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Can we increase happiness?

There's a widespread notion that some of us were born happy and cheerful, while others imbibed misery with their mother's milk- and that they'll whinge their way through the rest of their lives. If that's the case, then there's no point in trying to change people's levels of happiness, since their gloomy genetic inheritance will always re-impose itself after any temporary bouts of cheerfulness.

In Making Happy People, Paul Martin argues that 'One of the silliest myths is that actively pursuing happiness is the best way to lose it.' The reasoning behind such mythology being that 'happiness is like a cat: it will never come if you summon it, whereas if you ignore it you will soon find it jumping into your lap.' Martin argues that 'Someone who has a basic understanding of the nature and causes of happiness is much better equipped to become happier and to help others become happier.' 

Science does indeed tell us that we can make ourselves happier. In 1996 David Lykken of the University of Minnesota researched the role of our genes in shaping our levels of satisfaction with life. He studied 4000 sets of twins and concluded that about 50% of our satisfaction with life comes from our genes, impacting on how we deal with stress, our levels of anxiety, whether we have a sunny and upbeat disposition, or whether we tend to see life through half-empty glasses.

Lykken went on to postulate that other factors such as level of education, religion, marital status, and income contribute about 8% to our sense of well-being. Which leaves some 42% where we might be able to make a difference.

With our genes determining just over half of our general disposition, Lykken posed the idea that we have a 'set point' for happiness, a level that we tend to return to after life's highs and lows. Lottery winners are often euphoric for a while, but within a year or so revert to roughly the same level of happiness, or unhappiness, they had prior to the win. Just like the rest of us, they have to deal with all the hassles of daily life - traffic congestion, tradesmen who don't turn up as promised, squabbles with partners or spouses, worries about their children's performance at school. They're back at their 'set point' of happiness, it's just that they do their fretting in more luxurious surroundings than the rest of us.

The good news about the 'set point' theory is that it leaves around 42%, almost half of our personality, susceptible to actions and interventions which could make us happier.

Using the set point, positive psychologists have come with a formula for happiness. Where H is your level of happiness, S your set point, C the conditions of your life and V the voluntary activities you engage in, then H=S+C+V. 

What's more, while the 'hedonic treadmill' led psychologists to believe for some time that there is little scope to improve people's happiness in the longer term, recent studies have shown that it is possible. According to Seligman while happiness emanating from pleasure is transitory and may be difficult to enhance, lasting happiness can be increased by simple exercises such as 'the three blessings', for example, which not only encourage positive emotion but help us find more meaning in our lives. 

Various techniques to increase happiness are outlined in the tips and techniques section.

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