The Bigger Picture
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The Bigger Picture

How to be Happy: The Scientific Formula

We get taught a lot in school — Philosophy, Psychology, Physics — but how come we never get taught how to be happy?

The question: “How do we become happy and fulfilled?”

That’s when I stumbled upon a Harvard course posted on YouTube called Positive Psychology, otherwise known as “The Science of Happiness.” I was hooked after the first lecture. I sucked in everything I could about the topic and even ended up publishing my senior honors thesis about a Positive Psychology Intervention (just published!)

This is not, “Do It Because I Said So,” guru science. This is peer-reviewed literature, done by nerdy scientists talking about statistical power, research bias, and confounding factors. So listen up! I want to share my biggest takeaway from being obsessed with “The Science of Happiness” for two years.

The Answer: The Happiness Formula

50% — Genetics

Oops sorry. I bet that is not what you were expecting to read. Genes dictate half of your happiness. This is your “happiness set-point.” Like height and hair color you were dealt at birth. Some people were born with a naturally happy disposition, and others were born Scrooge-like. This is the happiness set-point.

10% — External events

This is what most people focus on when they try to become happier. People often think, “I will become happy if I 1) get a six pack, 2) purchase my dream house, 3) find my perfect partner, 4) get that pay raise, and 5) travel to Hawaii. Well, this is 10% true. These things may make you 10% happier, but people ought not to think all happiness depends on their life circumstances.

Positive psychology research consistently shows attaining these goals may make you temporarily happy, but a few weeks after that job promotion, getting an ‘A’ on your exam, or returning from vacation, you will likely slink back to your baseline happiness.

I went out and asked people “What makes you happy?” All responses were “10%” responses about money, travel, food, and passing exams.

40% — **Internal Interpretation**

Here is the good news: while you don’t have any control over the first 50% (genetics) or the relatively insignificant next 10% (external events), our minds hold the key to the remaining 40%. This is what you can actively control and change.

External events can be interpreted in many different ways. Here is an example from last week:

EVENT: I got lost on my way to a hotpot restaurant and had to walk through the cold rain for 20 minutes before I found the restaurant

INTERPRETATION 1: I always get lost. I’m so dumb. Why can’t the weather just be on my side for once? I can’t catch a break today.

EMOTION 1: Depressed and angry

INTERPRETATION 2: This hot soup tastes so much better because I’m freezing!

EMOTION 2: Contentment

Event → Interpretation → Emotion

Why do we always associate rain with negativity? Rain isn’t objectively bad in any way. It is our interpretation of rain that makes it negative. Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy, takes his son to play outside every time it rains. He wants to teach his child that external events should not dictate a good or bad day. Now, every time it rains, his son begs him to go play outside.

Positive psychology is not about tricking yourself into believing everything is wonderfully-daisy-dandy. It is about finding the benefits (small and large) in events that most people would perceive as neutral or negative.

Happiness is a Choice

Nelson Mandela is famous for not having any resentment against the apartheid regime after they imprisoned him for 27 years. He says that the time in prison was a “holiday” where he had time to reflect, learn, and even write his autobiography.

Cheryl Strayed, a best-selling author, says that her difficult and abusive childhood experiences are the primary reason she has been able to write with authenticity and empathy. She has written an advice column and multiple best-selling books that have connected to thousands of readers and potentially even saved some lives.

Tal Ben-Shahar, the professor for Harvard’s Positive Psychology course, said that while he could have interpreted failing his graduate school qualifying exam as the most humiliating experience of his life, he internalized the experience as a humbling turning point in his life. He attributes his current success to having to spend a whole year to re-learning the Social Psychology material to the point where he now claims he knows the material better than anyone in the world.

Here is a link to the full clip of Dr. Ben-Shahar going through his life from first a fault-finding perspective and then a benefit-finding perspective.

No one would ever wish these negative events on these people. However, they found ways to use their “negative” experiences and make the best they can out of it. Finding a positive interpretation of the event is the best way to move forward, even if this positive interpretation isn’t immediately available.

Basically, science is confirming what smart people have known for centuries:

Buddha — ”“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”

Epictetus — “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react…”

Shakespeare — “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

“Everyone are happy.” — Profound advice from a 7-year old.

This is not the answer, but it is one scientifically-backed way of looking at life. Focus on what we can control — our minds — and we will be so much more happy (at least 40% happier).

Notes: This formula is based on some of the research of Lykken and Tellegen who examined the happiness levels of twins separated at birth compared to twins who were raised together. It is not an exact formula, but more of a conceptualization.



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Chronic Thinker, Science-Lover and Humanist. Writing to ponder big questions and reflect on life.