The Happiness Formula: Part Two

Peter's picture

Today I'm continuing our series about The Happiness Formula by taking a closer look at the first variable that affects our overall level of happiness: S, our biological set point. It turns out that our genetics play an important part in shaping our outlook on the world. Although we can't change our genes, we aren't necessarily stuck with our current set point. Let's dig a bit deeper, shall we?

Tinted Glasses

According to Buddah, "Our life is the creation of our mind." In other words, how we perceive a situation makes it what it is: either good, bad or somewhere in between.

It turns out that our brains are constantly assessing things as either positive or negative using an internal "like-o-meter." This subconscious "like-o-meter" enables us to quickly make decisions without having to weigh the pros and cons each time. Instead of comparing the merits of chicken or beef logically, our brain gives us a quick subconscious "like-o-meter" reading and our conscious selves usually agree without realizing why. Beef. Obviously!

In fact, what usually happens is our "like-o-meter" gives its opinion, then our conscious brain quickly comes up with a reason to match that opinion. Beef because I had chicken last Tuesday. The reason we use to justify the decision only comes after we've actually decided. I found this quite interesting and I've caught myself doing it a few times recently.

So, each time we need to make a decision our first "gut feeling" is based on what our "like-o-meter" says. Should I go for a walk? Should I try this new toothpaste? Should I ask for an extra day off? Should I ask that stranger for the time? Should I ask that girl/guy out on a date? These questions usually produce some sort of base urge towards either a yes or a no response thanks to our "like-o-meter." Then our brains come up with a reason to support that initial urge.

The Brain Lottery

The "like-o-meter" is calibrated differently for everyone and this calibration is based on our genetic make up. Each person has a genetic predisposition to perceive events as either good or bad. People with a more negatively tuned "like-o-meter" tend to be more nervous, cautious, hesitant and worry more. This leads to less overall happiness. People on the positive end of the spectrum tend to be more outgoing, confident and feel more secure with their lives. These people also tend to be happier. So before we even get a chance to think about it, our brain is already colouring our perception of every situation we encounter, and we automatically feel more or less happy as a result.

I Can't Change My Brain, So Now What?

You're right, you can't swap your brain for a new one that is more genetically suited for happiness. You can, however, do a few things that will help you improve the brain you've got. These are the suggestions offered in the book The Happiness Hypothesis that I mentioned in part one of this series:

  • Meditation: By focusing your mind in a highly controlled way you can learn to reduce some of the negative bias in your mind. I don't know much about meditation techniques and I've never practiced it myself, but I definitely have it on my to-do list to learn about. I do know that meditation takes a lot of practice and a lot of patience. If it can help bring more happiness, I think it would be worth trying.
  • Cognitive Therapy: This is a more "Western" technique for shaping our negative thoughts into less-negative ones. It involves intercepting your negative thoughts, writing them down and forcing yourself to think rationally about them. Since a lot of our "gut reactions" are emotional and not logical, we can usually find alternative, more realistic thoughts to replace the bad ones. Over many weeks, our thoughts gradually become more realistic and less based on our "like-o-meter's" influence.
  • Prozac: I'm least excited about this option, mainly because I don't like the thought of medicating myself unless necessary (actually, my "like-o-meter" gave a strong negative reading when I read that option, and the unnecessary medication reason was the best I could come up with. Good ol' "like-o-meter!"). However, studies have shown that Prozac and other selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSIRs) can have a profound effect on how we perceive the world. SSIRs are used for treating a variety of conditions including depression, anxiety, panic attacks and obsessive compulsive disorder. How and why they work is unclear, but the fact that they do work is clear. I won't be trying this route, but it is interesting nonetheless.

'S' Is For 'Not So Set Point'

So, the first variable in The Happiness Formula, S, is based on our genes. It is not, however, set in stone like we might have originally thought. We can increase our own set points using at least some of the techniques above.

I'm personally going to be looking into meditation first and self-directed cognitive therapy second to help improve my outlook on life. I'll skip the Prozac for now!

Next time, in part three, we'll be taking a look at C, our life conditions, to see how this affects our overall level of happiness. Check back soon!

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