The Active Happier

This is my birthday resolution: I'll be an active happier. Not a happiness seeker or a happy person. A happi-er. Like a runner, a hiker or a dancer.

I'm not a happiness seeker. I actually avoided seeking for happiness. I've always been seeking for significance in life. I seek depth and meaning. I seek all that deep stuff, you know. Seeking for happiness just sounds too superficial. I'm not a born happy person. I'm too complicated and self-absorbed to be happy.

Happiness is just a few thin strokes of bright colors on a massive gray background.

I wrote this when I was 15 years old, perfectly healthy, young and hopeful. I never experienced any trauma worse than that the boy I liked didn't talk to me, or getting a C every now and then at school. I'm always amazed by the level of pain I experienced. It's indulging.

And here I am. 15 years later, picking up stupid fights with my mom on Mother's Day.

The very first Mother's Day we get to spend together since I left home 15 years ago, was ruined in tears, heartbreaks and sleepless night. I finally realized I needed to fix this. 

Scientist Sonja Lyubomirsky discovered,  happiness is like fitness - it takes some discipline and hard work to maintain. Everyone was born with certain body types. Some are genetically fitter than others. But as along as we follow regular exercise routines and healthy diets, we all can maintain a fit enough body.

This is her "pie" chart of what factors determine a person's level of happiness:

  Life Circumstances:   10%
  Genetic Set Point:     50%
  Intentional Activities: 40%

Life Circumstances are things the society generally think would make us happy: getting a degree from a privileged school, buying a new house, a new car, a good job, marriage and kids, achievements, accomplishments... etc. These external stimulations, as I've learned long time ago, never last long. Sonja blamed it on our hedonic adaption. We adapt to the circumstances very quickly. That's our evolutional advantage, but also the source of restlessness and ungratefulness. We got used to good things happened to us, and before we were thankful we already took everything for granted. That's why Sonja only counted Life Circumstances for 10% of our overall happiness.

Genetic Set Point is something we were born with. A kindergarden friend of mine, growing up together and growing apart, my love for her never ceased because she's the most positive person I know of. She didn't pursue any higher education. She doesn't have any ambition for materialistic achievement. She's just happy for the simplest things in life, like getting a bargain on eBay. She's gone through very difficult time in life, including two miscarriages, but she just seems to possess that amazing resilience to bounce back and smile again. I could only admire.

I guess I was born to have a lower happiness set point to begin with. I'm very sensitive to negative events and dwell on them longer. Just as a stupid example, the joy of having my mom here cooking for me everyday was easily overridden by the annoyance of seeing a greasy stain on the kitchen table. It goes like this:

Look, the kitchen is so greasy now because I'm eating the stupid Chinese food everyday. All I want for Sunday morning is just a cup of coffee, but now I'm eating pork dumplings and putting on weight! I'm putting on weight not just because of the greasy Chinese food, but also because my mom is staying at my place and I have to take care of her besides my extremely busy extremely important everyday schedule so I don't have time to exercise. And I don't have time for myself. Oh, I need space. I need my me-time! I know I'm terrible to think it that way. Chinese family don't have the concept of "my space". I'm a maverick in my family. And why I'm such a difficult and terrible person who has to run half a globe away from home, making my mom to chase me down across half a globe to be with me - in the same room - for 4 months? It's all because she should never have given me life 30 years ago! Mother's Day is such a sad concept. What is life anyway? We were just dust 100 years ago. 100 years later we'll all become dust again...

My negative self talking can go on and on like this until I feel suicidal. Vicious spiral. 

Now that I'm tracing down my thoughts and publishing it, I'm ashamed. I sounded so immature and I have to laugh at myself. Well, at least by witnessing my trail of thoughts, it explains why religious people are usually happier. No matter how much negative talk they do to themselves, they won't come as far as "100 years later we'll all become dust..." LOL.

Since I was born to be a self-important critical thinker, a breed who has less than average happiness set point, Sonja suggested, we can only work through that 40% missing pie - Intentional Activities.

She argues, it's not that married people are happier; it's that happy people tend to marry and stay in the marriage. Similarly, it's not that richer people are happier; it's that happy people tend to accumulate more money, and gain financial stability. So don't let that 10% external stimulus dictate your happiness. Be happy first, using your 40% internal strength, and the external circumstances will follow.

Her prescription, a list of 12 suggested activities,  is revolved around 3 main happiness boosts:

  • Be grateful. Count your blessings. Get uncomfortable every now and then, so you don't take what you have for granted.
  • Be kind and mindful. Be compassionate with others. Investing in relationships with others. Do things that's really engaging so you forget the fact that you're the center of the universe. Don't be a self-absorbed a**hole, basically.
  • Cultivate optimism. Be aware of your negative self talk. Climb out of the vicious spiral. Reverse the mind and turn to positive self talk. Use your sense of sarcasm, and turn it into humor.

The first two, I've already been practicing since I was introduced to yoga and meditation. It's the third one I need more practice. It sounds abstract, but I'm very confident. It's like playing thinking game with oneself, perfectly suited for an overly intelligent person. (wink)

So this is my birthday resolution: I'm going to train myself to be an active happier. Like an active runner, I'll stretch my happiness muscle everyday. In fact, I'm going to become a happy person. This is a vow I make to myself for the rest of my life.