Happiness – Cause or Effect

Is happiness a joyful state of being? How about a pleasurable experience? Or possibly a positive emotion? Merriam Webster says it’s actually all three. Even with multiple definitions, words cannot really capture the idea of happiness. Psychologists refer to emotion as “procedural knowledge”; a skill such as riding a bike. Procedural knowledge cannot be learned or fully explained in words. Only experience can lead to a true understanding. And so it goes with happiness.

Psychologists tell us that happiness has three components:
1) an overall satisfaction with life
2) satisfaction with life domains (work, relationships, etc.)
3) for the most part, higher levels of positive emotions and lower levels of negative emotions

Even so, happiness as an experience changes throughout a person’s life span. Researchers studied twelve million blogs to extrapolate words that related to happiness. Younger writers, those in their teens and early twenties, used the words “ecstatic” or “giddy.” On the other hand, older writers in their forties and fifties conveyed happiness through words like “content, satisfied, relaxed.”

Happiness comes from three distinct sources:
1) 40% from intentional activity (self controlled)
2) 10% from circumstances (outside of self control)
3) 50% from “set point”

Set points appear to be genetically influenced and are a result of certain personality traits. People who rank high on the extraversion scale may find they experience more happiness. While people who rank high on the neuroticism scale may find they experience less happiness. A life event, whether triggered by an intentional activity or an outside circumstance, may create waves of happiness, but over time, the set point will take the person back to their innate level of happiness.

Returning to the relationship of age and happiness, people between the ages of thirteen and fifty or sixty, enjoy a rise in happiness throughout life. A fast descent occurs thereafter. Another important factor discovered in research is that attitudes and actions affect happiness; examples are:
1) having a positive attitude and seeing a silver lining in any dark cloud
2) prioritizing activity such as spending time with friends and family
3) completing an important life goal

Is too much happiness a bad thing? Psychologists say yes, in some cases. The risks of too much happiness are as follows:
1) being too happy may lead to not recognizing risky situations
2) being overly happy may be expressed at an inappropriate time
3) trying to be happy all the time in not authentic behavior. The risk of offending or confusing others with too much happiness is high.

Happiness is associated with many positive life outcomes: good problem solving skills, a creative, helpful image to the world, greater professional accomplishments and good decision making capabilities. There is an association between education, successful marital status and financial success; all three are associated with happiness. Some psychologists believe that these life outcomes are “effects” of happiness while other psychologists take another position. They believe that positive life outcomes are not “effects” of happiness, but that happiness is the “cause” of the positive life outcomes. Stop for a minute and think about this concept. It is very empowering to believe that choices, attitudes and actions are paramount to circumstances that “appear” to be out of our control. This concept in no way suggests that we should fake happiness in order to achieve a life goal. Instead we have the option to create coping skills. When life circumstances become obstacles, reframe those circumstances as opportunities, see the silver living and hold on to the positive outlook. You might find that happiness is a natural result regardless of outside circumstances.

Written by Lori Ralko, M.A., RP, RSW Registered Toronto Psychotherapist