What makes you happy? Part 1: Genetics and Worldviews

We're officially one quarter of the way through 2016 and my personal blogging experiment and here's what I've learned so far: Blogging is hard, time-consuming and fun. And I get super nervous each time I hit the publish button (did I overshare?!). And I probably care about page views more than I should. 

As I look back at my first 4 posts, I guess the common theme of the blog are things I'm trying to get better at: managing time, managing people, reaching goals...heck, even my genetic deficiencies :)

It's been a whole lot of me struggling and working through my issues. 

So, to change it up, instead of covering something that I'm struggling with, I thought it'd be fun to share advice on something that I'm great at.

But as I sat down to write, I first had to think of that one thing that I'm great at.

Thinking, thinking...

I'm good at a lot of things. But what in the world am I great at?

More thinking…

Running? Nope. Not these days.

Parenting? Hahaha...definitely no. 

Marketing? Maybe. But that would be Snooze City, USA for a blog post.

And then it finally hit me. Something I'm great at. Maybe even world-class.

I'm great at being happy. 

GROAN. [The collective sound that many of you are making right now.] 

Okay, hear me out.

This realization came to me at the end of an incredibly long day last week. Brooke had been up since 2am vomiting with a stomach bug and was completely out of commission. All three kids were a total mess after school (FUBAR as we say in the Bacon house) and our dog somehow smeared poop all over the living room while I was busy making a very subpar dinner for everyone.

After putting the kids to bed, cleaning up the dog poop, folding and changing the laundry, the kitchen was a total mess, lunches had to be made for the next day, and finally the alarm was set for 4:30am for me to go literally get tortured in the CrossFit Open. And to make matters worse, there was no alcohol in the house. I repeat, NO ALCOHOL.

On an enjoyable scale of 0 to 10, the day was a complete zero.

As I was scrubbing down the counters and thinking back on how awful the day had been (We’ve all had those days, right?), I noticed something strange.

I was smiling. 

It wasn’t intentional and it wasn’t like a huge dorky smile, but it was a smile. And I didn’t feel overwhelmed or annoyed, but felt grateful to be helping my family and optimistic that the next day would simply be better than today.

I thought back to times in my life when things were really humming (my work, health, marriage, etc.) and how much happiness I felt. I thought back to times when things were disastrous and falling apart and how I was still able to find contentment and optimism in those really hard moments. And that’s when it all hit me. 

I, Ben Bacon, am a lot happier than the average person.

The downsides of happiness

IN THE RARE EVENT THAT YOU ARE NOT COMPLETELY NAUSEATED YET, I want to stress that I’m not exactly bragging about all this. Being overly happy isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, there are some downsides. As my wife will gladly tell you, it comes across as “naïve” or "checked out" at times, with a tendency to “avoid the hard stuff” in life (I’m doing my Chris Farley air quotes here). All of these things, I’m often guilty as charged. Sorry honey!!

It's also been shown that happy people are less empathetic. I struggle mightily with this. 

I could make an argument here that I need to work on being less happy. But that would be a really depressing blog post :)

So let's go deep on happiness, in particular, what are the biggest factors that determine your level of happiness?

What determines a person’s happiness?

Genetics:

Let’s start with maybe the biggest factor, and one that a lot of people don’t really think about or associate with happiness – your genes.

According to scientists, the happiest people in the world share a common gene (a variant of the fatty acid amide hydrolase, or “FAAH” gene) and this happy gene gets passed down through families and some people have it and some people don’t.

Some researchers go even further and believe that up to 80%(!) of a person’s happiness level is hard-coded by their heredity. For these folks, there's a fixed point of happiness for people over the long-term (the happiness set-point theory), and trying to become happier is like trying to become taller. You’re fighting genetics and it ain’t gonna happen.   

Let’s think about this and test it for a second. Think about your family – brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, crazy uncles and cousins. If a lot of happy people come to mind, chances are you’re a pretty happy person. If a lot of unhappy people spring to mind, then chances are you are probably less happy than the average bear.

Me, I think about my brother Dave (who shares my same gene pool, although he's a lot balder than me). I can't think of many people happier than my brother Dave, despite the fact that he's had some extremely hard things that have happened to him in his life. He's like a giant, walking "thumbs up" wherever he goes. So I think we have the happy gene. 

Genetics' impact on your happiness: High
Let’s say you’ve looked around and realized that most of your family members are pretty unhappy, and the happiness gene is probably not in your DNA. How do you get happier? What does it all mean?

It means that you are royally screwed.

Just kidding! But awareness here is key. It may mean that you’re fighting some “happiness headwinds” and that if you want to improve your happiness, you might have to work harder on the factors that you can control.

Worldviews:

Another factor that’s tightly correlated with your happiness level is your view of the world and where it’s headed. If you think the world is on a good trajectory, you’re much more likely to be happier than those who think it’s getting worse.

This one really hit me this past weekend when I was listening to someone speak in front of a large audience and they said “The world is bad, and getting worse.” And then they listed a bunch of things that were wrong with the world (political and economic turmoil, terrorism, etc.) but they were all just things that had been around for thousands of years in some form or fashion.

Me? The world has never been in better shape and we’ve never had more amazing opportunities at our fingertips. Infant mortality is at an all-time low (they've dropped by a whopping 50% since 1990), life expectancy rates have never been higher. It’s not a matter of if, but when, we cure cancer and other diseases. Today, a kid with a smartphone in Africa has access to more information than President Clinton did when he was President of the United States. We’re now able to 3D print made-to-order arms, hands, legs, kidneys and ears for wounded veterans, children, puppies (!) and many others in desperate need of them.  

When you look at the macro-level, how can you not believe that the world is in better shape than 10, 100 or 1000 years ago from a health, wealth and human justice perspective? And it's all being driven by people who are doing great and inspiring things to help other people.

The world is GOOD, and getting BETTER.

Can I get an Amen? :)

Your worldview’s impact on your happiness: Medium to High
If you struggle to believe the world is, in fact, getting better, just know it might be handcuffing your happiness. Be mindful of the sources of information that are feeding your brain and if necessary, change the channel. Or read more things like this.

To be continued…

As I started outlining all the subtopics I wanted to cover, it quickly became apparent that there’s way too much for a single post. So rather than make you suffer through 10,000 words, I’ll spread it out in a few posts over the next week or so and cover more things that impact your happiness like money and relationships and chemicals and spirituality and who knows what else.

Then I, as a self-proclaimed “happiness expert”, will offer up some thoughts on each of these things and how I think you can raise your level of happiness in these areas.  

I will probably be hit by a truck halfway through the week in the spirit of karma :)

Back soon with more!

Super deep questions for your weekend:

  • What’s one thing that you think you are great at?
  • How happy are you on a scale of 0 to 10? Why did you give that score?
  • Do you believe there’s a fixed or “set-point” level for your happiness? Or do you believe it’s something you can truly work on and change over the long-term?
  • Do you think the world is getting better or worse?

Random articles that intrigued me this week:

The rise of the ‘gentleman’s A’ and the GPA arms race - Over 45% of the grades being given at U.S. colleges today are As. Let that sink in for a sec. And in a related story...

Why German Kindergarteners Are More Badass Than Their American Peers - I think the Germans are on to something here. Plus you get to say the word "kitahfahrten" when you read this.

What Happened to Tiger Woods? It's the Most Vexing Question in Sports - For several years, I've been waiting for Tiger to just turn it back on again. After reading this, I'm not sure he will.

What it’s like to be that fat person sitting next to you on the plane. - A terrific read for those who fly a lot.

What I'm listening to:

Moses Sumney. I've listened to this song maybe 30 times in the past 8 days. If you want to see how talented this guy is, check out the live looping version of the song