Where does happiness come from?

At the onset of summer, we ponder to what extent happiness is within our own hands and provide insights on what to do to feel happier

Does happiness lie in chance, or are we its creators? The adages “born under a lucky star” and “has good fortune in life” imply that happiness is dictated by fate and fortuitous twists of events. However, equally prevalent are the notions that “everyone is the architect of their own fate,” and “fortune favours the courageous” emphasizing the role of personal agency in achieving life’s success. Many hold the belief that that happiness hinges upon meeting specific conditions – finding an ideal partner, acquiring a home, securing a promotion, or amassing a million likes on Instagram. Yet, could it be that happiness doesn’t objectively exist and is merely a matter of perception? After all, we all know individuals who appear content despite adverse circumstances, while others always find fault in their surroundings. So, what truly defines the nature of happiness?

Your level of happiness

Before we delve further, take a moment to observe your initial, intuitive response to the question: “Am I happy?” Does it come easily, or is it accompanied by a flicker of uncertainty? Perhaps instead of answering it directly, you feel the urge to contemplate what happiness truly means. Or perchance you don’t feel ready to confront the emotions that arise within you. Is your response positive, negative, or does it sound like “I don’t know”? This is an important response, for the vast majority of us, if not all, desire happiness, yet it often slips through our fingers. What is happiness? Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky defines it as “experiencing joy, satisfaction, and well-being, combined with an awareness that our life is good, meaningful, and valuable.” This encompasses both the experience of happiness as a momentary wave of emotions and a lasting state of being. In terms of contemporary psychological knowledge, we can assert that the attainment of these universally desired states is partly a matter of chance and partly a matter of our own actions.

What cards has life dealt you?

To begin with, a message that may not be good news for everyone. Our inherent tendency to experience happiness is determined early on during the configuration of our genes, which we receive upon entering the world. Based on studies conducted on twins, it is estimated that biological factors account for approximately 40% of the disparities in well-being. Greater predispositions to happiness are linked to inheriting personality traits such as extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness, as well as physiological characteristics that influence the secretion of hormones and neurotransmitters. Investigations into brain activity reveal that a higher overall level of happiness is correlated with augmented activity in the left prefrontal cortex, while individuals who frequently experience negative emotions tend to exhibit greater activity on the right side. Hence, for some of us, seeing the glass as “half full” comes more naturally. It aligns with their nature and doesn’t require extraordinary effort. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about such individuals, stating that they “won the cortical lottery – their brains were wired to see the world in bright colours.”

Is it than worthwhile striving

If each individual possesses a certain “default” level of happiness, does it imply that those whom fate has not favoured will forever remain unhappy? Of course, genes do not hold the complete answer. Encoded tendencies can manifest to varying degrees under the influence of life circumstances. However, in this matter, we often have limited control, particularly in our formative years. We are born into a country that occupies a specific position in the happiness rankings – currently Poland ranks 39th out of 137 countries. We inherit economic conditions and a family that may or may not provide support. As we grow older, our own efforts play a greater role, but they still operate within certain constraints, resembling the intricacies of a card game. If we are dealt an unfavourable hand, we can play those cards skilfully, but it will be considerably more challenging. On the other hand, favourable cards do not guarantee a smooth gameplay. The slogan “Happiness is solely and exclusively your choice” is misleading, but nurturing our own happiness still holds profound significance.

How meditation fosters happiness

Even on what biology has given us, we retain some influence, and one of the best ways to consistently elevate our level of happiness is through meditation. Evidence indicates that it increases the amount of positive emotions while diminishing stress and anxiety. It deepens self-awareness, develops gratitude, compassion, and acceptance. It brings perspective and helps assign meaning to experiences. When practiced regularly and long-term, it also has the potential to effectuate physical alterations in the brain’s structure through its neuroplasticity. Moreover, it is accessible to everyone, requiring no advanced knowledge, complicated procedures, or significant amounts of time. If it proves challenging at the beginning, it is often because it requires calming the constant stream of thoughts racing through the mind. A good way to start the meditation journey is by taking mindfulness courses led by experienced trainers. However, you can experience positive effects immediately by simply taking a comfortable position, closing your eyes, deepening your breath, allowing thoughts to flow freely without dwelling on any of them, even if it’s just for two minutes.

Lasting change of thought is attainable

Another effective approach lies in the exploration of our underlying beliefs. Deeply embedded within us are judgments about ourselves, others, and life in general, often manifesting as an internal voice that can either hinder or support us. It may chastise, saying, “Oh, you’ve messed up again,” and pass verdicts like, “People always end up disappointing.” It is challenging to cultivate happiness in the company of such an adversary. However, our internal voice can also acknowledge, “You did a great job with that” and suggest that “There are many helpful people in the world.” These thoughts are referred to as automatic because they are so intertwined with our personality that they seemingly emerge out of nowhere, without our conscious invitation. Cognitive therapy is dedicated to modifying these automatic thoughts. It is worthwhile to embark on this journey with a psychotherapist who can teach us the appropriate techniques. However, working with our thoughts can also be successfully undertaken independently. Through persistent training in identifying negative thoughts, questioning them, and replacing them with more supportive ones, we can induce a transformation in our automatic cognitive processes. It is akin to raising our “default” level of happiness a notch higher. Moreover, the effectiveness of our endeavours is enhanced by our belief in our capacity for change.

Importance of a growth mindset

There are people who say, “That’s just how I am, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Others wonder, “What can I do to become the person I need to be?” The latter mindset definitely favours happiness. Professor Carol Dweck made a simple yet significant discovery that people differ in their beliefs about the potential for self-improvement. Individuals with a fixed mindset see their traits as cast in stone. Individuals with a growth mindset believe that they can develop and it cannot be predicted who they can become or how much they can achieve through effort. The consequences of this single belief are evident in all areas of life – they affect health, the quality of relationships, academic and work performance. For example, partners in relationships who believe in the malleability of human nature use more open and constructive ways of communicating during conflicts. They don’t assume from the start that a conversation will be futile, but they believe it has meaning and can lead to something good. They judge the other person less harshly and are more willing to receive accurate information about themselves. We can develop a growth mindset by, for example, asking ourselves at the end of the day, “What have I learned today?”

What sets apart the lucky and the unlucky

“The internal programming” may largely determine one’s sense of happiness, but many things simply happen to us. At least that’s how it seems. Psychologist Richard Wiseman, while studying individuals who consider themselves lucky or unlucky in life, found that both the positive twists of fate experienced by the former and the accidents and misfortunes endured by the latter exhibit too much consistency to be purely attributed to chance. He concluded that both groups partially unconsciously engage in utilization of different strategies. This is vividly illustrated through an experiment where a lucky person and an unlucky person were asked to go to a café and meet the researcher there. Without their knowledge, a banknote was placed on the sidewalk near the entrance, and a successful businessman was seated at one of the tables. The lucky person picked up the banknote and then proceeded to join the businessman, engaging in conversation. The unlucky person stepped on the banknote and silently waited for the designated meeting. When asked about how their day went, the first person mentioned that “two interesting things happened” to them, while the second person stated that nothing worth mentioning occurred.

Strategies of the fortunate

Identical opportunities were utilized differently because two individuals approached them in distinct ways. What is then the recipe for being fortunate? Openness to new experiences. Seeking novelty and diversity. Establishing and maintaining connections. Recognizing and seizing opportunities. Embracing life with ease, curiosity, free from prejudices and rigid expectations. Cultivating self-awareness, enabling more accurate decision-making and trust in the right people. Holding positive expectations towards others and the future. Perseverance in pursuing goals, even when it turns out challenging. The ability to transform misfortune into fortune by focusing on possibilities for moving forward, rather than dwelling on the past. The workings of fate are governed by less mysterious laws than one might think. If you find yourself yearning for a more abundant assortment of pleasant surprises, you can work on it.

Positive „black swans” 

Some seemingly unlikely events have the power to alter the course of life. Someone changes plans at the last minute and meets their life partner or establishes what initially seems like an insignificant connection that leads to a new career. Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to such events as positive “black swans” and emphasizes that we can consciously increase our exposure to them. Attempts to predict when and where they will occur are futile, but it is worthwhile to be prepared to seize opportunities when they arise. In practice, if you receive an invitation to an art exhibition, don’t assume in advance that you will surely be bored because you’re interested in real estate. Instead, attend the event, observe what and who captures your interest, and engage in conversation. In the English language, there exists a beautiful word, “serendipity”, untranslatable to Polish. It describes the situation when, while embarking on a search, we discover something unexpected that turns out to be better than what we could have imagined or planned for ourselves. The combination of activity and openness creates optimal conditions for happiness.

Other ways to cultivate happiness

There is a strong correlation between happiness and the quantity and quality of relationships. Although human relationships can be unpredictable and lead to frustration and tears, they generally have a positive impact on people. This applies not only to close interactions but also to those we have with friends, colleagues, activity companions, and even briefly encountered neighbours or cafeteria employees. Helping others, expressing gratitude and kindness, and practicing forgiveness contribute to our own happiness. It is also beneficial to have contented people around us because happiness, according to research, is contagious within three degrees of separation. This means that the happiness of your friends’ friends can also affect you. There are many other building blocks of well-being, including physical exercise, practicing religion and spirituality, and engaging in activities that truly captivate us.

Money, status, and attractiveness

Why do we mention these widely desired markers of happiness so late? As one can suspect, they themselves are not a guarantee of happiness. The statement “money doesn’t bring happiness” is only partially true. Poverty is a source of unhappiness, so improving one’s material conditions can increase the level of happiness. However, when people become affluent enough to satisfy their basic needs, saturation occurs, and further income growth does not automatically bring greater well-being. What becomes significant is how we use the wealth we possess. Happiness is more likely to thrive when we invest in memorable experiences and helping others rather than in acquiring material possessions, as we quickly adapt to the latter and our aspirations grow. Similarly, like money, status and attractiveness can be a cause of unhappiness in extreme situations, but in other cases, they only moderately enhance life satisfaction depending on how we make use of them.

Consequences of happiness

Happiness is a pleasant state, and that alone would be enough reason to strive for it. However, it turns out that it brings us many more benefits, including better physical and mental health, a more efficient immune system, healthier habits, longer life, stronger marital relationships, a sense of self-worth, and social support. In the professional sphere, happy individuals perform better in job interviews, are more productive and creative, achieve higher sales results, create a positive atmosphere, make better leaders, have lower absenteeism, and are less prone to burnout. They also tend to have higher incomes. Positive emotions shared by a team lead to greater engagement and better outcomes in group work. The belief that we must first achieve success to attain happiness is not necessarily true. It is actually easier to achieve success when we are happy because happiness brings us… even more happiness.

Obsession with happiness

But can well-being be maximized indefinitely? Contemporary culture and media impose a constant and perfectionistic optimization of our lives towards promoted ideals. The wellness market, designed to support us in this pursuit, has grown to enormous proportions. However, happiness should not be an obsession. It shouldn’t cause anxiety that we must strive for more and better, or else we will be left behind. We also don’t need to be happy all the time. The overall sense of life happiness is comprised of both highlights and shadows, and less pleasant emotional states have their own significance and sense. It is impossible to overcome difficulties, resolve conflicts, or confront injustice while maintaining a perpetually cheerful disposition. We cannot solely focus on the good and the beautiful because there are also threats and suffering. Challenging days and moments of sadness do not invalidate a successful life.

Imagine what it would be like

When it comes to happiness, we are neither destined nor have complete control. However, we can influence our well-being in many ways, and to some extent, we can even manage chance. At the end of our reflections on happiness, return to the question: “Am I happy?” This time, mark your level of happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 represents your subjective perception of being unhappy and 10 represents being happy. Why did you choose that number? What contributes to your happiness, and for what can you feel gratitude? What do you need to move up one digit? How would it feel being at that next level? What actions can you take this week, today, right away to move closer to it? The key to happiness lies in your openness and proactive attitude. As Carlos Ruiz Zafón wrote: “What destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.”


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