I think it’s fairly obvious that I’m a pretty jolly person. I come from a pretty happy family and I surround myself with a fairly happy bunch of friends. I read a lot of books about happiness and I’m attracted to quotes that are uplifting and inspirational. One of my favorite all-time words is “positivity.” I smile and joke a lot, and I try to never be cruel. I guess those are good indications of a pretty happy guy.
I don’t know for sure if happiness is easier for some than others. I don’t know that. I don’t know if some people are prone to happiness or if this is something we all have to work at equally, but we do all have to work at it. Nobody gets to be happy without effort, this much I know.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, considered one of the world’s leading experts in empirically-studied positive psychology, tells us that our happiness is 50% genetic. We can’t do anything about that. A further 10% of our happiness is dictated by circumstances in life beyond our control. Environmental factors, the ones we cannot change. This means, combined, that our contentment is 60% fixed. Now, you pessimists out there in the studio audience might be saying to yourself this: If over half of our happiness is beyond our control, what hope do we have!
But that ain’t what Sonja says.
Sonja, who has forgotten more about staying positive than you and I will ever learn, is overjoyed by the empty part of the glass. 40% of our bliss, she exclaims gleefully, is controlled by us!
I’ve never met her so I’ll confess, the “exclaims gleefully” part of the above sentence was creative license. But I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts she’s exclaimed gleefully once or twice about it. Happy people do that.
I first read Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness, a few years ago, maybe around 2013. It’s a good book and one of the best in the realm of positive psychology. I didn’t know the percentages mentioned above when I started the book, but I did know that a large portion of our satisfaction in life, and a great deal of our destiny, is controlled by us. I know that because I challenged the universe for it and won.
Fifteen years ago I was a miserable person, more or less. Money was tight. I didn’t like where I lived. I hated the work I did, and I saw no prospects for growth or happiness in my future. It was tough. I told a friend of mine back then that I woke up one morning and wished I could burn everything down in my life and take only my wife and dogs with me.
Not long after that, that’s exactly what I did. Well, I didn’t burn anything, that would be arson or something. But I dumped it. All. I chased a new dream. I’m still chasing new dreams but if I don’t achieve them, that’s okay for me. Because I’m not in a miserable place anymore. I’m happy. Now.
I know that. I know that because around the time of that low point I created a spreadsheet for myself and I listed all the most important things in my life – things like marriage, health, home, outlook, camaraderie – and I entered them in that spreadsheet. My life is measured in these (currently) 11 attributes on a scale from 1 to 4. 1 is lousy. 2 needs improvement. 3 is good and 4 is perfect. About every 3 months I open the old spreadsheet and I rate each of those important attributes and when I’m done the bottom of the grid gives me a percentage for my current state of happiness. I call it my “Quality of Life Scale.” 15 years ago that scale fed me the number “47.5%.”
That’s a pretty low level of satisfaction.
I vowed then to fix whichever aspects of my life ranked below a 3. Systematically. If it ain’t “good” or “perfect,” to me, it’s got to change. Today, and for the last several years, my quality of life has ranked in the 90th percentile. That’s like waking up joyfully 9 out of every 10 days, or better.
My genetics have not changed. The relative, uncontrollable circumstances of my life have not changed, around me, in years. I still get hit with shit all the time. I didn’t know it when the journey upward began but I was working on Sonja Lyubomirsky’s 40 percent. I was working on the only thing I can change, and that’s me.
I could tell you how. I can tell what negative environmental factors I’ve had to dump along the way. I could tell you the struggles we face when we change and how some people don’t like it. I could tell you about the times I’ve lost my way.
I could. I probably will. But today’s session has already yielded 33% more words than a standard entry should, so all of that will have to wait.
I’ll finish with this, though:
If you’re feeling down, find out why. Write it down. Categorize the ten or so aspects of life that mean the most to YOU. Rate the categories. You’ll probably find out that there are many aspects of your life that are fine, even great. Then take the ones that are not and figure out how to make them better, by your standards. Forget what makes the world happy with you, or what is considered “good” or “perfect” by societal or cultural standards. How does each category get better for you.
Happiness isn’t a gift. It can’t be presented to us by anyone. We have to find it. We have to find it and we have to work to get it and we have to fight to keep it. But I don’t believe anything is more important in life than happiness. And we control nearly half of it.
That’s a pretty good percentage, by any measure.
So go fill the rest of your cup, my friends.
Go fill it with joy.