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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happiness and Gratitude

Happiness studies are popular these days, but the obsession with happiness dates back to philosophers thousands of years ago. People have always been obsessed with happiness and how to increase it. If I take you back in time more than 2000 years, we find Aristotle – one of the prominent philosophers on the topic of happiness. Aristotle stated that happiness is a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. I have often quoted him on the topic and am happy to do it again: 

“Happiness depends on ourselves”.

This brief statement is very profound. It ties into my belief that we have a free will, that we choose our own response to situations, and that it is our thinking and our interpreting that creates our emotions and well-being, not specific things, people, or situations. Epictetus said it long ago: “We are not disturbed by men or by events, but by the view which we take of them.” Austrian psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl added that no one can take away your last freedom, which is the freedom to choose your own response, to any situation, no matter the circumstances. Who doesn’t like control over their own level of happiness? I have to acknowledge, however, that research is not completely on our side.

There is an increasing group of thinkers and researchers who claim that your happiness is determined by three factors. Your ‘set point’ (accounting for 50% of your happiness), circumstances (only 10%) and intentional activity, accounting for 40% of your happiness. Circumstances are an obvious but smaller factor than many people like to think and I am not sorry for the victim-thinkers out there. Circumstances only make up 10% of our happiness pie, despite the fact that most of us love to blame circumstances for the situation we’re in and for our misfortunes and our level of happiness. 

When I first read about this three-piece pie some time ago, I was even more surprised by the 50% called the ‘set point’.  That does not fit my need for control nor my belief in free will and in the power of my thinking and choosing. Apparently, an individual’s chronic happiness level is 50% determined by her or his set point. This set point is the expected value within the person’s set range. It is genetically determined and assumed to be fixed, stable over time, and immune to influence or control. Results of twin studies and long-term panel studies support this point. They all indicate substantial long-term stability in happiness. But the good news is that you still have considerable control through intentional activity, which determines your level of happiness for 40%.  How you choose to act, how you choose to think and judge, who you choose to interact with, what you choose to do, where you choose to put your time and energy, they all influence your level of happiness.

One of the many known examples of intentional activity that can increase your well-being and happiness is regular exercise, even though we often don’t act on it. Other ways to increase your happiness are certain types of cognitive activity, such as reframing situations in a more positive light or pausing to count your blessings and striving for important personal goals. Yet another one, possibly less known, is being kind to others and expressing gratitude.

The word gratitude is derived from the Latin root gratia, meaning grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. All derivatives from this Latin root have to do with kindness, generousness, gifts, the beauty of giving and receiving, or getting something for nothing. Gratitude has been conceptualized as many different things: an emotion, an attitude, a moral virtue, a habit, a personality trait, or a coping response. Call it what you want, quite a few studies show that expressing gratitude can have profound effects on both the gratitude provider and the gratitude recipient. There is good reason why expressing gratitude is making it’s way into addiction treatment, mental health therapy, school activities, corporate coaching and other fields.


This Thanksgiving Weekend I am grateful for many things, often small things, often the things that I almost take for granted. I won’t bore you with my list, but I do wish to leave you with this: If you look inside, if you look around you, if you practice being aware, if you live in the moment and if you know how to take on different perspectives in life, what else can be the result than gratitude? Just leaves you to express it, abundantly and authentically. Go do it.

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