Quick note: As you may have noticed, I’ve been writing a little less frequently the last several weeks. I’ve been burning the midnight oil studying for an exam I need to take for work. That will be out of the way soon and I’ll be back to posting a few times per week. Onward to today’s article.
Since happiness is an almost universal goal (especially for retirees), I periodically write about what, according to the latest research, makes us happy. Today is Part 3 in that series. Feel free to go back and check out Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed them.
I was browsing through Netflix recently looking for something to watch and I came across a documentary with the eye-catching title of “Happy.” The filmmaker interviewed researchers as well as regular people from all walks of life in 14 different countries in order to get an idea of what makes people happy.
According to the research our individual happiness is attributable to three areas:
- Genes: 50%
- Circumstances: 10%
- Intentional Activity: 40%
Looking at the glass half empty, we have very little control over a majority of our level of happiness. We don’t control our genetic makeup and our circumstances are often the result of what Warren Buffett calls the ovarian lottery (for example, being born in the U.S. instead of the slums of Kolkata).
Looking at the glass half full, we can still have a huge impact on our level of happiness by being intentional with how we spend our time. [Side note: This site is called Intentional Retirement for a reason.] With that in mind, what kinds of activities can we focus on that will help increase our happiness level? The film lists several:
- Focus on activities that release dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical in our brain that is responsible for feelings of pleasure. Our bodies naturally produces less dopamine as we age, but you can boost those levels through diet, exercise, game playing and cultivating happy relationships. In other words, you will be happier if you cut out the junk food, go hiking, play chess (or engage in other fun activities) and spend time with family and friends.
- Vary what you do. Sometimes having a routine makes life routine. Vary your day. Try new things. Learn new things. Meet new people. That variety leads to increased happiness.
- Get off the hedonic treadmill. I talked about this concept in Part 2. Rather than spending your money on more stuff that you will quickly get used to, spend your time and money on experiences that have a longer happiness shelf life.
- Have a close, supportive family. Every happy person the film studied had a close, supportive family. It wasn’t a perfect family and they didn’t get along with everyone in the family, but they had key family relationships that were healthy, loving, and encouraging.
- Work on something bigger than yourself. Focusing exclusively on your own wants and needs can be fun for awhile, but it eventually grows stale. Have a mission that is bigger than just you and involves things like helping others or volunteering.
- Focus on Intrinsic Goals rather than just Extrinsic Goals. People focused on Extrinsic Goals (e.g. money, image, status) reported less happiness and more depression than those focused on Intrinsic Goals (e.g. personal growth, relationships, a desire to help others).
So it turns out that achieving happiness shouldn’t be that hard. The things we love doing—play, experiences, friends, good food, meaningful activities, being thankful, helping others—are also the things that are the building blocks of happiness.