Poppy truly intrigues me. As the main character in the movie Happy-Go Lucky (I’ve mentioned her before—for a refresher, have a look at the clip below), I found her so frustrating. I know women like her, people who are just always so…happy. Are they really happy, or are they going to snap one day in all their faux joy? Who is really that happy all the time?
So I had to call Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California and author of The How of Happiness to ask her—are we born like this? Where do these permanently happy people come from?
Q: Is it possible to be born happier than someone else?
A: Think of it like a pie and what goes into the pie are the determinants of happiness. About 50 per cent of the pie is genetics. What that means is that happiness is inheritable or in part genetically determined. So, indeed, some of us are more hard-wired to be happier than others and some people have a higher set point for happiness, just like we have a set point for weight.
Q: What about the household we grew up in—what role does that play?
A: Parents don’t only pass along their genes to their children—they pass along their environment too. So if I’m a happy mother, not only will my kids be happy because they carry my genes, but I’ll also create a happy environment at home for them because I’m happy myself. And that might lead them to be happier.
Q: Is it possible to alter how happy we are as people?
A: Just like with a set point for weight you can diet and exercise to change your level of happiness. You can change the ways you act and think and that can make you happier and increase your level of happiness above your hard-wired set point. It takes a lot of effort though. You need to practice it. In my research, I’ve actually done “happiness interventions” where I’ve instructed people to practice different kinds of happiness activities and follow them across time to see what makes them happier. The kinds of activities include expressing gratitude– gratitude appreciation is a big part of positive thinking and becoming a happier person.
Q: What other kinds of practices have you looked at that can help people’s happiness?
A: I’ve done optimism types of exercises where people visualize their future and think about all their dreams coming true and writing about what that’s like. So, practicing optimistic thinking. I’ve also done acts of kindness exercises and turns out that’s a very powerful way to maintain and increase happiness.
Q: Do we have to do these for the rest of our lives?
A: The effects do fall off, just like a drug, they wear off. So the idea is that you need to continue to do these things. Like exercise and diet, if your set point for weight is higher than you like you don’t just go on a diet for two weeks and then you’re done. You have to watch what you’re eating for the rest of your life. Same with being a happier person, if you’re hard wired to be a less happy person than you want to be, you need to use strategies and maintain them and eventually they’ll become habits.