Nov 18

How can we become happier in our lives, and what do we need to stay happy?

Researchers have put a lot of effort into answering these questions and came up with some interesting facts that define the scientific basis of the so-called ‘positive psychology’. Today we know that about 50% of one’s happiness depends on his or her genes. About 10-15% are a result of different measurable life circumstances variables, such as socioeconomic status, marital status, health, income, sex, age and others. Research in the US, for instance, has found that older Americans are generally happier than younger adults, or that 28% of those with an annual income of $35,000 described themselves as happy while 38% were of those bringing home $75,000 or more a year. The remaining 40% of factors influencing happiness, however, are mostly the results of actions that individuals deliberately engage in to become happier. This is also where we can also deliberately start to change something right away: physical exercise or eating chocolate, for example, are both proven to release endorphines which make us feel more energetic and happy. Proximity to other happy people was also found to be an important factor – if we have a tendency to isolate ourselves or to get stuck in negative emotions out of an inability to communicate them effectively or to resolve difficult situations, it comes as no surprise that happiness will not be a frequent visitor in our homes. Even worse: if conflicts are not resolved, we frequently end up in a downward spiral that can cause chronic distress, frustration and anger, and ultimately develop psychosomatic illness.

There is also extensive research data available now suggesting that religious people are happier and less stressed. It is not clear, however, whether this is because of the social contact and support that result from religious activities, the greater likelihood of behaviors related to good health (such as less substance abuse), or of a generally greater peace of mind (‘reason for being’, ‘life after death’). However, in countries where being without religion is not unusual, the happiness rates have to be found higher as well. So there is still much to be learned about the factors that influence happiness – but while we wait for the results, we can still aspire to improve the 40% we have control over.

(This short article is part of a weekly series dealing with psychological expat problems and general mental health issues and was published in various newspapers and magazines in Thailand, 2010)