The Happiness Equation
Although the field of psychology largely developed by studying disease, for the last 20 years or so, there has been a growing trend of looking at the positive side, called positive psychology. Positive psychology focuses on what makes people resilient and happy. By focusing on how some people thrive, we can learn and adopt those coping skills to improve our own lives.
Martin Seligman, PhD and Ed Diener, PhD, two of the prominent researchers in Positive Psychology, have quantified a formula for happiness:
Happiness = Genetic Set-Point + Circumstances + Voluntary Variables
Genetic set point is what you're born with. I think of it as how optimistic or pessimistic you naturally are. This accounts for about 50% of your happiness, and as something you're born with, you can't really change this.
Your circumstances account for about 8-12% of your happiness. Circumstances can include where you live, the things that happen to you, and the health challenges you are dealing with. When I first learned about this part of the equation, I did find it surprising that circumstances account for such a small percentage. Our culture often promotes the idea of “more, more, more” to be happy, but many studies have actually shown that's not the case.
Voluntary variables accounts for anywhere from 38-42% of happiness. Voluntary variables include the ways in which we intentionally intervene on ourselves, like our choices of thought and action. This is where I find it really gets interesting: while we can't change our genetic set-point and may have limited control on our circumstances, we do have control over the voluntary variables.
One of the most powerful voluntary variables is our internal dialogue. What does your inner dialogue say to you about you? Do you find it is mostly encouraging, focusing on your unique strengths and talents? Or does it constantly keep a record of all the mistakes you make, noting all the things you don’t do well, and/or comparing you to others in a poor light?
I’m always so impressed by those who have a mostly positive inner dialogue, but honestly, I wasn’t wired that way. My inner dialogue has generally been mostly negative, perfectionistic, and critical. And while I’ve made great progress at strengthening and listening to my positive inner voice, the negative voice is still there. It’s like the weakened Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. It doesn’t have as much power as it once did, but you know it could still be dangerous.
Changing the inner script
One of the ways I’ve found I can change my inner dialogue, or at least not let it effect me as much, is by detaching from it. Giving it a character (such as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) helps separate it from the true You. Eckhart Tolle writes in his book The Power of Now about becoming the watcher of your thoughts and explains that you are not your thoughts – the true you is the watcher.
In addition to just noticing the chatter in your head, writing it down can be quite illuminating. For some reason, the words in the mind seem much more powerful than seeing them on paper. Writing them and reading them back, it’s easier to recognize the absurdity and hyperbole.
Next, question the validity of your inner critic’s words. Mine likes to make general statements that sound like I’m always a failure. While it’s true that I have failed, (I’m human) it’s equally true that I’ve succeeded. Notice where the opposite of your critic’s statements can be at least as true as the original.
By changing our inner dialogue and shifting from being our worst critic to our best advocate, we can positively impact the voluntary variables in the happiness equation.
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