The Habit of Happiness

Published on SBS Life

There are few things as sought after, nor as elusive as happiness, but what exactly is happiness? Are we born with it? Is there a secret source that we can tap into, or is our obsession with being happy actually dooming us to a life of discontent?

Delving into the question of happiness leads us deep into a labyrinth of spirituality, philosophy, religion, gender, culture, biology and psychology. It is the subject of thousands of books, countless contemplations and endless exploration by neuroscientists. But does it really have to be so complicated? Can’t we break it down and come up with some kind of cheat sheet for happiness? Actually, thanks to the rise of the positive psychology movement happiness has been taken out of the esoteric realms and planted firmly in the scientific arena, and the formula is surprisingly simple. It starts with looking in the right places.


For sure we are all familiar with the thrill of pleasure-based happiness, that warm fuzzy feeling that comes when something good happens – a promotion at work, an exotic beach holiday, or even the simple joy of snuggling up to someone you love. We live for these good times, they make life worthwhile, but these moments are fleeting as they are emotional responses to a set of circumstances. We can’t be laughing all the time, leaping from one high to another, constantly feeling on top of the world, it’s just not sustainable. Besides, people would think we were mad. Even so, it is common to get dragged down by unfulfilled expectations of happiness. As Darrin McMahon, author of Happiness: A History points out, “The idea of happiness as our natural state is a peculiarly modern condition that puts a tremendous onus on people. We blame ourselves and feel guilty when we’re not happy.”


So, have we been looking for happiness in all the wrong places? SBS poses this question to Japanese-born Eiji Han Shimizu, who produced the multi-award winning documentary, Happy, and provides the perfect analogy. “I studied hard, exercised, had a good job; I had a convertible and a beautiful girl on my arm. I had all the ingredients of happiness, but I discovered that in my pursuance of happiness, I had climbed the wrong mountain.” Intrigued by the concept of finding genuine, lasting happiness, he and his friend, renowned director, Roko Belic, embarked on a six-year quest around the world to make Happy.


From the seething streets of Calcutta, to the dizzying heights of Bhutan, the misty Bayou swamps of Louisiana and into the neuroscience labs of top universities, the pair were on a mission to find a universal formula for happiness. Shimizu describes a moment, after many months on the road when they had an epiphany of the, “Oh my God did you see that?” variety. They had discovered a commonality in happy people around the globe. It was contentment! “There aren’t selfish happy people, there aren’t egotistical happy people,” says Shimizu.

“Most of us look for happiness outside, such as compliments, money, physical gratification,” yet they discovered the most extraordinarily happy people were those that didn’t have much at all, but were content; they had a skill of looking within, as well as “a certain presence typified by humility, warmth and good heartedness.”

Neuroscientists and psychologists agree. Life is hard, it’s full of ups and downs, but happy people have a way of turning inwards and dealing with situations, rather than waiting for external conditions to provide them with happiness. We all know the dream – the one where you win the lottery and live happily ever after, but an experiment Lottery winners and accident victims, revealed suprising results. Researchers interviewed people who had won the lottery and those who had been paralysed in traumatic accidents. Of course the lottery winners were the happiest in the moment, but fast forward six months and there wasn’t a huge difference in happiness levels, in fact the accident victims reported more joy from simple daily pleasures, such as chatting with friends or sharing a joke. It is called hedonistic adaptation. Happiness is subjective, it’s feeling better than we did the day before.


While traditionally neuroscience concentrated on the triggers for depression and mental illness, the positive psychology movement examines human flourishing. This science of happiness, has narrowed the ‘feel good centre’ of our brain down to the left prefrontal cortex, which is more active when we are happy. Sonja Lyubomirsky Psychology Professor, and author of The How of Happiness, claims that up to 50% of our happiness is genetically pre determined. Another 10% is dependent on our circumstances – our jobs, where we live etc., but the remaining 40% is based on daily activities and recent experiences – which is great news, as it gives us the opportunity to get happier by changing our behavior. The human brain is highly malleable, and through the process of neuroplasticity we can create new neural pathways, which is why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – which restructures thought processes – is so effective in treating depression and anxiety. Much like we exercise our muscles to get physically fit, there is enormous potential to train our minds to get mentally fit by creating a habit of happiness. You could look at it as a scientifically-backed daily happiness work out.

Happiness Cheat Sheet

*Practice random acts of kindness. Ever heard of the ‘helper’s high’? Neuroscience proves that acting with a true spirit of generosity releases endorphins (the body’s natural opiates.)

*Be compassionate. Understand what others are experiencing, it will give you greater connection.

*Develop resilience. Bad things happen to us all, but quite often it’s the thoughts attached to something, and not the event itself that causes the most suffering.

*Be optimistic. Why feed the darkness? Life is much more enjoyable when you look on the bright side.

*Exercise. It’s good for the mind and body, and stimulates the release of natural feel good chemicals (neuro transmitters.)

*Cultivate close relationships. Neuroscience researchers at Berkeley claim that strong social connections and community are the key to health and happiness.

*Act with gratitude. Shimizu recommends keeping a journal of good things that happen during the day so that you enjoy the sensation again and again.

*Meditate. It calms the mind, and scientifically speaking it strengthens the activity of the left pre frontal cortex (the feel good centre of the brain.)


“So many negative feelings and emotions can be managed,” says Shimizu who also advises practicing mindfulness and learning the art of acceptance as ways to increase happiness. He also suggests acting with gratitude. “Good things happen during the day, when you experience it, it’s a happy feeling, if it finishes there, it’s a one time deal, but through journaling you can experience it again and again and enjoy the same sensation.”


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