We’ve all said it: “Adjust your attitude.” “Make that frown turn upside down.” “Don’t worry. Be happy.” “Why are you always in such a bad mood?”
And then, of course, comes the classic response, “I can’t help it. It’s just the way I am.”
What that means is, “I can’t change. I’m just being me, and the me I am is a sad sack.” (How can a sack be sad, anyway?*)
Well, turns out, that’s not entirely true. Turns out, actually, that we have more control over our attitude than we ever thought. Who says? Social Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky says, that’s who.
And just who is Sonja Lyubomirsky, and why does she think she knows so much? Because she’s Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.d., researcher at Stanford University, super-smarty-pants, recipient of numerous grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, and author of the book, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin Books 2007).
And it’s not just her. Many social psychologists have studied the mystery surrounding what it is that exactly makes us happy, or un-happy as the case may be. Dr. L’s bibliography in her book is 45 pages long! That’s a lot of books, articles, speeches and research on the how’s and why’s of happiness.
If you don’t want to read all the research, here’s the Cliffs Notes:
There are three things going on when it comes to a person’s happiness or contentment:
Genetic predisposition. Yep, you got it. A person’s genes (and not the 501 kind either) sets out his or her baseline on the Happy-o-Meter (a highly technical piece of scientific, specialized, calibrated, opinionated measuring equipment). Dr. L. says that 50% of a person’s contentment comes from their parents, and their grandparents, and their great-grandparents, and on and on—and not in the way you think, like the nagging, the guilt, the “I just hope you’re wearing clean underwear,” kind either. (What’s with all the underwear references, anyway?). In other words, your inherited temperament or personality does account for 50% of your happiness.
Life circumstances. You know what these are. How much money you have; what kind of family were you born into; how good or not-so-good is your health; do you have a sick spouse, or naughty children; whether you live on top of a Superfund site; whether your underwear is clean (just kidding); you know, those kinds of things. Turns out “those things” have direct impact on how happy we are, but not, interestingly enough, a lot. These mostly out-of-our-control type of life circumstances have an approximately 10% impact on our happiness level, says the Happy-o-Meter.
How we think and what we do. That’s the final thing. Our attitude. Our thoughts. Our outlook. If you’ve been doing the math, it turns out that 40% of our happiness is dependent upon our attitude.
Wow! That’s a lot of percents! Our attitude, which we do get to control, accounts for 40% of our happiness according to the Happy-o-Meter. (The Happy-o-Meter is good at third grade math.)
The Best News to Hit Your Attitude All Year Long
This is fabulous news. We can’t control some things, but good old number three on the list up there, we can control. Even big things like tragedy or winning the lottery only dictate 10% of what makes us happy. (Well, in my case, winning a 10 million dollar lottery prize would make me 100% happier, but Dr. L. never asked me.)
What?! you say. That can’t be true. Winning the lottery would make anybody really, really happy, including all the people Dr. L did ask!. Probably 200% happier. (Ignore the frown from your fourth grade math teacher.)
But guess what? Dr. L says, things settle over time. People can be wildly unhappy or happy for moments in time, but after a while they settle and their happiness level goes back to baseline. Even if they win the $10 million. Even if a satellite crashes into their backyard ruining the newly installed patio. Or even if their chihuahua falls into a pothole and has to be retrieved by a fireman.
Good news is that we can control the 40%. How we think and what we do. For me this is excellent news. Forty percent is enough to take a really horrible day and make it only “bad.” I have the power to turn my day from horrible to bad. From bad into average. Or from average into outstanding. I have the power! (Remember that song? Sing it now. You have the Power!)
So what does this mean? Well, for one thing, turns out your grandma was right: you can turn your frown upside down. (Grandma would have been awesome in the workplace.) You can listen to reggae: Don’t worry. Be happy. You can adjust your attitude almost as much as you can adjust your underwear. (I can adjust my underwear 40%, no problem.) Right now if you want to be happy, remember how much is up to you. Stop whining. Start smiling. Focus on what you do and how you think. Not rocket science. Common sense.
And guess what else? If you’re going through a difficult time, a tragedy, a medical crisis, or fielding any of the rotten tomatoes life throws, knowing that you can control your response to it helps. You will get through it, you will heal, and you will rise back up to your average norm for happiness. It’s your response, your willingness to hit that Reset Button on the Happy-o-Meter, that really counts.
Extra Credit Question: What are you doing with your 40%? Are you making the right choices? Our control is greater than we would guess. Get up and start being happy now.
Motivational Speaker & Happiness Speaker
Book Brad to speak at your meeting, convention or event. — He’s a happiness speaker; and he’s funny. Are you looking for a motivational speaker who speaks about happiness and who gives specific tools and strategies for boosting your psyche, then consider Brad Montgomery, controller of his own 40%. He’s the only happiness speaker he knows.
* According to Wikipedia, The Sad Sack is an American fictional comic strip and comic book character created by Sgt. George Baker during World War II. Set in the United States Army, Sad Sack depicted an otherwise unnamed, lowly private experiencing some of the absurdities and humiliations of military life. The title was a euphemistic shortening of the military slang “sad sack of shit”, common during WWII. (Do you really want to be known as a “sad sack of shit”? I mean, really? Your grandmother would NOT approve.)
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Motivational Speaker on Happiness, Humorist, Seminar Leader