The real secret about happiness


This morning I read an interesting blog post on Rhonda Byrne’s hugely successful little book, The Secret. I tend to agree with the blog’s author, Molly Gordon, that the idea that we can manipulate The Universe to attract all that we want is a bit suspect, to say the least.

By co-incidence, I also read about a  study on the psychology of happiness by US researchers Sheldon & Lyubomirsky in 2006. Their work centred on an earlier piece of research in 2005 by Lyubormirksy and colleagues, which culminated in the following theory: up to 50% of our happiness rating was determined by a genetic set point, 10% was related to our circumstances and the remaining 40% was down to focusing energy and behaviour in deliberate activities like pursuing goals we set ourselves, like keeping physically fit, taking a positive outlook and so on.

Sheldon & Lyubormirsky took this theory and tried to find empirical evidence to validate it. Their conclusion was that people get used to changes in their circumstances (moving to a sunnier place, a lottery win, a new car) pretty quickly. The difference to the participants’ sense of wellbeing and happiness came from continuing to pursue the deliberate activities.

The researchers summed up their study saying, “our data suggest that effort and hard work offer the most promising route to happiness.”

So, even if focusing on a shiny new Mercedes, a personal helicopter or 32-bedroomed mansion does by chance cause The Universe to leap to your assistance, the chances are that, if your circumstances were already ok, your happiness level won’t spike for long.

Instead, the sense of ‘flow’ that Czikszentimihalyi describes when a challenging activity exactly collides with your level of skill – just enough that you have to concentrate, but you’re getting positive feedback that you are making progress towards your goal – then the endorphins will be fairly bouncing round your system. Intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation seems to make the difference.

In other words, it’s the creative ‘doing’, the journey, rather than the material outcome (arriving), that sustains happiness in the long term. 

As Donald Trump put it,

“Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game.”

And the only thing that gets in the way of ‘playing the game’ is fear. Seth Godin writes about keeping up the momentum here Keep showing up, even when you don’t feel much like it.


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