What makes us happy?

Happiness Project, Happy, Book, Documentary, Lea SpencerI’ve been reading this book, The Happiness Project, which tells the story of a woman spending one year trying to live a happier life. Being a historian by trade, the author spends much of this year researching how difference philosophers and religions view happiness as well as how different cultures and classes view it.

I’m only half way through the book, but having this concept of happiness on my mind whilst surfing the Netflix for a nice documentary to indulge in last night, I stumbled upon Happy, which took viewers on a trip around the world to find out what makes people happy. Sold.

It explored areas like the Louisiana bayou, the slums of Kolkata, the towers of Tokyo and the villages of Namibia. The study of happiness is a segment of psychology that has only recently become a serious area of academia. Researchers have determined that most humans are born with a general range of happiness that they exist in. DNA is supposed to make up 50% of one’s range, while 40% is “intentional activities” or things one chooses to do. Only 10% (if you can believe it) is the circumstances in which one lives, or those things one doesn’t control (where one is born, to whom and with what advantages).

This “happiness measure” also broke down goals into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. In this case, intrinsic included “personal growth” “close relationships” and “contributing to the world,” while extrinsic included “money” “image” and “status.” No shocker here: the people who lived their lives in pursuit of intrinsic goals reported more happiness than those who lived in pursuit of extrinsic ones.

Happy, Happiness Project, Lea Spencer, Lea Craft Spencer, Documentary

This isn’t to say that money isn’t important. According to the film, people in the US who earned $5,000 a year reported much less happiness than those who earned $50,000, but people who earned $50,000,000 reported no more happiness than those earning $50,000. So money does influence happiness insofar as it buys the necessities of life and security of future, but once those needs have been met, earning more in terms of material possessions didn’t bring people more happiness.

So what does bring people happiness? Both the film and book reported that the happiest of people all maintain a close support system of friends and family. I suppose it’s true that we aren’t meant to live our lives alone. The film also found that people who live for something bigger than themselves reported more happiness more often. For some religion fills this need, for others it’s volunteering and for some people I imagine their jobs bring them this satisfaction.

Finally, and most interestingly to me, any activity that puts you “in the zone,” so to speak, initiates the flow of dopamine in your brain, which assists in happiness. For some people this is exercise, for some people it’s gardening, for some lucky people it’s their jobs, but finding that activity for yourself and doing it a lot proved paramount. What’s your happiness activity?

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