When I recently asked this question to a sample of the happiest people in the world, they resonated with a resounding yes. It is their experience that happiness is a practice that can be learned and cultivated as a habit. For these people at the higher end of the well-being continuum, happiness is an action we engage. It’s about doing more than having.
These are the perspectives gleaned from the research I did for “The Joy of Thriving” with 300 people across geographies, genders, and generations. It is also what neuroscientists around the world have been finding. And what countless empirical and clinical studies prove with conclusive long term evidence.
Neuroscience gives us the principle of neuroplasticity. This is the now data rich fact that our brain has no permanent structures. Everything that we identify ourselves as, starting with habits of thinking and engaging in our world, are chemical patterns in our brain that can be reshaped with new habits of action. Our intentional habits of action are responsible for all of the continuities and changes we experience in who we are in our world.
In as little as six weeks of any new practice, we start to develop new measurable habit patterns. So the more we engage the prime practices of happiness, the more we literally restructure our brain in ways that make happiness more possible.
We can intentionally develop our capacity for happiness. We can also develop and sustain our capacity for any form of unhappiness imaginable.
The research for the book identified five prime practices of happiness that the happiest people around daily engage to cultivate their capacity for happiness: appreciation, generosity, interest, lightness, and easy.
Appreciation is a grateful and passionate heart. Generosity is sharing what brings mutual joy. Interest is discovering new people, spaces, and things. Lightness is a sense of aliveness. Easy is the grace of simple. At least one practice is possible in every moment of your life however it is.
Building our capacity for happiness also raises our happiness set point. This is the personal baseline level of happiness that we return to within six months to a year after any kind of significant life event, whether that event is charged with high levels of happiness or unhappiness. With practices of happiness, we steadily increase our set point level and our capacity for resiliency to it.
The confluence of this growing field of research clearly points to the fact that we can become happier. Our historical narratives on happiness and unhappiness only become destiny if we consistently sustain the practices that have the power to make them possible.
Until people get this research, they continue to be constrained by old unsupported mythologies that happiness cannot be learned. In this world, we’re stuck with beliefs that question the possibility that we can be happier. We’re inaccurately suspicious that “too much happiness” erodes our capacity for passion and change.
Nonetheless, we have evidence now that we can cultivate our capacity for happiness in our lives and at work, in our communities and networks. And the significance of happiness is immense in the way it impacts our personal and collective well-being and thrivancy. Our capacity for happiness is unlimited and its implications for sustainable thrivancy is nothing less than profound on all scales.
Reality is that each moment we are given is a moment of choice. We can choose to practice unhappiness or practice happiness. Happiness is the possibility always available to us. Happiness is a choice.