Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Happiness is a butterfly,
which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp,
but which, if you will sit down quietly,
may alight upon you.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

(previous source did not credit photo.)

Happy doesn’t always come easily for me.

Even as a young child, I was very sensitive to the pain in the world.

I was involved in a terrible tragedy when I was seven years old. It is only in the past decade that I’ve come to understand the effects that pivotal event had on the fragile fabric of a child’s psyche. On a subconscious level, it changed the way I view the world.

A sheltered, joyful, blissfully naive little girl metamorphosed into one who knew that every story didn’t have a happy ending after all. Fairy tales don’t always come true. The world is a terrifyingly unsafe place in which to live. Fear entered in, and with it an underlying sadness that things are not as they should be down here.

Over the years, I’ve had to fight for happy.

By the time I was 12 or 13, I had my first taste of actual depression. (Puberty.) I realized that the harder I tried to be happy, focused on its presence or absence, the more elusive it became. The Hawthorne quote at the top is the first I ever saved in a notebook. I came to the conclusion that sometimes Happy just happened. It was a gift. I needed to stop thinking so much. About everything.

As I have matured, evolved, grown-into-knowledge-the hard-way, I’ve realized that much of what we assume will make us happy doesn’t. The pursuit of those things, positions, or conditions, is an exercise in futility, like a dog chasing its own tail.

But lately I’ve been fascinated by emerging studies in “Positive Psychology.” Literally, the science of happiness. It almost makes me want to go back to school to study neuroscience. The brain is endlessly intriguing.

Are there formulas we can follow… goals we may pursue… practices we might adopt that could actually enhance our “Happiness Quotient?”

From the plethora of books, articles, and television shows on the topic, evidently so.

First, I happened upon a movie on Netflix called, simply, Happy. I watched it twice. (And I highly, highly recommend it.) Shortly afterwards, world-renown psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud, the author of the original Boundaries book, in addition to about 20 others, spoke on the topic at our church in Los Angeles, Bel-Air Presbyterian. (He’s a member there.) Later, Dr. Gail was talking about the Happiness research on the Today Show. Then I read an article in Salon, "The Neuroscience of Happiness."

And I started wondering.

Am I doing all that I can to be the best, happiest, version of me? Or am I settling for less than God intended? Anything worth having is worth working for. Should I be working harder at happiness?

Surely, the world is full of sadness, loss, and tragedy. But life is not just something to be endured until the joy of heaven.

What little changes might make a significant difference on my Mood Thermometer?

First, some information culled and compiled from the sources above, drawing primarily from the Happy movie.

50% of our H.Q. (Happiness Quotient) is biological.

If you have more than one child, you might have observed that people are different from birth. Some babies are born placid and peaceful; some are fussy and high-maintenance. And remain so. (“He was just born that way!”) Ever since Hippocrates, there have been theories about the differences in personality. For centuries, it was believed that there were four basic temperaments (or ‘humors’) determined by the effects of bodily fluids. Those were: sanguine (pleasure-seeking and sociable), choleric (ambitious and leader-like), melancholic (introverted and thoughtful), and phlegmatic (relaxed and quiet.) But aren’t most of us more than one? According to the theory of humors, I would be classified as a sanguine/melancholic, which seem to be contradictory. Split personality?

Modern neuroscience confirms that we are born with a genetic set-point on the happiness scale. A certain constitutional makeup or temperament, determined in large part by our genes. This is hugely liberating for those of us who struggle with mood issues. It’s not a character flaw or a moral failure. It has to do with DNA.

10% of our H.Q. is circumstantial.

This is the real shocker. Our circumstances in life… what happens to us… accounts for a minimal slice of the happy pie.

Most people think that if only x,y,or z happened (or hadn’t happened) then they would be happy at last. (“If only I had more money, lost 10 pounds, got married, retired, moved…” Or “If only he hadn’t left me, she hadn’t died, I hadn’t gotten sick, lost my job…”

But in actuality, our circumstances have little to do with our happiness level. A rickshaw driver in a slum in India has a higher happiness quotient than a successful businessman in a modern Japanese high-rise.

Once you have your basic needs met, more money does not mean more happiness. Although there is a major difference between someone who makes $5000 per year vs. $50,000 per year, there is no difference between someone who makes $50,000 and someone who makes $50,000,000. That is because humans adapt to a “hedonic treadmill.” Whatever you have, it’s just not quite enough. There’s got to be something more. In the song Lost by Coldplay, Chris Martin sings that he’s "just waiting ‘til the shine wears off.” Because it always does. You bring a new dress home from the store, and the shine wears off by the second wearing. Then you need something new to get the dopamine back up again.

This unending cycle is one of main enemies to happiness. And why ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is doomed to failure if the wrong goals are sought in order to reach it.

Studies reveal that those who are focused on extrinsic goals are much more depressed than those who focus on intrinsic. Extrinsic goals are those externals that are deified and worshipped by our consumer society: Image, status, money, etc. Intrinsic goals are internally satisfying in and of themselves: intangibles such as personal growth or a desire to help others.

If my happiness quotient is overly affected by how I look, how much I have, or what my coolness-factor is, then I’m in trouble.  If my happiness depends on how others view me because of these externals, I become a praise junkie that constantly craves another fix of affirmation from the crowd. When I focus on extrinsic goals, I become sadly self-focused.

The good news is that no matter what one’s circumstances in life, it is still possible to cultivate happiness.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have believed that.

Even when tragedy strikes? Is it still possible to be happy after that?

When I was a young mother, I imagined that if something horrific happened to one of my children, I’d just check out of life. Like, maybe permanently.

Something unbearably sad did happen to my first-born love. Unimaginable. Devastating. I have suffered more than I ever thought I could, and still survive.

And I am happy. Not every minute of every day. Sometimes not for weeks at a time. But overall, yes. I would say that I’m relatively happy. And I’m still learning.

I attribute this fact mostly to God, as I chronicled in Katherine’s Mom’s Blog. But the God-thing is really more about reckless joy and stubborn faith, as opposed to what we’re talking about here.

Researchers in Positive Psychology have discovered something fascinating: Overall, people do better when things go bad. We are able to ‘rise to the occasion.’ In many ways, adversity is actually good for us.

(I know. Don’t say it.)

But listen to this:

Our nervous system is a differential engine. It looks at contrasts. It integrates information by noting differences.

That is why there is no such thing as pleasure without pain.

We need constant change in order to grow and learn.

In “The Neuroscience of Happiness,” Dr. Shimon Edelman states, “…a changing, growing self, constantly shaped by new experiences, is happier than the satisfaction any end goal can give us. It turns out the rewards we get for learning and understanding the workings of the world really make it the journey, not the destination, that matters most.”

These new studies give me hope and understanding. They confirm that I am not merely at the mercy of my genetic makeup or my circumstances. I am in control of the remaining 40% of my happiness equation.

I have a responsibility to God, myself, and those around me to work hard at developing practices that enable me to more fully celebrate this precious life I’ve been given. To be happier.

Next time, I’ll share some of the ways how.


I apologize for the length of this piece. I hope that some of you reading are as interested by these Happiness studies as I am. Please watch the movie if you have time! I know that there are others who sometimes struggle with depression, or have loved ones that do. (You’ve told me so.) Let’s pray for each other during this challenging month.


Unknown said...

Once again you have taken your personal observations & found material that supports them! thank you for sharing your self with others! I know your honesty & openness bring insight to others & help them deal with the "stuff of life" Pat

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry for the tragedy that touched your life, at such a young age. It takes a lot of strength to take personal responsibility for happiness, but especially when life has included tragic events or depression.

Of course I will pray for you and your family this month. You have been through so much. I was very sorry to hear about the terrible flu that first got Jay, and then Miss Katherine. Being a caregiver isn't easy, as you know, and Jay is really a shining example of compassion and strength.

Looking forward to more on happiness!


Unknown said...

Dear Kim,
My husband and I watched the movie "Happy" yesterday, and it was so moving and thought-provoking. Thank you so much for sharing it - and I agree that everyone needs to watch it. So much insight about how to learn happiness in an active way.
Your posts are so rich and give much food for thought. I pray for you often even though we have not met. Have a blessed Christmas.

Kim said...

Thank you for your kind words of encouragement!

Sometimes, it's hard to be happy. Part 2 is coming soon!

Love, Kim

Sarah Thorne said...

I have been re-reading The Happiness Project (Gretchen Rubin) and as she begins her project she searches for an "overall theory of happiness" aka her happiness formula. She shares her "First Splendid Truth: To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth". She goes on to say that contemporary researchers argue that it isn't goal attainment but the process of striving after goals -growth- that brings happiness.

Sarah Thorne

PS: I have loved your blog from the beginning! I was a Chi O at Ole Miss one year ahead of Amie.

Kim said...

Hi Sarah,

I've been meaning to read Gretchen's book... I've heard it's great!

Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I love you Ole Miss Chi O's! Ya'll are such a wonderful group of young women! I appreciate your support.