Do you think some people are naturally happier than others and there’s nothing that can be done about it?
Scientists used to think once a person reached adulthood, the brain was fairly well set in stone and there wasn’t much we could do to change it. However, new research shows that when we repeatedly think, feel and act in different ways, the brain can actually rewire itself.
Scientists have also found each of us has a “happiness set point,” the genetic and learned tendency to remain at a certain level of happiness — similar to a thermostat setting on a furnace. Our happiness set point remains the same unless we make a concerted effort to change it, according to Marci Shimoff, author of “Happiness for No Reason.”
Two of our greatest barriers to happiness — fear and anxiety — have been hardwired into us to ensure survival as a species. In today’s world, though, the threat of being chased by a saber-toothed tiger hardly even exists. And that old wiring has become more harmful than helpful.
People with high happiness set points don’t have special powers. They just have different habits. Psychologists say at least 90% of all behavior is habitual. So, to become happier, we need to look at our habits.
All of our habitual thoughts and behaviors have created specific neural pathways in the wiring of our brains, like grooves in a vinyl record. When we think or behave a certain way over and over, the neural pathways are strengthened — and the groove becomes deeper.
To get a gauge of your habitual behavioral patterns, take a look at the questions below, developed by psychologist Dan Baker. Baker is the director of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch spa in Tucson, Arizona, and is the coauthor of “What Happy People Know.” Mark your responses as N (Never), I (Infrequently) S (Sometimes) or F (Frequently).
1. When things don’t go well, I feel trapped or overwhelmed.
2. What matters most is enjoying relationships.
3. I’m unclear about the purpose of my life.
4. Taking care of my health is a priority.
5. When I think about people in my life, I focus on those who have hurt or disappointed me.
6. When I think about people in my life, I focus on those I care about and love.
7. There are events in my life that have left me forever scarred.
8. There is a spiritual power that I can turn to for comfort whenever I need to.
9. People hurt my feelings.
10. I feel fulfilled.
11. I believe my life will truly begin when the right person or circumstances come along.
12. I’ve grown — emotionally and spiritually — through painful life events.
13. I take myself very, very seriously.
14. I believe it’s up to me to live my life fully and to find meaning.
15. If I don’t have enough money or love, then I can’t feel secure.
16. Although life’s circumstances change, my beliefs and capabilities allow me to survive and thrive.
17. There’s not enough time for taking care of me.
18. I feel best when giving to others.
19. I just have too much to do.
20. Life is good. I really appreciate what I have.
Every time you answered “sometimes,” give yourself a 2. For even-numbered questions: “never” and “infrequently” get a 1, and “frequently” a 3. For odd-numbered questions: “never” and “infrequently” get a 3, “frequently” a 1. Add up your total.
50 to 72: Congratulations. Consider yourself a happy person.
30 to 49: You’re not miserable, but your sunny side could use a nudge. Think about your strengths and the activities you love. Build more of your life around them.
29 or less: You could be getting more from life. Is your internal language destructive? If your first impulse is to find fault, try seeking out opportunities. When something bad happens, do you fall apart? That old cliché about finding strength through adversity is a golden rule for happy people.
Finally, are you assuming money, power or status will bring you satisfaction, or that everything will be great when someone else changes? Try shifting your focus inward and taking responsibility for your emotions. Happiness really is an inside job.
Resetting your happiness set point
If this quiz shed some light on areas you’d like to change, take heart. You are where you are in life because of your beliefs and habits, and those can be changed over time. Make adjustments to your behavior in key areas and retake the quiz six months from now.
Unhappy people tend to have more negative neural pathways. That’s why we can’t ignore the realities of our brain’s wiring and just decide to be happy. To raise our happiness set points, we need to create new grooves through the repetition of different behaviors.
Brain researcher Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin says, “Based on what we know about the plasticity of the brain, we can think of things like happiness and compassion as skills that are no different from learning to play tennis or a musical instrument. And that it’s possible to train our brains to be happy.”
So, go get your groove on!