How To Be Happy By Focusing On The Aspects You Control

Winning Happiness in the Game of Life with a positive personality

Not happy? It’s okay to blame your parents. But only for their genes. Everything else, it seems, is up to you. In analyzing how to be happy, we examined data from diverse areas of psychological and quality-of-life research. We found that while our pre-determined genetic makeup does play a role in influencing our happiness, it’s only a part of the bigger picture.

What determines one individual’s personal happiness is certainly different from what determines another’s, but there are many aspects of life that merit a second look. We hope this visual snapshot of happiness brings a smile to your face.

Special thanks to the following authorities in the field, whose direct input and feedback were invaluable in creating this piece:

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky / UC Riverside, Dr. Kent C. Berridge / University of Michigan, Professor Shigehiro Oishi / University of Virginia, Professor Jordi Quoidbach / University Pompeu Fabra, Dr. Michael I. Norton / Harvard Business School, Dr. Tom W. Smith / University of Chicago, Alexandra Wolfe / Wall Street Journal, Dr. Margo Hilbrecht / University of Waterloo, Amy Morin, LCSW / Forbes, Psychology Today, Carlin Flora / Journalist and Author, and Dr. Michelle Luciano / University of Edinburgh.

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How To Be Happy By Focusing On The Aspects of Life You Control HeaderHow To Be Happy with the Aspects that aren't geneticHow To Be Happy in the Workplace EnvironmentHow To Be Happy with your Salary and MoneyHow To Be Happy by Choosing Experiences over StuffHow To Be Happy by Staying Close to Family and FriendsHow To Be Happy by Expressing GratitudeHow To Be Happy by being GenerousHow To Be Happy by Finding A Life PartnerHow To Be Happy With or Despite Having KidsHow To Be Happy With Your Living Space and CommuteHow To Be Happy with ExerciseHow To Be Happy with LaughterHow To Be Happy by Knowing that it does get BetterHow To Be Happy by Properly Documenting Your Sources


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How To Be Happy By Focusing On The Aspects of Life You Control

Everyone’s different, so these influences are estimates. However according to multiple studies, including a University of Edinburgh personality study involving more than 900 identical and non-identical twins, happiness is thought to be influenced by:

50% Genetics

The body’s wiring

40% Attitudes + Actions

Our feelings, thoughts, and how we choose to handle life

10% Life Circumstances

Relationships, health, wealth, and work

So, where’s our happiness wiring?

In short: All over.

Scientists now believe that the brain’s pleasure receptors operate like a communication web.

Happiness is linked to pleasure, and the brain’s interpretation of pleasure is a complex mixture of desire, anticipation, satisfaction, and everything in between – processes not easily reducible to cells and chemicals.

Many parts of the brain including the nucleus accumbens, prefrontal cortex, ventral pallidum, ventral tegmental area (VTA), septum, and amygdala, work in concert with endorphins like dopamine to create pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation to pursue it again.

But what can we actually do something about?


Whatever profession you’re in, small changes make work a happier place:

* Lend a helping hand
* Strive to find meaning in work
* Keep a future-oriented perspective
* Get enough sleep
* Take vacations
* Eat lunch with co-workers
* Recognize the contributions of others
* Celebrate success
* People who have plants at their workplaces are happier than those who don’t.

According to an analysis of more than 25,000 company reviews, 2015’s happiest jobs:

1. School principal
2. Executive chef
3. Loan officer
4. Automation engineer
5. Research assistant

Other professions with high work satisfaction include jobs that influence people and express creativity.


Salary = happiness…but only to a point

9% increase in life satisfaction with a jump in annual salary from $25,000 to $55,000

~0% increase in life satisfaction after earning $75,000 a year, more money makes virtually zero impact

Focusing too much on money may cause:
$ More stress
$ More anti-social tendencies
$ Less likeliness of enjoying life’s simple pleasures

In experiments in which people were primed to think of money, test participants…
$ …were less willing to help a stranger.
$ …chose solitary activities over social ones.

A survey of University of Liège employees revealed that wealthier individuals are less likely to enjoy simple things like savoring a piece of chocolate.

Stuff vs. experiences

Experiences often have a social aspect, which also makes us happier.

Unlike physical stuff, experiences are personal and difficult to measure against one another. Constant comparison with the latest version, gadget, or style can easily ruin the enjoyment of new stuff.

Material purchases bring massive initial excitement, but the hype diminishes over time.

Great experiences become entrenched in our memory, so the joy lasts much longer.

Friends and Family

The #1 happiness booster is spending time with close friends and family.

People experience the best moods when socializing with loved ones.

Universally, a sense of community, strong relationships, and frequent community celebrations are among the greatest happiness triggers. This explains all of our Christmas dinners, birthday bashes, Sunday potlucks, and keg parties.

Playing with kids brings more positive vibes than almost any other common activity.


Happiness and gratitude go hand in hand. Positive psychology and happiness experts recommend multiple ways to recognize your thankfulness:

Gratitude journal
Through writing and collage, journaling is one of the easiest and most popular ways to focus on the people you’re thankful for.

Gratitude letters
Unexpected hand-written (and hand-delivered) notes to people you’re grateful to have in your life can be a powerful boost to happiness levels. But any form of direct communication counts.

Meditation and Walks
Taking time to cleanse the mind, showing gratitude for simple things like breathing, the sounds around you etc.


Donating precious time or money is not a waste of either.

It has been shown that spending $5 on others rather than on ourselves makes us happier.

Spending on others while sharing the moment together results in the happiest feelings of all.

“People who donate money to charity are happier in poor and rich countries alike. You don’t have to have a lot to experience the emotional benefits of giving.”
– Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, Professor of Psychology, University of British Columbia

A Gallup World Poll surveying 200,000+ people in 136 countries found:
Most people who had donated to charity during the past month reported greater life satisfaction.

Finding a Life Partner

Researchers John F. Helliwell and Shawn Grover, using data from the Gallup World Poll and two U.K. surveys, show that:

* Being married has a greater effect on happiness than being single, even after controlling for prior life satisfaction.

* Being married has some protective effect against the slump that many people feel in their 40s and 50s, a.k.a. mid-life crisis.

* The happiest couples are those who married their best friends.

Having Kids!

There are conflicting reports. While many parents say that raising children brings them the greatest joy and fulfillment, certain studies show having a child depletes happiness.

A US General Social Survey notes a 0.24%/ Decrease in life satisfaction per kid.

But the answer is more complex.

Your life stage, parental role, and marital situation play a role:

Single parents and Young parents (17-25 at 1st child’s birth) are usually less happy than those without kids.

Married parents and Older parents (26-62 at 1st child’s birth) are usually more happy than those without kids.

The sense of joy and fulfillment may be stronger during later life stages.

Mothers are usually less happy compared to their childless counterparts

Fathers are usually happier compared to their childless counterparts

These stages are especially rough on Parents: Toddlers + Teens

Being a kid…

The most important factors for childhood happiness are:

* close friends
* playing sports
* a stable home

There is no association between family income and a child’s overall life satisfaction

According to research from Gundi Knies at the U. of Essex Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER), wealth does not equal happiness

Your Living Space

A beautiful house increases satisfaction in the house itself, but does little to improve overall life happiness. However, its distance from work makes a huge difference in happiness because of the commute.

As the commute distance increases, happiness invariably decreases.

Congestion is a happiness killer. Taking a less congested but slightly longer route can help.

If shortening your drive isn’t an option, changing your perspective can combat the negative effects of a long commute.

* Leave work issues behind.
* Use the time as an opportunity to create a mental shift between work and home.
* Consider the time as a break from commitments and responsibilities.
* Do something fun. Listening to music, enjoying the scenery, or simply being alone with your thoughts may help you view the commute as leisure time.
* Managing to fit some physical activity into your day helps with a long commute, even if it’s a simple walk during lunch.

In studies comparing Ohio homeowners and renters: Neither group was happier, but homeowners were 12 pounds heavier
on average. Speaking of Exercise…


20 minutes –> 12 hours
The mood benefits of just 20 minutes of exercise can last 12 hours.

It’s not just cardio. Strength training, yoga, and tai chi have been shown to relax the mind/body, reduce anxiety, boost confidence, and relieve stress.

Don’t Forget to Laugh

Laughter therapy: Laughter is so natural and beneficial that it’s even used as therapy, improving health, mood, and social skills through fun and humor.

Laughter yoga was started in Mumbai by Dr. Madan Katarina, who is now gleefully running over 5,000 clubs worldwide.

400 vs. 15
Kids burst out 400 chuckles a day, whereas adults eke out a mere 15.

Laughing releases happy chemicals including dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in feelings of pleasure and happiness

12% increase in mental performance
In experiments where people watched a funny film: Participants immediately performed 12% better at mentally challenging tasks, compared to those who watched a neutral film and those who watched no film at all.

It will get better

A study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that happiness is not a downhill slide after college, but a U-curve.

At graduation and the start of young adulthood, people are generally pretty happy. That’s before the disillusionment of life sets in.

Slowly, nagging spouses, whiny children, and unmerciful bosses bring us down until we round the bend around middle age.

Then things start looking up, psychologically. Mature people have better control of their emotions, better at solving conflicts, and less likely to pass judgment. In a sense, they are better at knowing how to be happy.

There are also studies that find mid-life to be a happy period (when not statistically controlling for a host of circumstantial factors).

“The elderly grow better at living for the present. Older people know what matters most.”
– Laura Carstensen, Professor of Psychology, Stanford University, Director of Stanford Center on Longevity

What is the future of happiness research?

Well-being studies are on the rise; so are efforts to integrate those (sometimes contradictory) findings into a framework, which should help us make sense of how everything fits together.

Who knows, maybe one day, we’ll discover that grand unified theory of happiness and know exactly how to be happy…


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