Here’s the thing: the answer won’t tell how you are really doing.
It may tell about your happiness set-point (how happy or unhappy you generally tend to be).
And research has been around for years: the set-point of your happiness is determined by a genetic lottery. Your answer might be different at the moment when you win the lotto or lose your job, but 6 months later, your answer will be fairly close to what it was prior to the event. (This phenomenon is known as “hedonic treadmill” .) So, how can you tell if you are Really happy or unhappy?
You can argue that perception is reality, so if you think that your happiness is not what you want it to be, than that’s just that, genetics or not.
Alternatively, you can look at your life, and notice how you truly Feel about it, not how you Judge your life to be. The part that is genetically determined seems to be the way you Judge your life, not the way you Experience life.
For example, instead of saying “These strawberries are awful”, look at the actual sensation of eating strawberries, without judgment: “This strawberry tastes sweet. I expected a crunch when I put it in my mouth, but the strawberry turned out to be juicy and soft.” This way, instead of judging and expressing your general irritation about strawberries, you see that the issue is in the disparity between what you expected and what you got. Turns out, the strawberries are not awful after all.
By your late 20’s or early 30’s, you probably have a fairly good feel for what your happiness set-point is: you tend to feel generally happy or generally unhappy about life. (If you are not sure about your set-point, consider the theme in the comments that your close friends make about you over time: “Why are you always so happy?”, “You are never happy about anything!”, “How can you be so sunny about everything?!”, “Here we go again: you are like Eeyor from Winnie-the-Pooh.”)
What you really want to know now by asking “Am I happy?” is how different aspects of your life are working for you.
According to various studies, the following elements play into your sense of happiness:
– Your current mood
– Pleasure (tasty food, a hot shower, etc.)
– Engagement (feeling absorbed by an enjoyable and challenging activity)
– Relationships (whether you feel connected and loved)
– Meaning (a sense of doing something that makes a difference)
– Accomplishments (reaching meaningful goals)
– Mental health (which can apparently account for up to 60% in predicting happiness)
– Religion (or rather, faith)
– Optimism (how you feel about your future). Here’s a quick test for your optimism level, if you are curious.
– Gratitude (how thankful you feel for what you have)
So, when you really want to know how someone is doing, ask specific questions that don’t require an overall “grade” and don’t directly ask about one’s happiness set-point:
– What is going on with you today? (mood)
– Did you eat / watch / see something great recently? (pleasure)
– What is taking up your time and attention these days? (helps you understand where the person is engaged)
– What makes you feel loved these days? (relationships)
– Are you doing something that you feel is making a difference? (meaning)
– Do you feel like things will be looking up for you? (optimism)
– What are you thankful for these days? (gratitude)
If the happiness set-point is stable, than isn’t it fair to assume that in the big picture it doesn’t matter what job you get, where you live, or whom you marry? Eventually, you will be equally happy with your choices, right? (unless you end up divorcing; divorce is one of those things that can drag the happiness set-point down big time, making a come-back difficult).
Yes and no. Your choices matter because in the process of returning to your set-point, you are FEELING different levels of engagement, meaning, pleasure, accomplishment, faith, and gratitude. And you probably want to feel better throughout your journey rather than worse.
Recent research by Sonja Lyubomirsky shows that you can somewhat shift your happiness set-point by working on specific areas of happiness. For example, focus on gratitude by recounting daily all the things that you are thankful for. Focus on meaning by doing one thing each day that you feel is making the world better. Perhaps, focusing on pleasure without meaning, or on relationships without optimism may not make you happier overall, but it will still improve your daily experiences in various areas of your life.
How can you tell if other people are happy, if asking them “are you happy?” doesn’t give you the info? When it comes to other people, you don’t know what their happiness set-point is. So, when you meet a single guy who says he is miserable because he is lonely, or a manager who says he is unhappy because he just lost his job, you don’t know whether these guys’ perceptions of well-being are indicative of their happiness set-point, or are temporary due to loneliness or unemployment.
You may marry this “miserable single guy”, and 6 months from now you may end up with a “miserable married guy”; you may hire an “unhappy unemployed manager”, and 6 months from now you will end up with an “unhappy employed manager”. In order to avoid that, and to really get to know them, ask good questions about their engagement, meaning, pleasure, accomplishment, faith, gratitude, and optimism (see examples above).
The bottom line is this: replace “Are you happy?” with open-ended, specific questions about each element of happiness. I would love to hear what you learn about yourself and about your loved ones when you try this. Please share!
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