06 March 2023

Since 2000, Peggy Moore has been owner and principal of Moore Executive Coaching and Consulting. Peggy partners with executives, teams, and boards at large global companies, multi-generational family businesses and everything in between to navigate transitions, relationships, crises, opportunities, and growth. She is passionate about helping leaders develop the self-awareness and social/emotional intelligence that will enable them to build diverse and inclusive cultures, inspire excellence, make meaningful contributions, and realize their purpose and potential. With a doctorate in Psychology, her work is grounded in behavioral science and ethical practice.

When I shared with my best friend of thirty years that I was asked to give a talk on ‘Happiness’ during the 2021 holiday season, this beautiful human being who happens to be a talented Psychologist and not usually at a loss for words, followed a very pregnant pause with “well Peg, what even IS that?”. I had to chuckle… We also shared a laugh at the sheer irony of the topic given that in recent years, I had lost my mom, dad, two brothers, both in-laws, and four other close friends and relatives, most after heartbreaking, protracted illnesses. While grieving, I was executing multiple estates and had separated from my husband of twenty years (a necessary ending, but still a loss), navigated COVID’s financial blows to my business, launched two kids off to college, and found myself in an empty nest with my aging and ailing dog. Although a part of me wanted to say: “um thanks but no thanks” or maybe “hell no,” I thanked Lucy at The Athena Advisors for the invitation to reflect on happiness. This was no accident at this specific moment in my life. It was just what I needed – a true and unexpected gift. Whatever you get from reading this blog, I hope it is just what you need.

So, going back to my friend’s question, what is happiness? Although we can feel it as a fleeting emotion, we often think of it as a state of being or mood, and sometimes even as an appraisal or reflection on our life. My favorite definition is put forth by happiness researcher Dr. Sonya Lyubomirsky: the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. Appealing contemporary characterizations also include a sense of agency, for example, Positive Psychology advocate Shawn Anchor depicts happiness as ‘the joy you feel moving toward your potential’ and storyteller Denise Turney describes it as ‘living your best life.’

Of course, our perspectives on happiness are shaped by the culture in which we grow up. In Western, more individualistic cultures, happiness is commonly associated with , and particularly for Americans, a constant chasing/striving and high-arousal positive states such as enthusiasm and excitement. In contrast, happiness is generally pursued in more socially engaging ways in collectivistic societies, for example through relational or social harmony in Japanese culture, and East Asian cultures tend to recognize happiness through low-arousal positive states like calm, peace, and relaxation. Many African cultures look at happiness as the pleasant feeling experienced when family is close and supporting one’s life decisions. In racially oppressed communities we may see joy as a form of resistance to that oppression, think “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou.  In some cultures, individuals are more suspicious or cautious of happiness, based on the belief that joy is followed by misfortune. The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn advised, “don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing.”

Despite cultural differences in conceptualizing happiness, it is one of the most universal of human emotions. Research across 97 studies and 182 countries shows that happiness is the most accurately recognized emotion across cultures – more than anger, fear, and sadness. We exhibit similar physiological behavior when we feel happy – smiling, laughing, moving toward others, open and welcoming gestures. Even with masks on, we recognize it in others.

Studies dissecting the nature and attainment of happiness, as well as its causes, correlates, and consequences, have exploded over the last few decades. The most popular university courses are often aimed at happiness and living a good life (Yale’s Science of Wellbeing course, including a teen version, is free on Coursera), graduate degrees and certificates are offered in the science of happiness, and national campaigns are devoted to it. Why the obsession? Maya Angelou may have said it best: “we all need joy as we need air.” Maybe not as critical as oxygen, but happiness does have a direct beneficial impact on our well-being. Happier people have better physical health, stronger immune systems, fewer sleep problems, and they live longer. Happy people show more creativity, greater resilience, more energy, better performance at work, lower levels of burnout, and more prosocial behavior. We are more likely to volunteer and donate money to worthy causes when we are happy. 

Happy doctors make quicker and more accurate diagnoses, and happy leaders positively influence and inspire others. Actions born from our contentment reinforce a cycle of personal well-being even as they lift others up.

This sounds like something we want more of, but how accessible is it, and is it a realistic pursuit given our current social, political, climate, and economic realities? We know that social injustices and racial oppression/trauma directly impact happiness. We are learning more about the profound effect of the pandemic on women’s jobs and family care and the resulting decreased life satisfaction for younger and middle-aged women. In addition to COVID bringing prolonged periods of grief for the loss of life, health, and financial stability, most of us were disconnected from things that help us to flourish – connection with friends and family, travel, sports, work, and school. Children are absorbing these stressors along with the effects of war, climate change, food insecurity, and broken immigration policies. We can look to the World Happiness Report which ranks 156 countries to identify other quality of life factors affecting happiness – things like GDP per capita, Social Support, Freedom to Make Life Choices, and Political Corruption.

The UK’s happiness tsar and prominent economist, Lord Richard Layard, draws on this data to create a compelling argument for making happiness universally attainable by building the conditions for happiness and flourishing across schools, workplaces, and communities globally in his recent book: ‘How to Make the World Happier and Why it Should Be Our First Priority.’ We can look to the Scandinavian countries which consistently rank highest on measures of happiness as more immediate role models (get a taste of that life by reading journalist Helen Russell’s book: ‘The Year of Living Danishly’).

With similar broad application but more nuance, industrial designer Ingrid Fetell Lee discovered that certain elements in the physical world and architectural design make people feel safer and more joyful, energetic, confident, creative, and full of life – almost universally – and has challenged why workplaces, hospitals, schools, and cities tend to be grey, monochrome and angular, shapes which our minds associate with danger, the need to be cautious, fearful and anxious. She identified (and discussed in her TED talk ‘Where Joy Hides and Where to Find It’) our evolutionary preference for the kinds of shapes, colors, and textures found in rainbows, cherry blossoms, bubbles, hot air balloons, ice cream cones with sprinkles, fuzzy baby animals, and objects of light like fireworks, things that produce almost universal positive emotions.

Along this ‘aesthetics of joy’ theme, there has been a surge of research in recent years on ‘awe’ – the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world – and its benefits on our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. We may experience this sense of wonder upon viewing astonishing images from space, listening to a moving piece of music, marveling at a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, or even reading about a local hero. Researchers have discovered that awe-inducing experiences can be intentionally cultivated in our everyday lives by slowing down, being present, and training ourselves to look for the positive things all around us, thus overriding our brain’s neural wiring naturally biased to detect negativity, threats, and danger.

Happiness is increasingly appealing to researchers as we discover actions we can take to get more of it. In a groundbreaking study, Dr. Ed Diener (aka Dr. Happiness) found that about 10% of happiness is predicted by our life circumstances and 90% is affected by the way our brain processes the world, with about 50% of that determined by our genetic setpoint or range and at least 40% affected by intentional actions and choices we make that affect how we see the world and how mindful and present we are. One intentional choice we can make that has an especially positive impact on our happiness is reaching out and connecting with others. Dr Robert Waldinger’s 84-year study of happiness highlighted the importance of nurturing our relationships and cultivating social support. People who have warm, supportive, and satisfying social connections with family, friends, and community are happier. Though conducted with white American men, the findings have been replicated across gender, race, and culture. These studies show us that using social media adds to happiness when it is used for the purpose of actively connecting with others (vs passively surveying others’ lives).

We have the tendency to think that major life events – losing a job, not getting a promotion, or breaking up with a romantic partner – will impact us more than they do.

Even when faced with the worse outcomes, we adapt. Studies show that people who win the lottery report no greater happiness one year after winning the lottery than people who are one year out from a traumatic accident costing them the use of their legs. Whatever our situation, we tend to believe things turn out for the best, and our brains rewire to create happiness.

Tracking more mundane, moment-to-moment experiences yielded no fewer interesting results. In one study involving 15,000 people, 15-80 years old, across 80 countries, . Matt Killingsworth at UPenn found that almost 50% of the time we are thinking about something other than what we are doing and that how often our mind wanders from the present is a better predictor of happiness than the actual activities in which we are engaged. The lesson? A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. If we focus on the present, we’ll be substantially happier, even if we are doing something we don’t really like to do like commuting, dishes, yardwork, or cleaning out closets. Indeed, many studies have shown that practicing mindfulness or using breathing, yoga, and meditation to bring attention to the present moment (versus regrets from the past or fears about the future) delivers more contentment.

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a founder of the Positive Psychology movement and strongly influenced by his life as a young Hungarian boy separated from much of his family in a detainment camp in Italy during World War II, resolved that “the joy we get from living, ultimately depends directly on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences.” Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’ to describe how we feel when we are so completely immersed and passionately applying our skills to the challenge at hand – whether it be writing, solving problems, or making art – that we lose track of time and self, a phenomenon that can be viewed as an alternate state of happiness.

A great first step to cultivating more happiness is to recognize when we feel it and be open to more of it. It can be helpful to think of joy as signaling to us that we are thriving or moving in the direction of things that will help us to thrive. We can start by noting how we feel when trying out things that science shows turn on the happiness chemicals in our brain. For example, completing tasks (no matter how small), celebrating wins (no matter how significant), and engaging in self-care turn on the dopamine in our brains, engaging the reward and learning centers. Oxytocin, the love chemical, is released when we pet a puppy, play with a baby, hug, hold hands and even give a compliment. Serotonin soothes our mood when we run, walk in nature, meditate, or feel the sun on our faces. We might feel especially good when we exercise, laugh, watch a comedy, or eat dark chocolate, and the endorphins released may also lessen any pain we have.

We also can’t go wrong acting on evidence-based ‘prescriptions’ for happiness (it’s absolutely not necessary to do all seven although number one is a must). Even striving towards these things can have profound positive effects. So, here are seven ‘prescriptions’ for happiness:

  1. actively nurture and strengthen the quality of our relationships;
  2. find purpose and meaning in our life/roles, whether that be at work, at home, or in the community, and keep growing/learning;
  3. be mindfully present and savor our everyday experiences of awe and wonder;
  4. practice daily gratitude for what we are given and forgiveness for what we aren’t;
  5. spend money on experiences that bring us joy (vs material things);
  6. use our skills, strengths and attention on a challenging task or master a skill/activity; and
  7. change up our environment by visiting new places and cultures.

According to Shawn Anchor, another way to go about creating more happiness is to set an intention to build new habits that evidence shows rewire our brains and increase happiness in as little as 21 days when practiced daily. These are:

  1. identify three new things you are grateful for;
  2. journal about one positive experience for two minutes;
  3. exercise for at least fifteen minutes (preferably outside in nature);
  4. meditate for two minutes; and
  5. practice acts of kindness and compassion, like writing one positive email.

In my work, I help leaders be the best versions of themselves and reach their fullest potential not by coaching them to work harder but by encouraging them to focus on the quality of their relationships at work (and at home) and to contribute in meaningful ways that help them feel happy and fulfilled. Some of the lessons I’ve learned that I integrate into my coaching practice include:

  1. Listen to all emotions; they aren’t dualistic or mutually exclusive. We don’t heal without hurting but we don’t have to stay connected to suffering at the cost of happiness either. Happiness can co-exist with sadness, grief, anger, etc.
  2. Happiness comes from being fully present in life’s moments; it’s about where we are now versus a state we need to get to. Find it in deep and authentic conversations, awe-inspiring nature, and daily moments of gratitude.
  3. Be intentional in making choices and taking regular actions that connect us to those we care about, our purpose, creative endeavors, and meaningful work.

And, if all else fails, Helen Russell delivers a twist on the research by prescribing 10 things to do if you want to live life miserably, including: ditch your friends, be a bigot, get a job you hate, work all the time, stay indoors, say no to music, and bottle up your feelings.