Happiness. Is There Anything You Can Do To Increase It?

You can find 1621 quotes about happiness, and that’s just from one site. Most are brilliant. Like “Happiness is a warm puppy” (Charles Schultz). Some, like Bertrand Russell’s “The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible” somehow don’t hit the spot.

Many people have trouble being happy. Health workers deal with this problem all the time. And many health workers also have trouble being happy. So, can we point to stuff that helps?

ReachOut.com is a terrific Aussie site for anyone, particularly young people, who are unhappy or depressed. Every page is worth reading. What caught my eye was a post called What Is Happiness from last year. It quotes Seligman’s formula that happiness is

The Buddha taught the acceptance of unhappiness, the incongruity of dualism, and living for the moment (Borobudur Temple, Yogyakarta. Photo JW)

50% genetic (personality), 10% circumstances, and, surprisingly, 40% voluntary. And an Australian paper published last month, with the laborious title of “Exploring the Causes of Subjective Well-Being: A Content Analysis of Peoples’ Recipes for Long-Term Happiness“, confirms and expands on that formula. I recommend this paper to anyone interested in happiness, which is everyone. It’s very user friendly while being scientific, an uncommon combination.

And the breakdown of the voluntary things you can do to improve happiness (Behaviour, Thinking, Wanting), with concrete examples, are worth writing down. Or entering into your smart phone. Here is a partial list from the paper:

Some factors under personal voluntary control

  • Meditation
  • Acts of Kindness
  • Forgiveness
  • A sense of wonder
  • Increased physical activity
  • Thinking of the present moment
  • Music
  • Hobbies
  • Laughter
  • Sunshine
  • Rest

Then there is the “Dime Experiment”. During a psychological experiment, subjects were asked to photocopy a page in an outside office, and half of them “found” a 10 cent coin on the machine and were able to photocopy the sheet for nothing. The other half had to dig into their pocket for the money. That was the real experiment, because they were then questioned, and those that found the coin reported a higher happiness level with life as a whole. They felt happier about their whole life compared to those who did not find the coin!

If you try and find the source of this experiment, it’s not easy. It appears in Barbara Ehrenreich’s blog and book, without attribution. It’s quoted a lot on Google, usually as a “famous experiment”. I finally tracked it to Prof Norbert Schwarz.

Prof Norbert Schwarz, Charles Horton Cooley Collegiate Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan. Prof Schwarz published the famous Dime Experiment (see text)

I emailed Prof Schwarz, who is the Charles Horton Cooley Collegiate Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. He very kindly emailed back with the data. His original paper is written in German. I can confirm the details of the Dime Experiment, and that the findings were statistically significant.

So, we have some voluntary control over happiness, and we have the Dime Experiment. Does that help us? Well, I can’t give you the answer to happiness in 500 words. You could read a million words and still be sad. My summary would be:

Work with what you can:

1. Build resilience by improving your 40% of voluntary happiness (Factors under personal voluntary control)

2. Really enjoy the small pleasures of your day (The Dime Experiment)

And seek help if you can’t.

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