I think my capacity to change has given me tremendous happiness, because who I am today I am completely content to be.
Jamie Lee Curtis.
A really interesting question about happiness is whether it is something that we can consciously improve or increase with a little time and effort. Or are we stuck with the happiness levels caused by our genetics and our childhood?
Back in the early 1970s, a ‘set point’ theory was created by Brickman and Campbell which stated that our level of happiness (or subjective wellbeing) is determined primarily by our genetics and personality traits developed early in life. As a result, it was considered that, while we may fluctuate slightly due to positive or negative events, our happiness levels tended to remain relatively constant throughout our lives. This also fitted with the broader understanding of the brain within psychology, which was that after our early years, it was hard to teach the proverbial old dog, new tricks. So, overall improvements in happiness levels throughout our lives were therefore seen as difficult to achieve.
In recent times, however, it seems there has been a change in these early assumptions. In his book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor agrees that scientists once thought happiness was almost completely hereditary, dictated by the genetically determined ‘set point’. But he goes on to state, that (thankfully):
…we have far more control over our emotional wellbeing than previously believed. While we each have a happiness baseline that we fluctuate around on a daily basis, with concerted effort, we can raise that baseline permanently so that even when we are going up and down, we are doing so at a higher level.
This view is supported by neuroscience. Essentially what this research illustrates is that our brains are malleable, and that given the right stimuli, they can change for the better. It is for this reason that happiness researchers are able to draw on a range of studies illustrating that activities such as gratitude lists, meditation, and conscious acts of kindness, all lead to positive outcomes for people who practice these activities on a regular basis.
So the short answer to this question, is yes, we can become happier, with consistent effort. And this is certainly my experience in running our happiness programs, where we have seen significant improvements in participant’s happiness levels, following a range of exercises designed to improve the way we think and also the way we feel.
Therefore, whether you are feeling ‘just ok’ or are perhaps a little down, just remember – with a little effort on the right things, life can and will get better, and there are proven approaches to get you there.
All the best,