Can you choose to be happy, like you would choose something to order off the menu at a restaurant? Can you just choose how you want to feel in the same way you choose a value meal? What if I told you that you could?
What if I said you couldn’t? What if I said happiness is not like a hamburger? You can’t order it off the menu. It is more like your height. You might stretch yourself over time but your baseline happiness, like your height, is genetically determined and unchanging.
There are few questions as interesting to all of us as what accounts for our own happiness (or lack of it). This week we’re sampling five articles representing five schools of thought on the matter. Is your happiness driven by culture, by your attitude, by the stories we tell ourselves, by our genes, or does it come by design?
Read widely. Read wisely.
P.s. The Weekend Reader is a guide exploring culture, technology, and the meaningful life. In-depth, great reads, weekly.
1. “The Secret to Danish Happiness”
by Jessica Alexander in Greater Good — UCal Berkeley
(5 minute read) Read it here
For 40 years in a row, Denmark has ranked as one of the happiest countries on earth. Why? This article argues that the secret is “hygge”-pronounced “hooga,” a concept most similar to the English words “cozy” or “homey.” It is intentional low-stress home-centered family time.
highlight: Here is a description of hygge from the article:
“Try to imagine going to a drama-free family gathering. There are no divisive discussions about politics, family issues, or Aunt Jenny’s dysfunctional kids. No snide comments, complaining, or heavy negativity. Everyone helps out, so that not one person gets stuck doing all the work. No one brags, attacks anyone, or competes with another. It is a light-hearted, balanced interaction that is focused on enjoying the moment, the food, and the company. In short, a shelter from the outside world.
“American anthropologists who have studied Danish hygge have been struck by the effortless flow in hyggelig interactions and how no one tries to take center stage. It is a moment in time where everyone takes off their masks and leaves difficulties at the door, in order to appreciate the power of presence with others.”
2. “Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier.”
by Arthur C. Brooks in The New York Times
(7 minute read) Read it here.
They say that thankfulness creates happiness. Well, what if you want to be happy, but aren’t feeling thankful? Can you trick yourself into happiness through acting thankfully? Fake it til you make it? Looks like the answer might be “yes.”
“One explanation is that acting happy, regardless of feelings, coaxes one’s brain into processing positive emotions. In one famous 1993 experiment, researchers asked human subjects to smile forcibly for 20 seconds while tensing facial muscles, notably the muscles around the eyes called the orbicularis oculi (which create “crow’s feet”). They found that this action stimulated brain activity associated with positive emotions…
“Martin Seligman, father of the field known as “positive psychology,” gives some practical suggestions on how to do this. In his best seller “Authentic Happiness,” he recommends that readers systematically express gratitude in letters to loved ones and colleagues. A disciplined way to put this into practice is to make it as routine as morning coffee. Write two short emails each morning to friends, family or colleagues, thanking them for what they do.”
3. “It’s Healthy to Put a Good Spin on Your Life”
by Elizabeth Bernstein for The Wall Street Journal
(6 minute read) Read it here (paywall)
Last year, two studies found published in a social psychology journal showed that people who frame the events of their life in positive ways have better mental health than those who frame events in negative ways.
The researchers “followed 54 people, half of whom went on to receive a diagnosis of a major illness, such as cancer, heart disease or diabetes, in the six months after they recorded their life stories. The researchers measured their mental health every six months for two years and looked for the same four themes in the narratives as in study one.
“And they found similar results: People whose personal narratives — the stories they told themselves — contained more agency, communion and redemption, and less contamination, saw their mental health improve, even after getting a serious illness.”
4. “What Technology Can’t Change About Happiness”
by Adam Piore in Nautilus
(21 minute read) Read it here
THIS IS A TERRIFIC READ
This is a fascinating analysis of the genetic link to happiness. Just as we are learning that some forms of depression are genetically and chemically-linked, some researchers are finding our genes may have much to do with our level of happiness.
Research in this are might allow us to better treat depression and unhappiness, however, the article argues, “as pills and gadgets proliferate, what matters is still social connection.”
“In 2014, researchers at the University of Warwick in England announced they had found a strong association between a gene mutation identified with happiness and well-being. It’s called 5-HTTLPR and it affects the way our body metabolizes the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate our moods, sex drives, and appetites. The study asks why some nations, notably Denmark, consistently top “happiness indexes,” and wonders whether there may be a connection between a nation and the genetic makeup of its people. Sure enough, controlling for work status, religion, age, gender, and income, the researchers discovered those with Danish DNA had a distinct genetic advantage in well-being. In other words, the more Danish DNA one has, the more likely he or she will report being happy.
One body of research suggests we are genetically pre-programmed with a happiness “set point” — a place on the level of life satisfaction to which, in the absence of a fresh triumph or disappointment, our mood seems to return as surely as a homing pigeon to its base. As much as 50 percent of this set point, some researchers have demonstrated, is determined genetically at birth.
5. “How Ideo Redesigned Monday to Be Less Awful”
by Liz Stinson in Wired
(5 minute read) Read it here
Maybe the key to happiness is to re-design the stress-inducing circumstances that we take for granted. What if you could redesign Monday morning?
There is no unhappier time of the week than Monday morning, so what if we re-imagined what Monday is? The legendary design firm, IDEO, did a mini -project with Studio 360 to re-think how to make Mondays a little less bad.
IDEO designed an alarm clock that rocks back and forth to the sound of a baby’s laughter. “Studies have shown that our brains respond to laughter by lighting up in the premotor cortex, the same area of our brain that prepares our face to smile, Fetell says. In other words, waking up to laughter means you’re neurologically waking up with a smile on your face. Not a bad way to start the week.”
Enshrined in the Declaration of Independence of the United States is a belief that people are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Interesting that Jefferson described the right as the pursuit of happiness rather than a right to happiness itself. I wonder how much he pondered that phrase.
Maybe happiness itself isn’t the goal. Maybe the pursuit is what matters. That may just be another way of saying that trite old advice that it’s not the destination but the journey that matters.
Today I had a happy Sunday. Here is what it looked like. We slept in (for us), then our family had breakfast, my wife and I read the paper, and we went to church together. I went for a run in the sun in the park. We split childcare time with our dear friends and neighbors so our kids were occupied and amused. I sent a text of gratitude to a friend. I took my daughter to a fun birthday party, complete with a carousel ride. Then we had a meal with other dear friends at their house and got to spend time talking with their children and talking with our friends about the joys and challenges of raising kids in New York City. Then I wrote this email.
My own happiness seems to correlate strongly with sunshine, exercise, being rested, spending meaningful time with friends and family, and doing good, enjoyable work.
Is happiness a choice? When I make room in my life for the things above, I’m pretty consistently happy. On the other hand, I don’t think my happiness is all about whatI choose to do. I buy the idea that culture impacts happiness a lot. You know from your own experience how your happiness is influenced even by the culture at your office. And it seems just as obvious to me that our genes influence our base rate of happiness as well. Just as some people are pre-disposed to heart disease, some are pre-disposed to more easily releasing seratonin and experiencing contentment and joy.
Like the article in Nautilus suggests, some base level of happiness may be genetically predetermined but we can still influence the fluctuations up and down. My advice? Get some sleep. Get some exercise. Start the week by telling someone how much you appreciate them.
I appreciate you for reading. Thank you.
April 10, 2016
about the weekend reader
The Weekend Reader is a guide exploring culture, technology, and how to lead a meaningful life in the modern world. 5 articles and associated reflections in your inbox every weekend. Read previous editions or subscribe to get the Weekend Reader every week.