Happiness: Taking the Bull by the Horns

One of the best things that you can do for others is take good care of yourself. Chances are your loved-ones care deeply about your health and well-being, and therefore it pleases them to see you happy. When you realize that you are responsible for your actions, your thoughts, and your attitude, your pathway to happiness becomes evident. In this two-part series I’m going to teach you a little bit about happiness. Being happier will make you a better friend, family member, partner, teacher, coach, therapist, trainer, or lifting partner. Part I will focus on the research and quotes, and part II will discuss the specific steps that I’ve taken to reclaim my happiness.

What Does the Research Say About Happiness?

It’s a bit strange consulting the literature regarding happiness. Let’s be honest – anyone performing a search on PubMed for the term “happiness” probably isn’t very happy. Indeed, several months ago I came to the realization that I wasn’t very happy, and my first step was to learn a bit about happiness through PubMed. Below is a summary of my understanding of what is currently known in the research on the topic of happiness.

What are Happiness and Well-Being?

Well-being or happiness requires at least two crucial ingredients: positive affect or pleasure (hedonia) and a sense of meaningfulness or engagement in life (eudaimonia). Happiness is a composite of life satisfaction, coping resources, and positive emotions. Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the foremost experts on the topic of happiness, confesses that years back his definition of happiness was too narrow; resting primarily upon three legs – positive emotion, engagement, and meaning, with the overall goal as increased life-satisfaction. Now he believes that the overall goal is improved well-being, and has added positive relationships and accomplishment to the mix.

There are two primary aspects of well-being; emotional well-being and life-evaluation. Emotional well-being has to do with the emotional qualities involved in everyday life – the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection that make someone’s life pleasant or unpleasant. Life evaluation has to do with the thoughts that people have about their lives when they think about it.

Hedonic Adaptation

A year after most lottery winners win the lottery, they’re right back to their previous level of happiness and no happier than ordinary people. For this reason researchers have proposed that we have a baseline level of happiness and that it’s difficult to permanently elevate it. Recent research elucidates the challenges of staying happier; the gains in well-being following a positive life change are typically eroded via two processes. First, a bottom-up process whereby individuals receive declining positive emotions from the positive life change over time, and second, a top-down process whereby individuals quickly aspire to gain even more positivity.

The U-Shaped Curve of Happiness over the Life-Cycle

For the most part, happiness follows a U-shaped curve over the life-cycle, with happiness reaching a minimum during middle age (30-40 yrs old) and being higher during adolescence and advanced years (peaks during teens and seventies). This is related to the stress involved in the responsibilities of marriage, child rearing, career decisions, and financial dilemmas. Moreover, the U-shape is more pronounced in males than it is in females. Probably related is the fact that marital happiness follows a similar U-shaped curve.

The Shifting Meaning of Happiness over a Lifetime

Younger people tend to associate happiness with excitement, but as they age, they tend to associate happiness with peacefulness. This change seems to be driven by a change in focus from the future to the present as people age. This has many effects such as purchasing behavior and methods utilized to increase one’s happiness.

Why are Happy People Happier than their Less-Happy Counterparts?

Happy people become more satisfied in life because they develop resources for living well, not simply because they feel better. They also experience more frequent positive “in the moment” emotions, which increases resiliency and life satisfaction. This suggests that experiencing frequent spikes of joy and satisfaction throughout the day is at least as beneficial as simply having a good outlook in life.

Improvers of Life Evaluation

Having sufficient income to meet your basic needs, maintain a suitable standard of living, and have ownership of conveniences increase one’s evaluation of his life, as does increasing one’s education. Material prosperity is much more related to life evaluation than it is to emotional well-being.

Improvers of Emotional Well-Being

Meeting psychological needs, being in good health, caring for others, experiencing adequate social interaction, learning, having autonomy, using one’s skills, receiving respect, and being able to count on others in an emergency improve positive feelings about one’s life. Psychosocial prosperity is much more related to well-being and positive thoughts than it is to life evaluation.

Can Money Buy Happiness?

This is a bit ambiguous in the research as the literature shows complex and conflicting results on money and happiness. Income appears play a role in happiness, but one study showed that there’s a ceiling at $75,000, meaning that increasing income past this level does not improve emotional well-being. Life-evaluation continues to rise with increased income well-over six-figure salaries, but increased income doesn’t lead to greater happiness, it doesn’t relieve unhappiness, and it doesn’t reduce stress.

Having low income has been shown to exacerbate the emotional pains associated with divorce, illness, and loneliness.  Affluent and disadvantaged populations do indeed experience greater symptoms of depression, but this isn’t solely related to low income as the relationships with poor health, physical disability, and social isolation factor in considerably as well. Low income is associated with both low life evaluation and low emotional well-being. But increased income isn’t the only solution as high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness.

Thinking about time rather than money improves happiness. When you focus on time, you end up spending more time with friends and family and less time working, which makes you happier. However, when you focus on money, you end up working more and socializing less, which does not improve happiness.

Wealthier individuals do not savor (the ability to enhance and prolong) positive emotional experiences and they receive less total enjoyment from various experiences, and this outweighs the positive effects of their increased income. Access to the best things in life may actually undercut one’s ability to enjoy life’s small pleasures.

In terms of employment, being paid by the hour increases happiness as it promotes an economic evaluation of time-use. Non-hourly working counterparts aren’t quite as happy. Rank income, not absolute income, plays a role in life satisfaction. This means that increasing your income won’t make you happier if everyone else’s income is raised proportionately – what will make you happier is if your increase in income places you at a higher rank amongst your peers.

Factors Important for Improved Quality of Life

Good relationships with both the close world (self, partners, friends) and the distant world are important for possessing a superior quality of life, as is having a good overall view of life. Possessions, money, status, and work aren’t important to global quality of life or self-assessed health. Self-perceived physical health, self-perceived mental health, and satisfaction with health are much more important for quality of life. What one sees, evaluates, and experiences what he has, his level of consciousness, and his attitude toward life and others; not what one actually has, are the factors that are truly important for improved quality of life.

A general perception exists that meaning in life and happiness are essential to the concept of a good life, with money being relatively unimportant.

Spending Money on Others is More Important for Happiness than Spending Money on One’s Self

Research shows that how people spend their money is at least as important as how much money they earn. Specifically, spending a greater percentage of one’s income on others leads to greater happiness and buying someone something increases happiness more so than buying something for yourself.

Consensus

We all have our moments of unhappiness, loneliness, sorrow, and depression. However certain people experience these feelings much less often than others. Moreover, certain people are simply happier and more fulfilled than others and this doesn’t appear to have much to do with material goods or high achievement, but rather a good outlook on life and high quality relationships. Past a certain point, money won’t buy you happiness. And though comfort is nice, it can make a person bored which is why we need to continue to challenge ourselves. Yet it’s important to understand that continuous conquests won’t make much of a difference in our happiness; we need to be content with what we have and appreciate our relationships.

There’s a definite genetic component to happiness, but happiness is also highly dependent on thoughts. Little things like smiling, mindless meditation, and noticing what you’re grateful for can make a big difference in your quality of life. Finally, no matter how hard it is, it is imperative that you forgive people.

When I learned that positive thinking and healthy thoughts cause structural changes in the brain (just like resistance training does in the muscles), and that money isn’t the secret to happiness, I started focusing on more fruitful aspects of happiness which allowed me to make excellent decisions related to my well-being. I’ll elaborate on this in Part II. I’ll conclude Part I by providing some quotes on happiness.

Happiness Quotes

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature. ~ Marcus Aurelius

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence. ~ Aristotle

So much sadness exists in the world that we are all under obligation to contribute as much joy as lies within our powers. ~ John Sutherland Bonnell

Success is getting what you want, happiness is wanting what you get. ~ Dave Gardner

The happiest people seem to be those who have no particular reason for being so except that they are so. ~ William Ralph Inge

Happiness is an attitude. We either make ourselves miserable, or happy and strong. The amount of work is the same. ~Francesca Reigler

The secret of contentment is knowing how to enjoy what you have, and to be able to lose all desire for things beyond your reach. ~ Lin Yutang

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our Attitudes. ~ Charles R. Swindoll

30 thoughts on “Happiness: Taking the Bull by the Horns

  1. Anoop

    Nice one Brett. I wanted to post an article about happiness. Whatever we do in life is somehow tied to this.

    Sonja Lyubomirsky is one of the leading researchers in this field.

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Thanks Anoop! Haven’t heard of Sonja; would like to continue to study this topic as I’ve only scratched the surface and it’s very interesting to me.

      Reply
  2. Brandon

    Great article Brett. Just one problem. So, after one year lottery winners end up just as happy as they were before winning the lottery. Don’t studies show they also end up with the same amount of money that they had before?

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Haha! Good point – many do indeed end up being broke (which would probably make them less happy since they got accustomed to the good life and then had to return to their old ways). But I’m sure a majority put some money away and at least hold onto it for a decade or so. I’d be curious to learn more about lottery winners’ financial situations over the rest of their lives.

      Reply
  3. Martin

    hi Bret

    This is interesting and relevant to me at the moment. However, something needs to be said.

    While all what you say is important, what you are already doing is promoting more happiness than is realised. Physical well-being includes a lack of pain and a ‘good feeling’ that is hard to describe. This physical well-being is a major component of happiness. If you are physically well off money is just a way to keep score, status is only what other people think and love is something you give, not something you crave.

    Bret, you need to be told that the work you are doing is providing the basis of a happy life for those who learn from what you offer.

    Martin

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Martin, this is a great point; anecdotally I’ve noticed that the personality-changes the people who experience a major body-transformation often rival that of their physical-changes. In other words, when their physiques dramatically improve, along with their health, strength, power, fitness, etc., their confidence, happiness, and personality improve proportionately. Thanks bro!

      Reply
  4. Nick Horton

    Love it, brother!

    Along the lines of the money/business side of the happiness equation, I just got done reading the book, “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos) and it goes a lot into the importance of money not being your driver in business, but rather mission, culture, community, etc.

    As a guy who’s dealt with depression all his life, I’ve found that diving headlong into being an entrepreneur, using it as a platform for helping others realize greater levels of happiness and satisfaction, and having some semblance of control over my own destiny has made a dramatic difference, and I’ve never been happier. (Which is interesting, given that I’m 34 – so I’m clearly not normal according to the U-curve above, LOL)

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Nick – the U-curve has got me thinking a lot too; we have psychological, sociological, and physiological battles in front of us since we’re both in our mid-30′s. But as long as we realize this and turn our attention to our thoughts, I don’t see any reason why our 30′s can’t be just as happy as any other decade. Thanks bud!

      Reply
  5. Marianne Kane

    Hey Bret, just thought I’d chime in to say I really enjoyed this post. This topic is very interesting to me and it’s refreshing to read about something so positive. Thank you! :)

    Reply
  6. Dan Hubbard

    Bret, nice work! Here are a few more books that may be of interest to you on this subject:
    Drive by Daniel Pink, Lifting Depression by Kelly Lambert, and Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.

    Looking forward to part two!

    Reply
  7. Matt Dragon

    Bret,
    I think that you alluded to this a bit in the last paragraph, but it seems to me that one can actually restructure their thinking and how the brain functions. Everything is chemical after all and if by our thinking we change our chemical reactions and our pathways we basically change our gene expression.

    Have you studied NLP? I believe this is a field that can be used to do exactly that.

    I can anecdotally speak of this as I grew up with a depressed parent and have dealt with depression most of my life. I have found tools to deal with it and at 35, despite many of those life challenges, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

    I think it is fantastic that you share so much with your readers, that you constantly push yourself in life and in knowledge. Here is to life long learning my friend.

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Matt, I have no doubt that one can restructure not only their brain anatomy but also their physiology and the precise pathways as to how one reacts/thinks. I appreciate the kind words bud! BC

      Reply
  8. Marci

    Bret, this was such an inspiring and (for me) timely post. As you know, Im studying to become a yoga instructor, and much of what we are learning about the practice is from a philosophical perspective. Yoga is rooted in the notion that if you control your mind, you have controlled everything. “There is nothing wrong with the world. You can make it a heaven or a hell according to your approach.” That quote has seriously changed my perspective on life. I used to be so affected by other people and would let their negativity bring me down, but now that I can tell myself it has nothing to do with me, I can be more at peace. Yogis who have reached true enlightenment are some of the happiest people in the world, even though they have very little as far as material possessions. They eat, sleep, work and practice not to benefit themselves selfishly, but to become a better person that in turn can serve others well. Personally, nothing makes me happier than knowing I have made a positive impact on another person or made them feel good in some way. I look forward to reading part 2!

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Wow Marci, hell of a comment! You’ll make a great yoga instructor and I’m proud to call you my friend. I have no doubt you’ll make a positive impact on thousands of people throughout your lifetime. Cheers!

      Reply
  9. Pingback: Bret Contreras » Happiness: Taking the Bull by the Horns Part II

  10. Solomon

    Hi Bret,

    Thank you for the great blog! You contributions are always great pre-workout inspiration, for me.

    In the second paragraph in your “Consensus” section, you mention “mindless meditation” can make a difference for the better. “Mindfulness” meditation might be the term you were looking for. For a great summary article on the subject, check out:

    Brown, K., Ryan, R., & Creswell, J. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 211-237.

    Best,
    S

    Reply
  11. Pingback: Mo.Links – This Week’s Must Read Health And Fitness Resources - Movemo Fitness : Movemo Fitness

  12. Pingback: Good Reads of the Week: Edition 3 | LaVack Fitness

  13. Pingback: What Makes You Happy? | lisavandore

  14. Meg

    Hi Bret. What a great read. I have in the last few years learnt to see the positive and purpose in everything and understand that the worse I allow myself to feel about things the more out of control things seem to get.There are times when I feel it getting to me so I read something like this, remember how far I have come and know that I deserve to be happy. I think that allowing your self to believe that you do deserve to be happy and then allow your self to being so is a big part of it.I made some poor choices as a youngster and believed for a while that it meant that I would never be really happy as I did not deserve it.I have since learnt that We have all done things that we are not proud of, been hurt and had hard times but that is life and it makes us human and who we are.Finding a job that I can help other people change there lives for the better plays a huge part in this. For you to be able to reach all these people and have a such a positive impact must make you one happy dude! :@) Meg.

    Reply
  15. Pingback: Why Happiness Is Important For Our Teams « Coach Dawn Writes

  16. Pingback: PURSUING HAPPINESS? « Emotfit's Blog

  17. Pingback: Of holding back, talking to one’s self and happiness « The Paolo Project

  18. http://leapdaysports.com/

    Fantastic beat ! I wish to apprentice while you amend your site, how
    can i subscreibe for a blog site? The account helped me a acceptable deal.
    I had been tiny bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered bright clear idea

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>