Taking a slice of the Happiness Pie

I have blue eyes, blonde hair (though not as much as I once did), stand 6 foot 3 inches, and look at the world with an optimistic disposition. My favourite jeans are from Saba.

No doubt my eyes, hair and height can be traced back to my mum and dad, but what about my outlook on life? Or my taste in jeans, for that matter?

While the genetic nature of our physical characteristics cannot be disputed, it turns out that a proportion (though not all) of our happiness can also be traced back to our DNA.

Research on genetic variance between twins has found as much as 50 per cent of happiness can be linked to our genes. However, having these genes doesn't equate to automatic bliss. Instead, these genes code the traits that predispose people to happiness, and an 'affective reserve' that can be called upon during stressful or challenging times.

The Happiness Pie

While you can't control your genetics (at least, not legally), you do have influence over the remaining pieces of what Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, refers to as The Happiness Pie. Your thoughts and actions account for 40 per cent, with only 10 per cent influenced by outside circumstances such as age and income (and your jeans).

So, while we appear to have a 'happiness set point', there is still 50 per cent we can work with. And even if your life circumstances aren't that great at present, you're still left with 40 per cent. This explains why some people still have high levels of positivity despite having parents who are negative, nullifying naysayers. And on the flip side, it also shows why someone you may know who has energetic, ebullient and effervescent parents still focuses on everything that can possibly go wrong.

Avoid stinking thinking

Dr Timothy Sharp is CEO of The Happiness Institute. "One of the things we know about the happiest people is that they focus more on things they can control, and less on things they can't control," he says. "This includes focusing on their thoughts – including their beliefs and expectations – which are definitely something we can control, or at least learn to control."

Dr Sharp says optimism essentially is the ability to identify and change unhelpful thoughts (like overgeneralising and catastrophising), as well as actively developing and fostering more helpful thoughts that are more solution-focused with a greater degree of gratitude and positivity.


Why bother?

Being optimistic is closely linked with a happier existence, longer life expectancy and many desirable health outcomes. The psychological benefits of looking on the bright side include lower incidence of anxiety and depression, but there are also links to better physical health including reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.

A new study conducted at the University of Illinois found a relationship between levels of optimism and heart health. "Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts," said lead author Rosalba Hernandez, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois.

The researchers found that happy people are healthy people because they engage in positive health behaviours.

Kicking off the opposite foot

To succeed at a high level in AFL these days you need to be able to kick with both feet, but everyone has a natural tendency to favour one foot. If a developing footballer is right foot dominant, we teach them (through repetition and specific training drills) to kick with the left foot as well. If you do this enough times in practice, you eventually master the skill of kicking with both feet under pressure in a game situation.

The same analogy applies for changing your thinking. If you have only practised kicking with the right foot (let's call that negative or critical thinking), we also need you to practice kicking off the opposite foot (positivity and flexible thinking). And while it takes lots of conscious effort and hard work to make your brain 'kick with the opposite foot', it's going to make you happier than that pair of Saba jeans.

Top five happiness tips

  • Stay fit and healthy – it's hard to be happy if you're sick and tired
  • Pause at the end of each day for a few minutes and reflect on three things that went well
  • Plan positive events into the future – the anticipation of joy is a wonderful feeling
  • Dedicate time to developing quality relationships – when it comes to happiness, other people matter
  • Don't be afraid of intermittent periods of unhappiness – it's a normal part of being human*

* Of course, if you feel unhappy, sad or helpless for weeks on end, please talk to a doctor or trained psychologist for support.

What do you think: can you change your levels of happiness?

Workplace performance expert Andrew May has been helping his white-collar clients achieve both physical and mental gains for decades, and has learned a trick or 20 - plus a few of the pitfalls - along the way.

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