“If you want to be happy, be.” ~Leo Tolstoy

Could it really be that simple? Quite possibly.

In my last article, I suggested that most New Years resolutions are motivated by our wanting to be happier, and we tend to think we will be happier when we’re thinner, healthier, better read, better travelled or better paid. I also hinted that it might be possible to skip the middle bit and cut straight to being happy.

So instead of:

Present situation -> different situation -> happiness (maybe)

You would do this:

Present situation -> happiness (definitely)

Sound good?

Sonja Lyubomirsky’s pie of happiness

The crux of this is that our happiness is much more dependent on our internal state than on our external circumstances. Psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky writes in her book, The How of Happiness, that 50% of our happiness is genetically determined (based on twin studies), 10% depends on life circumstances and situation, and the remaining 40% is down to our intentional activities – in other words, the things we choose to do, the people we choose to spend time with, and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

So you can decide to focus on that little 10% slice of the pie and change your external circumstances. That might make you feel happier. Or it might not.

And even if it does make you feel happier, that happiness may not last as long as you think, thanks to a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation. Hedonic adaptation says that a thing of beauty may not in fact be a joy forever. In fact, your source of joy quite rapidly becomes part of the background of your life. As your life gets better, what was at first exciting and joyful becomes your new normal, and loses its power to boost your happiness.


(The classic illustration of this is the lottery winners/paraplegics study that Dan Gilbert mentioned in his TED talk. If you enjoy reading academic papers, here is the original 1978 study.)

So doesn’t it seem a better investment of your time and energy to focus on the 40% and choose activities, people, and beliefs that make you happy?

And of these three, the greatest by far is your beliefs. If you choose to believe that you are a happy person, and you will be.

Don’t believe me? Thinking “that’s all very well for you to say, but [insert self-pitying reason here]”? Check out this fantastic film – Happy, the movie. Very well worth watching. It will change forever your view of what the prerequisites are for happiness.

Roko Belic
Roko Belic

(Incidentally, the director of the film is Roko Belic, son of ocean rower Nenad Belic, who was lost at sea in 2001 while attempting to row the North Atlantic. Not happy.)

Even if you don’t have time to watch the whole film, please at least spare 90 seconds to click on the thumbnail and watch the mini video about Manoj Singh, a rickshaw driver from Kolkata, India, who lives in a makeshift shack and earns barely enough to feed his family. And he manages to be happy!

If Manoj can be happy, what’s stopping you?!

Next time around, we’ll be looking at how you can stay happy no matter what life throws at you. The slings and arrows of fate, the brickbats of life, all the crappy bits – you can be immune!


(Featured image: Japan’s newest girl band, average age 84, from the Okinawa region which is also featured in the Happy movie.)



  • Roz, a solid point on happiness and intentional activities, as
    I chose 2016 to be the year I stopped moaning about winter here in
    Minnesota and turn it to my adavantage.
    My favorite nearby Nature Preserve is a 1000 acres of wooded walking paths I use regularly for exercise and reflection -but only in the warm months. They have built a fine network of lighted Nordic ski trails over the years, so I took ski lessons as a holiday gift to myself and no longer hibernate in misery until Spring!

    Snowshoeing is next, as they sponsor “Full Moon” night tours as well. Such a simple solution to annual malaise.

  • A wise magician once shared a quote from Aristotle on excellence that could be applied equally to happiness: “We are what we repeatedly do…Excellence (Happiness), then is not an act, but a habit”. Creating the habit of good self-beliefs, good stories about oneself, good relationships will create happiness. As an environmental magician/wizard I have the quirky self-story of a fantasy novel wizard working to save the world. Yes, I read too many fantasy novels as a kid but, yes, this gives me a theme for my life. I use magic (through shows and public education)to make the world a better place. What are your heroes and favorite stories/movies? Thinking of yourself as a character, telling yourself a positive story, helps with happiness and with challenges to it. When I do encounter roadblocks, bad days, etc, the meme of being a wizard working to help the world gives me a very positive context in which to face the challenges. Your story, with you as the hero in it, can be a tremendous source of happiness.

  • Roz, Thanks for sharing so clearly in your short article some numbers on happiness, namely that which is likely attributed to attitude/activities versus circumstances and genetic make-up. It lets us see how big an obstacle an “unhappy” genetic make-up may be to happiness, yet also how much control we have as well. I know a family in which many members suffer from depression. They have that “unhappy” make-up it seems. What they need is to be trained in some of the attitudes, techniques and tools to counter it.

  • Another excellent article by Roz. It came to me at the perfect time and once again she inspires me to be true to myself. I watched the Happy film and found it wonderful, joyful and so very profound. We are what we choose to be!

  • Thank you for your  last article.I think best way to be happy is to make people happy,to give them hope.You are doing this with your messages .People who answer your messages help your efforts too.I am doing by listening my patients with motivational interview which is very effective.
                                    Best wishes..

    • Thank you for your reply, Akif! It does indeed make me happy when people answer my messages.

      Thank you too for listening to your patients. What is your practice? Whatever it is, listening to people is, IMO, a huge part of the treatment.

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