Untapped happy potential

by Kristin on February 25, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by Capture Queen

As parents, there are a lot of things we want for our kids. We want them to feel safe and loved and optimistic about life. We want them to succeed in school, have good friends, and to discover something they’re talented at and passionate about.

But if we had to summarize all those hopes into a single word, most of us would probably say we want our kids to be happy.

Of course, “happy” is one of those completely subjective, hard-to-define concepts. Culturally, we tend to dilute the word, and think of happiness as something shallow. If we think of it as “deep happiness” or “true happiness,” it helps, but then it makes my head hurt because it encompasses so many things—in fact, all of those things I mentioned in the first paragraph.

In some ways, happiness almost seems like a silly thing to wish for or strive toward—for ourselves or for our kids. What is happiness, after all? How do we know when we’ve got it? And can we trust that it will stick around? People from every corner of the world, though, have been chasing after happiness for as long as there’s been a way to write about it. Either we’re all extremely dense people who refuse to learn from their futility, or there’s something to the search.

Getting over what we can’t do anything about & focusing on what we can change

Last night I attended the first session in a four-week class called “The How of Happiness.” A variety of classes are being offered at my church during the season of Lent, and this is the one I was drawn to. I have to admit, I didn’t decide to take the class for practical reasons—I’m probably too much a skeptic. I took the class because I’m fascinated with societal and psychological ideas about happiness. The research is compelling, and so are the personal stories I read about or hear from friends and acquaintances. It seems like so many people are actively searching for true happiness, and so few of them are finding it.

By the time I left the first class, though, I felt a personal urgency that pretty much eclipsed the casual observer-style of fascination I had going in. Here’s why: I learned that a significant portion of our ability to be happy is within our control. I would have guessed maybe 20 percent at the most is actually up to each of us, but psychological research indicates that we have the power to impact up to 40 percent of our happiness. The rest is affected by factors mostly out of our control—50 percent by our genetic makeup and only 10 percent by external forces like relationships, material possessions, etc.

I guess this is exciting to me because I see this 40 percent as untapped potential. It’s there, in each of us, and in our kids, too. If we learn how to tap into it, we can significantly alter the way we see and live our lives. But we have to make something of that potential—if we don’t do anything with it, it just sits there, wasted.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say your genetic set-point for happiness is a 25 (out of 50).

And life has dealt you a decent hand of circumstances—maybe a 7 (out of 10).

So far you’re at 32 percent. If you don’t do anything about that 40 percent of untapped potential, you’ll just stay at 32. But if you learn how to make the most of it, you can jump up to 62, or even 72. That’s huge!

I know this is all sort of complex, and maybe I’m not doing a great job of explaining it, but here’s what I’m trying to say: I’m realizing is that maybe wanting my kids to be happy isn’t such a futile wish to have. Sure, their genetics are a done deal, and I can’t protect them from every blow life might deliver. But I can help them make the most of that potential that’s within their grasp.

Does anyone else find that really significant? And hopeful?

(By the way, I’ll report back as soon as I learn more about how to actually make this all happen!)

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  • http://www.aneccentricmagnolia.com Roxanne

    We tend to erroneously equate happiness with continuous pleasure. Happiness to me, is not a destination, but rather the road map for the journey, the blueprint for the structure; rather than an accumulation of pleasure, happiness is a process. That said, I absolutely agree that we each hold the key to our own happiness more than any other force. This means interacting with my world through a “happiness” lense. That doesn’t mean rose-coloured glasses. It means finding comfort in what is, rather than what I wish it to be. We each will have a slightly different mechanism through which we engage our happiness. Creative endeavours such as project 365, gratitude journaling, 101 things in 1001 days, and the love list are proving incredibly popular because they teach us deeper and wider and more humble ways of seeing.

  • http://adventures-in-the-everyday.blogspot.com/ Michelle

    Hi Kristin- I am loving your blog and just appreciate your writing and honesty. I recently read another post about happiness on Donald Miller’s blog. I thought you might find it interesting:
    http://donmilleris.com/2010/02/01/the-key-to-lasting-love-may-surprise-you

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Roxanne, I think you’re absolutely right about “continuous pleasure.” I wonder how our culture got to this place. It must have something to do with instant gratification, and this idea that we can get what we want if we just work hard enough. In many ways, that’s a great attitude to have, but it can also result in unrealistic expectations and disappointment, you know? You communicated the other attitude perfectly here: “This means interacting with my world through a “happiness” lense…. It means finding comfort in what is, rather than what I wish it to be.”

    Michelle, thanks for letting me know you’re out there, reading and thinking! And thanks for the Donald Miller link. I go to his blog from time to time, and love his writing, but I missed that post. I’m so fascinated about all of these ideas right now, that I’m eager to get my hands on any related writing—thanks!

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