors gets push-back. Though, scientifically, it is absolutely true. Personally, I tried it. It definitely helped.

There are many other PAI’s that have been proven effective that I will outline in my next post on happiness. In the meantime, take a pause in your day and think about all the people/things you are thankful for today.

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