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Happiness & Joy


A client recently recounted how she whooped with joy when England won one of the Euro 2020 games. She said that she couldn’t remember the last time she felt that happy. Then she shared that she had also felt guilty. She has a beautiful home, enjoys her job and has a lovely family. So why did the football (of which she’s not even a major fan) make her feel so much happier than all of those things?

We tend to use happiness as a “catch all” term for all our happy emotions as diverse (and similar) as joy, elation, contentment, gratitude, satisfaction, bliss, euphoria, exhilaration, glee, jubilation, optimism, delirium and so on.

Having studied a bit of Positive Psychology, I tend to think about happiness at two levels: transitory feelings of intense happiness (I’ll call this joy) and the deeper, more sustained feelings of happiness that we can experience (I’ll call this contentment).

What my client was doing was comparing her transitory, intense feeling of joy about the football with her more lasting and enduring contentment with her life and family.

Enduring Contentment

One of the goals of Positive Psychology is to enable us to attain an enduring level of contentment. This is distinct from the momentary highs and lows that we all experience. What we are looking at here is a more consistent level of happiness. A great way to understand this is through Martin Seligman’s Happiness Formula.

H = S + C + V

H, of course is happiness. We want to increase our enduring level of happiness. Unfortunately, we can’t do this through experiencing more frequent and more intense moments of joy. So how can we do it?

S is our "set level" of happiness. We all have a set level that we return to, no matter the highs and lows of day to day live. This is genetic and constitutes 50% of the happiness equation. We have no control over our set level. This means that if we win the lottery or lose our job, after a few months we will return to our set level no matter what.

C is our circumstances, and this represents a surprisingly low 8 - 15% of the happiness equation. It is always surprising to learn which circumstances have a positive and negative impact. For example, all of these have a positive impact: living in a wealthy democracy, being married, having a rich social network and being religious. Even more surprising are these things that have no impact on our enduring happiness level: money, health, education, race and climate.

Now it gets exciting because V represents what is under our voluntary control and represents a whopping 40% of the Happiness Equation. V is all about positive emotions and specifically:

  • Positive emotions about the past (e.g. satisfaction, pride, fulfilment, forgiveness)
  • Positive emotions about the future (e.g. optimism, faith, hope, trust)
  • Positive emotions about the present (e.g. calm, pleasure, flow, gratitude)

The more positively you can feel about the past, present and future directly and positively effects your enduring level of happiness.

Transitory Joy

This is not to say that we cannot appreciate our transitory moments of joy. When we feel joy, two types of neurotransmitters are released in our brains: dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals help us with all sorts of practical bodily functions, but they also make us feel wonderful!

Savouring these moments and being grateful for them is a precious practice.

Last weekend, I experienced immense joy when out walking with my husband and my dog. We had got really wet in the rain (I had the wrong gear) but just the fact that we were all together in the fresh air and taking exercise had my joyful synapses buzzing! I was grinning from ear to ear and that feeling lasted for a few hours.

These moments should be savoured, written into our journals, photographed, repeated, talked about and shared.

So what?

We can see that my client probably has a good level of happiness. She is happy with her circumstances and appears to have positive emotions about the present. In order to improve her happiness, she might consider trying to improve her positive emotions about the past or the future.

It will also be important for her to understand that the transitory joy of England winning a football game will disappear over time. She may not even recall that joy once the Euro 2020 tournament has finished. But this should not diminish her enjoyment in the moment.

And what about you? Here are some questions to help you to reflect on your own happiness:

  • When did I last experience a moment of joy?
  • What can I do to hold onto that experience for longer?
  • What was I doing and how can I build more of that into my life?
  • How do I feel about the past, present and future (give each of these a mark out of 5 from 1 = negative to 5 = positive)?
  • Which is my lowest score?
  • What can I do to increase that score by 1?
  • How can I commit to that and be accountable?

As ever, please do let me know your thoughts about happiness and share your experiences of joy and contentment. What works for you?

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