SIGN UP FOR MY FREE NEWSLETTER OF MENTAL HEALTH TIPS!
What Causes Happiness? Genes
Unfortunately part of what causes happiness is our genetics. Studies on twins have shown that identical twins raised apart are very similar in their general level of happiness. Some Research suggests that there is a happiness set point that most of us return to, and that set point is different for each person. The good news is that studies on fraternal twins show that there is almost no correlation in happiness! This means that a portion of happiness is not predetermined and we can perhaps influence our happiness level by what we do.
What Causes Happiness? Neuroplasticity
Recent studies in the plasticity of the brain, have suggested that it is much more amenable to change than we once thought. Not only can the brain rewire neural pathways and change the way it functions but parts of the brain can grow or shrink depending on its use. For example using MRI’s scientists have been able to show that monk’s who engage in loving kindness (compassion based) meditation have brains that are different from people who have just started this practice. The brain activity in these monks’ brains is highly charged and developed in areas that deal with compassion and happiness. These monks prove that we can train our brains to be happier in this way. Perhaps we can do this in other ways as well. The ability of our brain to change in this way is called neuroplasticity. It has recently revolutionized our understanding of the brain.
What Causes Happiness? Optimism
There is no question that optimism is a quality that causes happiness, and all the research points to this. Optimism is a hopefulness and confidence that things will work out. Optimism requires a belief in the positive and the good of people and the universe. Optimism helps us to move on from the past, and not fear the future. This characteristic of being optimistic makes us resilient in the face of so many things that cause depression. Optimism is not denial. Denial is unconsciously pretending reality isn’t real. Optimism is choosing the positive when you are able, realistically to do so.
Negative experiences can certainly cause people to be pessimistic. It is difficult to teach clients who have had only negative experiences with the world to be optimistic. However, it is possible, because there is just as much evidence of the positive as there is of the negative. Shifting their focus can help them to see things through a different lens. It also helps when they have a corrective experience. For example, if I person has had a terrible relationship, and then has a wonderful loving one, they can heal from the negative impact of the initial one, and learn that relationships can be safe. The neuroplasticity research shows us that the brain changes in response to these experiences of safety, just as it does in response to feelings of danger.
In therapy, when working with people who are depressed , we often will examine the thoughts that are negativistic and pessimistic. In fact, much of Cognitive Behavioral therapy, the most well researched therapy , hinges on this technique. We challenge and teach clients that this way of thinking sabotages happiness. If all we are learning about neruroplasticity is true, however, this may be the tip of the iceberg. There may be many things we can do in therapy to impact a person’s level of happiness.
What Causes Happiness? Why are People Pessimistic?
Why not choose to positive and hopeful if you can? I can’t think of a good reason. However, my work with clients has shown me people who are pessimistic automatically think negatively, and do not realize or recognize they are doing it. If they became aware of it could they change it?
With a lot of work yes. However, None of these ideas about increasing happiness suggest it can be done quickly. If takes effort and work and consistent challenging of our habits and thoughts.
My experience tells me one of the reasons people are pessimistic is because they believe it will protect them from harm. Being pessimistic can protect us from disappointment, getting let down or getting taking advantage of. However, it can also prevent us from feeling happiness and joy. It can cause us to feel less satisfied in our relationships and jobs and with ourselves.
This is an example of another mistake we make on our road to happiness. We think that being negative will lead to less suffering. We believe that it will protect us from all those terrible emotions, when in fact it does the opposite. It makes us unhealthy, unhappy, and unpleasant to be around. Much of this thinking is on a level we are not even fully aware of. If we can learn to be more in tune to our thoughts and assumptions, we can work on challenging and changing them. Often when you are sick and tired of being unhappy, it’s the best time to do this kind of work.
Other pages on happiness here:
What Causes Happiness: Martin Seligman and Positive Psychology
Martin Seligman, who originally coined the term learned helplessness has more recently been devoting himself to the study of positive psychology, or how to be happier. If you can learn to be helpless, by being surrounded by hopelessness, you can learn to be positive as well. Seligman has done a great deal of work on optimism.
He has also created virtually a new branch of psychology termed Positive psychology. It is the study of strengths and resiliency rather than weaknesses. Seligman looked across cultures and across time to develop a list of strengths such as : wisdom/knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Each of these strengths has substregnths. He believes these traits are all related to happiness. He believes we can develop them.
What Causes Happiness: Values and Spirituality
There is also a spiritual, but not necessarily religious component to happiness. People who are happy have a commitment to something larger than themselves, and they have some kind of a faith that helps sustain them. The commitment to the core values that Seligman discovered are core values and virtues that we consider good and meaningful. These concepts are often part of a spiritual frame work.
What Causes Happiness: True Happiness
True happiness must be differentiating from happiness that is related to drug or alcohol use, or some form of mental illness. We also generally don’t consider a person who derives pleasure from behavior that is morally wrong (such as killing) to be a truly happy person. A discussion of what causes happiness would not be complete without a discussion of virtues and values and the spiritual perspective.
Other factors which contribute to happiness, such as marriage and family, community and social connectedness, and health will be explored on other pages on the menu. Pages linked directly here will discuss the values and traits that are associated with happiness. Leave what causes happiness for radio interview