The pursuit of happiness (Part 1)

Yesterday I was dragged away from my work by a positive storm of barking. Zulu might only be two dogs long and one dog high, but when he puts his mind to it he has the bark of a German Shepherd on steroids. Yesterday he was clearly very unhappy about something.

“What’s going on?” I asked, as I reached the front of our house and found my neighbor, Barbara, already there.

“Oh,” she said, laughing. “It’s a big, scary, toad. He’s not the world’s bravest dog, is he?”

She was right about the big part – the toad was enormous; it could barely heave its bulk along the pavement. She was also right about the brave part. Zulu was prancing around it, frantic, trying to decide whether he could take it. The closest he got to it was nudging it with his nose once or twice.

“Leave it!” I told Zulu sternly, herding the toad into the drain with a shovel before he could decide he really did want to kill it (not that I was all that concerned for the toad, I must admit, but I’ve heard that they’re poisonous for dogs).

Once in the culvert the toad made for the covered part of the drain and disappeared underneath cement. Zulu shot me a reproachful look and set to work, apparently determined to dig it out again.

“It’s gone,” I tried to tell my puppy after fifteen minutes of chatting to Barbara and watching him try to extricate the toad. He left few avenues unexplored. He climbed into the culvert, right into the dirty running water, and shoved his nose as far as it would go down that mucky drain. He tried to dig up the sheltering concrete and, failing that, to chew it to pieces. He backed away and set up a quiet ambush at the mouth of the drain, tip of his tail wagging gently, apparently hopeful that if he stayed there quietly for long enough the toad would venture out again of its own accord. Then he tried all of these things again. And again.

“Oh well,” Barbara said, “he’s happy.”

He was, too. Watching him I felt a little wistful. If only I could get so absorbed in the adventure of hunting toads or get so unabashedly excited every time I saw someone who had ever been the least bit nice to me (Sidenote: this last trait is mildly problematic as Mike and I are pretty much convinced that any would-be robbers just need to stick their hands through the gate and pet his head nicely before letting themselves in and he’ll escort them, tail wagging all the way, right to the front door). No, Zulu might not be especially brave or particularly discriminating in his choice of friends, but he sure is a happy little dog. If only the puzzle of happiness was as easy to put together for people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness since I started a consulting project requiring me to write a distance-learning course for masters students on wellbeing and resilience. What is it that makes us happy or sad? What influences how satisfied we feel with our lives?

Some of this seems to come down to genes. A number of researchers have come to the conclusion that happiness is about 50% genetic, 40% intentional, and 10% circumstantial.

If this is accurate, it means that about half of our predisposition toward happiness is coded into our genes and pretty much outside our control. Circumstances (health, marriage, work) can also be tough for us to change (although often not impossible). But what is really surprising here is that circumstances don’t seem to account for as much happiness as we might think, either for good or for bad. On the one hand that means that buying an expensive new car doesn’t seem to boost happiness for long.  On the other hand, it means that when things go awry we often re-orient fairly quickly.

No, the really surprising finding that has so far emerged from the happiness and wellbeing research is that we do have a lot of control over how happy are. We may have been gifted a genetic “set-point” but we can move that set point up or down significantly.

In a previous post, happiness and the mango tree rains, I discussed one psychologist’s take on what makes us happy. Martin Seligman argues that there are three important components to happiness:

  • Pleasure: The “smiley face” piece that makes us feel good.
  • Engagement: The depth of our involvement in our family, work, romance, and hobbies.
  • Meaning: Using personal strengths to serve some larger end.

Pleasure, Seligman argues, is the least important component of happiness. In the quest for a happy and satisfied life he insists that engagement and meaning are far more important. Somewhat to his chagrin (given that he was a life-long academic and a born intellectual) Seligman also admitted that research suggests that, “cerebral virtues – curiosity, love of learning – are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude, and capacity for love.”

With more research being conducted on this topic all the time, it is increasingly clear that there are things we can do (ways of thinking and behaving) that can significantly boost our happiness. We can probably guess some of the things that Seligman would prescribe as “happiness boosters” but what about you? What do you think boosts people’s happiness? What increases yours?

Come back in a couple of days to read more about things we can do to boost our happiness. I’ll also post some links to follow if you’re interesting in learning more about this topic.

In the meantime, have a happy weekend!

8 responses to “The pursuit of happiness (Part 1)

  1. I must admit, the thought that 50% of our happiness is genetic makes me a little skeptical. It would be interesting to read that research. I guess what I dislike most about that thought is that there’s an “I-can’t-help-it” component to unhappiness, then; that part is something that we can’t rise above, even if we want to be happy.

    But then, maybe it is true. I think I’m predisposed to be happy a lot of the time. I can go through the exact same circumstances as a friend of mine and still be cheery and positive, appreciating life. I guess I’ve never really thought of where that happiness comes from.

    The things that boost my happiness? My family, whether it’s a large family dinner or bonding with my sister or teasing my brothers or cuddling my nephew or talking with my parents. Usually any form of people interaction – phoning a friend or emailing, doing something to cheer someone else up, caring about them rather than me. And writing (it really is therapy).

    • I’ll put up links to a couple of research papers in Monday’s post for those interested. Yeah, the 50/40/10 formula looks just a little neat, doesn’t it? But I do think that genetics/temperament/personality/whatever you want to call it does play a significant part. Some people are just naturally hard wired to be more optimistic than others. I think we can do a lot to change out thinking patterns, but I think biology can also be a bit of a powerful force. Another one I’m not so sure about is that 10%… as Mike and I were talking last night I thought of a follow up blog on that so more on this may be forthcoming. Glad to read that you’re enjoying writing by the way… 🙂

  2. When I was little we had a bernese mountain dog. She would cuddle with ANYONE. My dad used to joke that at least she would cuddle a robber to death or at least did not let them go again to continue cuddling. But believe me if anyone tried to touch me and the dog did not like it, she made that completely clear by barking just once and staring. She even would not listen to my mom, since she was thinking of being the alpha-woman in the house. When I was a baby my mom got rid of a doll that was my size at the time – the dog thought that it was me being thrown into the dumpster and she held my mom’s arm until she was convinced that I am still alive and not in the dumpster. Also she did not go for a walk with my mom. I had to walk with her (as in my dog went for a walk with me) once I could stand up straight and my mom had to follow with a 5 meter distance. Lucky me I guess!

    Your pup is happy and loves you – he would protect you once he sees danger 😉

    And I agree on the percentages. Happiness can be destroyed by a dysbalance of proteins inside of you. And that would be the genetic part – otherwise it has a lot to do with how you let yourself react.

    Hope all is well and keep on teaching 🙂


    • Oooh… I love big, furry, dogs and dog stories. Thanks for these fun glimpses of your childhood companion. A fellow author whose blog I follow Chandra Hoffman is about to get a Newfoundland and her couple of posts about Newfies have made me have Newf-want… not that there’s probably a Newfoundland dog in this entire country.

  3. Karen Sharpe

    the sunshine!

  4. Hey Lisa (, Mike and Zulu!)
    I think people should have dogs to increase their happiness – their antics would give you amusement (far outweighing the annoyances).
    Aside from that, with no scientific insight, I think people’s health plays a key role in boosting/draining happiness. There would be many other factors – as mentioned maintaining good relationships is another happiness booster since we are social creatures. This might vary between people as some are more extroverted than others.
    For me, if I am irritable when tired or unwell I find it a struggle to choose to be happy. If I am exercising regularly and healthy, life is grand 🙂

    • I totally agree with you about dogs. They’re too funny. As for health, also agree with you on that one. I think I might do a follow up post on this topic where I talk about that 10% circumstances figure, as chronic bad health might be an exception to that 10% influence I reckon. Hope you’re well over there in wintry Oz.

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