Ask most people what they want and you inevitably will hear one constant requirement in everyone’s life plan: to be happy.

Unfortunately, happiness can often be illusive for many people – no matter what their income or net worth is. Their way to remedy this is often to pursue a constantly moving target of “I just need a little more and then I will be happy”.

This is called the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’ or ‘Hedonic Adaptation’. It is the nemesis of happiness. It is the villain that “has been expecting you”. It is a theory that states that no matter how much your wealth increases, your wants, desires and expectations will also increase at an equal rate. This results in no permanent improvement in happiness. Sad face.

So is there a way that we can increase our happiness other than just increasing material or financial wealth?

Genetics: Your Happiness ‘Set Point’

Research has shown that we all seem to have a ‘genetic set point’ or level of happiness that is determined at birth; some people are just naturally happier than others. This set point is the level of happiness we return to when we get over adversity or good fortune.

Fortunately 87% of the 2,300 people studied had a set point above neutral, meaning that most of us in the long run are generally more happy than unhappy.

However, this does not mean that we are tied to a certain level of happiness.In fact, our genetic set point is thought to only contribute to 50% of our overall happiness, leaving the remaining 50% for us to have influence over.

Circumstances: Money, Possessions and Status

McLaren 12C - Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comThe Hedonic Treadmill only allows the happiness bought by newfound wealth or possessions to last briefly before you start to feel comfortable in your new surrounding and start to want more again.

It would be wrong to say that money can buy happiness, but it would also be wrong to suggest that it does not have an effect on your happiness. To be happy we need to have our basic needs met, and in a modern city that will normally require a certain amount of money (but you probably already have this level of wealth). If you lived in a village or tribe however, you may have these needs met in other ways without the need for money.

So as far as happiness in concerned, you can reach your goal without a Rolls Royce and penthouse apartment. This is good news. You can be happy rich and you can be happy poor. In order to have a happy and fulfilling life it will be more productive to focus on other areas of your wellbeing (intrinsic goals) rather than just money and possessions (extrinsic goals). So even if your hard work brings you wealth, and then bad luck takes it away again, your happiness will remain.

“What counts is ones attitude to wealth, which is the wise man’s servant and the fool’s master” – Seneca

Circumstances such as your job, monetary wealth and social status seem to only make up 10% of your overall happiness. This leaves four times as much influence to come from somewhere else.

“I’d like to live as a poor man with lots of money” – Pablo Picasso

Actions and Thought: What you choose to do and think

This is the golden region: The part where you can have an immediate impact and the area that will bring you the greatest gains in happiness. Your actions, thoughts and the activities you choose to take part in contribute to 40% of your overall happiness.

So here are some things you can do to max out your 40% quota…

Do what you love to do, have fun and work positively towards your goals

We hear this all too often, but for those not following their passion, this can seem like something only the fortunate few can do. We often put aside our passion in exchange for a regular or larger paycheck with the idea that the money will bring happiness.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do” – Steve Jobs

If you do not love what you do then eventually someone who does love what you do will come along and out class you or replace you. As Jim Carrey said: “I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”

Forge Discipline: physically and mentally:

Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.com
Photo Credit: United States Marine Corps

Having self discipline is a tough task. It is so easy to go easy on yourself or to justify actions you know work against you. It will take time and ongoing effort, but forging a disciplined mind will be the foundation for developing habits that lead to increased happiness.

  • Declutter your life (more here) – “Things you own, end up owning you” – Tyler Durden (Fight Club)
  • Exercise – even if you never become a fitness fanatic you should still aim to remain active every day
  • Eat what the body requires not what it desires – Food can have a dramatic influence on energy and focus levels. Being sluggish, ill and lethargic has never been a good recipe for a happy state
  • Develop core values to live by (more here)
  • Learn and develop – read (more here), practice, observe and teach. “live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever” – Mahatma Gandhi

Adjust your outlook

Different people will view the same situation in different ways. Just like an old iron scuba diving helmet with a small window to see though, we all look at out at the world around us through our own window. If your window highlights the good in others, the good fortune in our life and the best in every scenario, this is how we assume the world is. Likewise if our window shows the opposite, we will consider that same world to be the total opposite. Luckily we can create a new window:

  • Gratitude Walk – while walking, standing in a train, driving your car or any mundane task, start to list all of the things you are grateful for (include the small and insignificant through to the big and significant). Do this at least once a day.
  • Meditate – Compassion meditators have been known to increase their own happiness. They can actually increase the size of the area responsible for happiness through neuroplasticity
  • Compassion – Find a human connection with everyone. Go beneath their outer appearance, mood or actions: connect with their basic human wants and needs that you also share (Read: The Art of Happiness – The Dalai Lama)
  • Focus on intrinsic goals – such as personal growth, friendships, family relationships, helping others and contributing to making the world a better place (even if only a small way)
  • Altruism – Commit acts of random kindness on a regular basis without expectation for it to be repaid
  • Be humble – Speak with your actions, have a strong work ethic and be dependable

Maximize Dopamine

Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comA lot of happiness depends on dopamine, which is a neuro-transmitter: It is necessary for feelings of pleasure and happiness. We lose these dopamine receptors as we age – the best way to reduce this erosion is using them, by seeking out activities that require dopamine. Dopamine is created during aerobic exercise and especially when we do it in novelty or fun ways.

“When our dopamine system is activated, we are more positive, excited and eager to go after goals or rewards, such as food, sex, money, education or professional achievements,” – Richard Depue

When I took part in an obstacle half marathon – Tough Mudder (video) – everyone was buzzing with happiness as we crossed the finish line. Everyone was happy and smiling like school kids. If it wasn’t for the bruises, scrapes and a thick layer of mud covering our bodies, you would never have known that we had just spent hours in pain and exhaustion. I didn’t know it then, but the reason for this was the genius mixture of team work, aerobic exercise and novel activities – which all would have put our dopamine levels through the roof.

You don’t need to take part in extreme endurance races to achieve these results though. You just need to feed your inner child and seek out new and fun ways to stay active. Be curious, try new things and don’t take yourself too seriously.

Get in ‘The Zone’ more often

We have probably all had a feeling at some point where we were incredibly focused, engrossed and efficient in performing a task. In this state we often perform well above our usual level and achieve things we didn’t know possible. This is called being in ‘The Zone’ or in a state of ‘Flow’.

Research has shown that people who experience flow on a regular basis are generally happier than those that do not. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi created the following chart that maps which activities will typically evoke a state of flow:

Flow Chart

In addition to a task being highly challenging, requiring a high skill level and having the confidence that you can achieve it, you will also need the following:

  1. The activity must have a clear set of goals and we must feel that we are making progress
  2. The task must have clear and immediate feedback so that we can monitor success
  3. You must have confidence in your ability to complete the task
  4. There must be minimal distractions as this state is easily broken and hard to rebuild

Most people will generally know what activities or tasks evoke this state, but common skills associated with being in ‘The Zone’ are: playing a musical instrument, sports or challenging games such as chess.

Community: Surround yourself with friends and family

Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comWe are social creatures. People who have stronger and broader relationships are generally happier. We need a network of family and friends who are supportive, loving, entertaining and challenging. When we have these close connections it gives us a strong feeling of belonging and a greater sense of self-worth.

Those who do not have a strong group of close connections even suffer effects on their health: leading to similar levels of health risk as smoking or obesity!

Our community also extends to our workplace and group activities. Working as part of a team and having a role to play in that group gives us meaning and the feeling of being part of something bigger: A joint goal.

So a key objective in your pursuit of happiness is to concentrate on strengthening your current relationships: friends, family and colleauges.Find others with similar interests, beliefs and values to ensure you are adding quality members to your network… simply adding to your number of Facebook friends does not count; all this does is clog up your newsfeed with things you don’t care about.

“You show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.” – John Wooden

Have fun, have new experiences and have a sense of humour

Matt Renew - Blog Post - www.matthewrenew.comDiscipline, hard work, meditation and eating clean all sounds like serious business – and it is – but that does not mean that you need to lose your sense of play. Just like a skydiver jumping out of a plane: she is undertaking a very serious activity that could have life threatening consequences, but that does not stop her enjoying the ride, beaming from ear to ear and taking in each moment.

Happier than a billionaire?

This leaves us with the important question: “Can you be happier than a billionaire?” The answer to this is a resounding YES! In fact you may already be happier than a large number of very wealthy people – even if your genetic set point for happiness is average and you only have enough money to get by. As long as you:

  • Do what you love
  • Discipline your mind and body
  • Focus on intrinsic goals
  • Feel gratitude for whatever you have
  • Be part of a team and surround yourself with caring and supportive people
  • Get involved in a variety of fun and interesting activities

You can be happier than a billionaire.

 

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