I will admit a certain feeling of dismay when I was assigned this project. A short article on the nature of happiness and success may prove simple to your average over-educated journalist, but to a man whose highest accolade includes being the most distinguished Chinese food delivery driver of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, it would prove to be quite a challenge. After all, this is the question, the enigma that has puzzled Hindu sages, Benedictine anchorites and Bay Area life coaches since time immemorial. What makes the editorial team at Brickell Magazine think I have the answer? A cursory examination of the most recent scientific literature put my anxious mind at ease.
`It turns out that, like most mysterious phenomena that govern every aspect of our lives, scientists have within the last 40 years reduced happiness into a seemingly simple algorithm. In a study performed by the University of Minnesota (in a Sister, Sister-esque social sciences survey of separated identical twins) it was determined that somewhere around 48% of the sensations we associate with happiness (general contentedness and satisfaction) were directly related to our genetics, specifically one’s immediate and closest relatives, regardless of culture or recent major life events.
This not only provides cannon shot for millennials looking to blame more of the globe’s woes on their forbearers, learning this put my own moods into an almost immediately larger perspective. While we tend to look at grim outlooks and depressive episodes as a result of the choices, resentments or inactions that inhabit our past, placing them within the context of simple, inalterable biology allows us to look at periods of unhappiness with a clinical separation, treating them as congenital disorders as opposed to indications of our lack of value as a living being.
What’s even more interesting, an additional 40% of our happiness is determined by the short-term effects of major life events, at least according to Arthur C. Brooks, Social Scientist & President of the American Enterprise Institute. Marriage, deaths in the family, landing that job you’ve worked so hard for, fooling a disparately attractive person into eating a meal with you; all of these things directly affect our day-to-day happiness, just not for very long. While setting definable and tangible goals is an excellent way to motivate one’s self, reaching those goals rarely allows us the lasting satisfaction we envisioned. And what to make of all those life events we dread? Those things we fear with a stomach-wrenching disgust? Well, they usually turn out not to be nearly as bad as we imagine, and the depressive after-effects wear off quite quickly.
“With roughly 80% percent of what is regularly defined as happiness being under the purview of genetics and chance, it’s important to take a special regard for those factors that we can control.”
With roughly 80% percent of what is regularly defined as happiness being under the purview of genetics and chance, it’s important to take a special regard for those factors that we can control. Lasting and loving relationships seem to play a major role in a person’s happiness, both in and out of the traditional nuclear family model. A fulfilling and stimulating work life also adds a calculable sense of satisfaction, at least according to social science surveys, although not in a way directly related to earnings.
Strategies to increase day-to-day happiness are many and varied, but a few are worth mentioning by dint of their academic credits. According to a study by Dr. Sonja Lyubormisky, acts of kindness and altruism are scientifically proven to alleviate poor moods both in the long- and short-term. In a separate study, Lyubormisky also reported that being regularly grateful for things and people present in our lives has a similar effect. Seems that thousands of years of religious thought, at least at it’s core, wasn’t just about men wearing patently ridiculous costumes. This shouldn’t be surprising, as our faith tends to have a large effect on how content we are with our lives. Regular aerobic exercise is also proven to increase endorphin release, a chemical associated with happiness.
I have an additional tip to increase your satisfaction with life, if only temporarily and in a most superficial fashion. Jeans. Well-fitting, decently made denim and a new pair of shoes, while indicative of the materialist lows of our society at large, does grant a palpable boost to the self-esteem in ways that mantras and meditations fall woefully short. If you’re truly stuck in the doldrums of despair, a new outfit can change your outlook for the better. Promise.
As we’re discussing the roots and routines that usher happiness into our lives, we should also look briefly at one factor that makes little difference. Empirically, a Princeton study by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman all but proved one of our nation’s most repeated clichés: Money in fact does not buy happiness. It seems that once people have enough money to meet basic necessities, any increase does very little for their overall sense of satisfaction. Additionally, any daydreams of winning the lottery automatically rocketing you into everlasting nirvana should be similarly dispelled. A 1978 study by researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts found that, on average, lottery winners received less pleasure from everyday activities than those recently involved in serious accidents.
I’m a recent addition to the great city of Miami, and many of the things I love as an outsider turn out to be fertile ground for a lifetime of contentedness. Miami contains within it an often understated but powerful dichotomy: Old world traditional values mixed with America’s insatiable sense of reinvention. Here, I’ve transformed myself from a smoking, family-ducking, overweight schlub into an avid cyclist accepted into an ever-increasing extended family of Cuban and Iranian relations. In its own odd, unexpected and exhausting way, in its morass of high-speed lane-shifters and friendly tri-lingual shouting matches, Miami has taught me before I ever set hand to keyboard for this assignment the path to happiness.