The 40% solution

Sonja Lyubomirsky says in The How of Happiness that half of happiness is “set” by genetics and 10% by “circumstances,” leaving a full 40% subject to our constructive, creative, intentional activity. “Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attraction or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities… what we do in our daily lives and how we think.”

Putting the vagueness of those numbers aside, this is the good news Positive Psychology brings: we possess “untapped potential for increasing our own happiness.” (Here’s how she explained it on ABC’s chirpy 20/20, and at the Google campus.) Happiness, “the Holy Grail, ‘the meaning and purpose of life,’ as Aristotle famously said, ‘the whole aim and end of human existence,’ ” is ours for the taking. 40% is a lot of leverage.

But isn’t there something unseemly and narcissistic about this movement? Lyubomirsky’s epigraph is the Mary Oliver poem “The Journey,” addressing a subject who “finally knew what you had to do” and turned away from other voices and their bad advice, “determined to save the only life that you could save.”  Sounds pretty self-absorbed.

But, “happier people are more sociable and energetic, more charitable and cooperative,” they live longer, they do more good. “If we become happier, we benefit not only ourselves but also our partners, families, communities, and even society at large.”  We owe it not just to ourselves but to everyone else to brighten up. Lyubomirsky says the new  science of happiness can tell us how. So that’s where we’ll begin in Happiness 101.

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