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Can Happiness Be Learned?

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There are a lot of happy people out there, and there are a lot of miserable people out there, too. Are happy people happy because of habits and outlook, inborn traits, or life circumstances? On the other hand, are unhappy people unhappy because they’re born that way, because they don’t have enough stuff, or because of how they habitually think?

Can happiness be learned, is it a byproduct of our situation, or is it an innate trait?

Popular belief has us thinking that when circumstances are just so, we will be happy. The thinking goes, “I’ll be happy when … I get a new car … buy a bigger house … get that raise … find that special someone.” This belief is an external locus of control. In other words, external circumstances are believed to alter one’s mood and determine one’s happiness.


A study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton in 2010 actually found that happiness is an internal locus of control. Beyond having the money to meet basic needs for food, shelter, water, and other survival necessities, money doesn’t actually make people happier. Circumstances may boost our mood for a short time, but they are not sustainable for happiness in the long run.

What does make us happy is our outlook and approach to what life brings. In other words, happiness doesn’t happen to us. Happiness is a choice.

The turn of this century marked the decade of neuroscience that completely altered what we understand about mood and psychology. The brain is much more changeable than we had thought in previous decades. The fields of positive psychology, neuroscience, and psychoneuroimmunology are finding a lot of evidence that says happiness is, in fact, a learnable quality.

Martin Seligman, one of the leaders in positive psychology, defines happiness in three parts: the feel-good emotions of pleasure; engagement with a life worth living; and using our strengths to make a meaningful contribution to society. The first is immediate and fleeting, but the latter two have a longer-lasting impact. These latter two are crucial for overall happiness.

C. Robert Cloninger is a psychiatrist who studied the components of mental health and illness. He found that, while people may be born with certain temperament traits to be more fearful or less fearful, for example, it’s not the temperament that dictates happiness. It’s how we work with our temperament with self-directedness, engagement with others, and a meaningful connection with a larger picture that determines our well-being.

Having a connection to a larger picture helps one temper the ups and downs of life. For example, having a belief such as “it all works out in the end,” or “this will be good fodder for a creative project,” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” are outlooks that help someone frame the hard things as obstacles rather than stopping points for misery. And connecting with others helps us feel like we exist and matter.

So, happiness can indeed be learned. If you feel happy in your life, great! See below to find out what you’re doing well and see if there are ways to increase or maintain it. If you feel like your happiness quotient could use a boost, here are five tips on how to increase your happiness:

Five Tips on How To Increase Your Happiness

1. Give to others

There is much research out there that correlates happiness with giving to people. There’s something about giving without expectation of reciprocity that makes us happy. It gives our lives meaning to know we can make a difference in someone’s life.

2. Give Thanks

Dr. Robert Emmons’ research on gratitude shows that having an attitude of gratitude increases mental and emotional health. Gratitude gets us out of feeling victimized by our lives and increases a sense of responsibility over our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Gratitude hones our minds to look at what’s working, rather than what’s not, and that elicits more feel-good emotions, keeps our anxiety lower, and keeps us connected to others.

3. Focus On What IS Working

William Shakespeare, in his play Hamlet, said, “There is nothing good or bad but thinking that makes it so.” We can choose to focus on the things we don’t like or the things we do. This is not say that living life in denial is the preferred strategy. We accept what is, rather than denying it, but then we choose to let our outlook focus on what IS working, rather than what isn’t.

When we focus on what’s not working, we tend to get in complaint mode and we feel powerless and unhappy. When we focus on what IS working, we give affirmations to people, and when they feel more valued, they tend to do better jobs or nicer things in turn. When we focus on what’s working, we often see more things that are working because our mind is already in the mode to see it.

Since there are both things that are working and things that are not working in every situation, we might as well choose to bathe our brains in feel-good neurochemistry. Then, when we feel good about what’s working, we have access to better solutions for what’s not working.

4. Grow Your Social Capital

A study on the happiest and least happy countries showed Sweden to be the happiest country. It wasn’t because of wealth. It was because, even in times of disaster, people felt they could lean on each other, which made trying times less impactful. This is called social capital.

When it comes down to it, anyone who is successful in business will tell you that it relies on social capital. It’s the connections to others that gets the word out and keeps people coming back. It’s what makes the business feel good.

When we think of ourselves as part of a community, giving to others doesn’t feel like a waste and we don’t get lost making sure there is equal reciprocity. We give to the collective because giving to the collective ultimately serves us, as well as the greater good. Sharing your good mood, your thoughts, encouragement, and support are all ways to grow your social capital and to trust it’s there when you need it.

5. Choose To Be Happy First

Many people think that if they get the raise, the car, a certain amount in the bank, or that romantic relationship, then their lives can start being happy. We do this with our bodies, too. We believe that if we hit that certain size or weight, we can start to feel worthy of love or happiness.

But as the field of Dynamic Eating Psychology teaches us, this is a way of putting off happiness into the future instead of living a happy life now.

Choose to be happy first. Then let success grow from that.

The daily choices of how we live our lives are what brings real happiness. The time we make for pleasure, connection, and the things that matter most in our lives is what counts. Choose to be happy first, and the rest will grow from that happiness.

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