Five Recent Tidbits about Happiness

Most of what I write about stems from 20 years’ personal experience of inner work, and creating a friggin’ wonderful life with positive manifesting thoughts as cause.

But I’m also a fascinated and curious student of happiness. I read columns and books, and listen to audiobooks or podcasts on the topic nearly every day. For several reasons: 1) To invoke even greater levels of meaning, purpose, fulfillment and happiness in my own life; and 2) so that I can pass those concepts on to you.

Recently I’ve felt like I’ve been sipping on a fire hose of new information about happiness. I’ve been wanting to share it with you but there’s so much information I don’t know where to begin. So I decided today to begin here – with a short list of a few recent learning pieces.

I’m using a cool feature of my WordPress theme – an accordion list. If you prefer short answers (like a couple people have mentioned to me) just read the list. Or, expand any topic for more information.


Turns out that the areas of the brain where happiness and unhappiness originate are completely separate. 

Most people (myself included, till recently) have the idea that you’re not happy if you’re unhappy. Or vice versa.

As I digested this new tidbit of neuroscientific brilliance, I recalled a particular time in my life when yes, I had happiness and unhappiness at the same time.

If you’re interested to read about it, you can find my article on Quora – as a response to a very different question!

HERE is the (rather lengthy, autobiographical) article.

Somewhat aligned with factoid #1 above (but not closely) is the idea that to be happy, all we need to do is transcend whatever suffering we’re experiencing.

Not true, according to Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology and author of probably a dozen books. He’s modern-day hero to me, because his initiatives majorly transformed mental health over the last 30 years. Prior to that it was all about fixing broken people (my words, not his). Now, due to his promptings, there are tons of studies about flourishing. They know how to measure it. And they’ve derived a whole family of therapies to stimulate positive well-being (some of which those of you who have mentored with me have personally experienced).

Seligman tells of when he was a clinical psychologist, and worked with hundreds of clients. He had always thought that if he was successful in helping his clients overcome their depression, anxiety, anger, and other negative mental issues, what would naturally emerge is happiness.

It didn’t. What emerged instead was emptiness. People didn’t know who or how to be once they’d transcended their negativity and helplessness.

He started studying people with positive attitudes, to determine why they seemed far more resilient and resistant against depression and anxiety. Those studies formed  the early research around Positive Psychology. Seligman realized that characteristics leading to a positive attitude and a happy, successful life could be taught – in classrooms, and in therapy.

I’m getting a bit off-track here, far beyond the original topic of this short piece. I’ll be writing a whole lot more about Positive Psychology in the coming weeks and months. I’ve read a lot over the years, and taken a pretty comprehensive course on the topic – years ago. A recent podcast interview with Seligman was what got me back to re-exploring and learning more about PP.

Stay tuned!

There’s a small region  of the brain called the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN). When activated, that part of the brain essentially causes the instinctive fight or flight responses to shut down, producing passivity, helplessness, and hopelessness. These are qualities of depression.

Because this region even exists, you could say we have a built-in bias toward negativity.

However, science also shows that (unless one has a chemical imbalance in their brain that causes chronic depression) this region can also be essentially disabled by learning/adopting positivity skills.

In other words, the kinds of skills you read about in my Life as an Art Form emails and blog.

The personal development work that leads to satisfaction, contentment, and peace of mind (AKA happiness) isn’t all about just being happy. It’s literally mastering your mind to defeat the influence of the DRN region, and develop the character skills to navigate through whatever unfortunate circumstances show up in your life.

Spirituality has always been an important part of my happiness. But I never gave a lot of thought to why or how.

I heard a podcast recently where someone explained it in terms that ring true to me. Here are my interpretations of a few tidbits from that production:

  • Spirituality puts context and meaning to relationships, rather than meeting people – lovers, friends – being purely serendipitous.
    • Have you ever met someone who you connected to instantly, and then went on to develop a meaningful friendship or intimate relationship? It’s happened many times in my life, and I doubt I’m alone. One way I’ve heard this described is a Divine intersection – where there’s a meaning and purpose behind your initial meeting. It’s up to both of you to discern what that meaning is, and how to nourish and cherish it. My 6-year (and counting) relationship with Joy is an outcome of such an instant, profound connection.

Joy and me

    • Spirituality gives meaning and context to all forms of love. For example, it’s the sentiment behind the word Namaste: I celebrate that place within you where eternity resides. I honor that part of you that is joy, love and peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are one. 
    • Spirituality takes us beyond the boring 24×7 movie of our lives, to the heart’s built-in yearning for mystery, and beauty, and wonder. Like watching with awe a magnificent sunset over the ocean, or laying on the ground at night, looking up at millions of stars, and contemplating the hugeness of the universe.
    • Forgiveness and gratitude are referred to in many of the holy books from religions. I’ve written before on the power of both of these in paving the way for a more satisfied, content, and peaceful way of being. I’ve always viewed them as more psychological or philosophical in nature, but it’s clear they’re concepts better understood in the context of spirituality.

Everyone’s spiritual path is unique and perfect for them. I’m personally not a fan of organized religion, but I acknowledge that it’s a valid and meaningful path for billions of others. The guy on the podcast was a Catholic bishop. If the Catholic priests I was exposed to throughout much of my life had been so elegant in expressing the meaning of the Bible in such elegant terms, I doubt I’d have ever drifted away from Catholicism.

I may have mentioned previously – Arthur Brooks is a social scientist whose primary focus is the science of happiness. I’m a big fan of his podcasts and Atlantic articles, and I’m somewhat active in his Facebook group (one of the few positives of Facebook). For someone like me who is fascinated and curious about happiness, Arthur is just short of a guru. He is a consummate consumer of studies and data around subjective well-being, and has the gift of being able to turn that into bite-sized bits of wisdom for consumption by mere mortals like me. If you care, HERE is his website.

I’ll link to the article that gives greater context to these three equations at the end of this post, but I’ll net them out for you here.

  1. Subjective Well-being (AKA happiness) = Genes + Circumstances + Habits. Approximately 50% of your happiness capacity has to do with your genetics – inherited from your ancestry. You can’t change that, but that’s only roughly half. The circumstances of your life make up 10-40%, and your habits contribute 10-40%. You can’t control much of your life circumstances – but you can reduce their influence by adopting good habits and and developing character qualities like emotional resilience, tolerance, and a loving nature.

  2. Habits = Faith + Family + Friends + Work. These are the areas of focus that have been demonstrated to yield happiness. For the sake of a simple equation Brooks has boiled down some pretty complex concepts into a single word. Work is more aptly described as vocation – or something we do in service to others. The word faith to me suggests a religious focus, which feels to me more limiting than the word spirituality. Family and friends should be self-explanatory. There are a couple things missing from this equation, in my experience. Self-development and emotional awareness don’t seem to fit well within any of these, yet I believe they’re prime constituents of happiness. It’s difficult to imagine someone who’s truly happy who hasn’t done this kind of work.

  3.  Satisfaction = What you have ÷ What you want. You probably already know that I’m a big cheerleader for gratitude (though please don’t try to imagine me in a short skirt with pompoms). And I believe that any sort of striving to achieve more of anything is the midnight train to stress and frustration. This little equation sums up those two ideas tidily.

HERE is Arthur’s article that elaborates on all of these.

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