Pretty soon, we’re going to be talking about being thankful. It’s nearly Thanksgiving, and you might be planning for a family visit or a big meal. But it’s easier to be thankful if you’re in a good mood and not too stressed. So we wondered: Can people make themselves happy? Or is happiness dependent upon circumstances?
Turns out, there’s lots of research on the subject (making us very happy).
First, yes, people do have an element of control over their happiness (assuming they’re not chronically depressed). One study by researchers in Scotland and Australia, who examined more than 900 pairs of twins, found there is definitely a genetic component to personality traits and happiness, but it doesn’t account for everything — such as one’s environment. That’s good news because people have more control over their surroundings than their genes.
So if it’s possible to control, to some extent, your happiness in the face of adversity — think of feeding all those cousins you might not get along with — how do you go about doing it? So happy you asked.
Perspective is key. Sometimes you can’t control your situation, but you can control how you think about it — and learn from it. Kate Hanley, author of “The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide,” told Slate Magazine that instead of getting down on a stressful situation, ask how it can help you grow.
So you have a house full of little kids running in circles while you try to have a conversation? Instead of ripping your hair out, try a different approach. Maybe your lesson is to learn to engage the children in an activity that also involves the adults, such as hide and seek. So your parents like to start arguments with you? Maybe your lesson is to think of what their behavior can teach you about yourself. Perhaps you need to stop arguing so much with your own children.
Another happiness tactic? Work at it. Find what you love. A study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PeerJ broke people up into different categories based on their personalities and then looked at which profile relied on certain happiness-inducing strategies. People classified as the happiest or “self-fulfilling,” with high positive emotions and low negative emotions, were more likely to try to directly improve their mood.
For example, they were more prone to “social affiliation” (supporting and encouraging friends, helping others, trying to improve themselves, interacting with friends and receiving help from friends), “instrumental goal pursuit” (activities related to achieving one’s full potential, such as studying, organizing one’s life and striving to accomplish tasks), and “active leisure” (exercising or working on hobbies in which an individual uses his or her strengths and becomes absorbed in the activity). They also reported more frequently seeking support from faith and drinking less alcohol.
What would work for you? While the broader strategies tend to be similar, the tactics to achieve them can be different for each person.
Despite its business rankings, Maine is in the top half of states on happiness indexes. A 2012 Gallup survey placed the state at No. 21 on its well-being index, based on residents’ responses to questions about their life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment and basic access to resources.
In another study, where researchers at the University of Vermont sifted through more than 10 million geotagged tweets, looking for words deemed happy and sad, Maine came out No. 2, after Hawaii. We’re not sure the study was representative of all the state’s residents, but apparently tweeting Mainers like to spread the joy.
And now for the depressing disclaimer: Some studies show that too much happiness isn’t all that good for you. That’s right. It can make you arrogant, gullible and even unsuccessful — and then unhappy. But don’t let that depress you too much. Few people are likely to be happy all the time. Our point is that if you’re feeling a little down, there’s a possibility you can do something about it.