ABC’s of Writing: H is for Happiness

Matilda Butler, ABC’s of Writing #21

Happiness seems to be in full bloom. I’m not talking about the delicate spring lupines, the robust summer roses, the colorful fall chrysanthemums, the persistent winter pansies popping their heads up through the snow. Happiness seems to be on a growth trajectory that keeps it in bloom all 12 months, year after year.

And no, I haven’t lost my mind. I’m well aware of ongoing revolutions, death, poverty, joblessness and the many other problems of the world. So what do I mean that happiness is in bloom? Let me back up. Kendra and I often delve into science — the social and physical sciences — to uncover research findings that can be used by writers. Over the past year, we’ve dug deeply and come up with powerful information and insights that can help us all be better writers. However, as we wrap up our book, Writing Alchemy: Turning Your Words into Gold, we’ve found we have to eliminate some of our examples and add them to our already large pile of “interesting but just can’t use it” science nuggets. In addition, we constantly run into new areas of research.

One of the new areas I’ve been reading about is the science of happiness. The topic is now part of a wildly blooming field of scientific inquiry. If you look for books on happiness on Amazon, you’ll find plenty — 20,927 to be specific. If you want information right away and so check websites for “happiness research”, you’ll get 165,000 hits. Many of these books and posts are derivative of the work of a small cluster of scientists and Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California-Riverside is one of the early researchers in this field. For almost two decades, she has investigated the science of happiness.

What do we mean by happiness? It is a perpetual state? No. Does money buy it? No. Are we born into it? To a certain extent. Does life change it? Somewhat. Can we control it? Absolutely.

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Lyubomirsky’s 2007 book that planted the seeds writers continue to harvest, demonstrates that about 50% of our sense of happiness is determined by genetic factors. Think of it this way, some people are Tiggers right from the start with bouncy personalities that never let them down. Others are better described as gloomy donkey Eeyores. When my children were young, I loved reading this part of Winnie the Pooh:

“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning,” he said. “Which I doubt,” said he.
“Why, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”
“Can’t all what?” said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
“Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.”

While we may have birth predispositions to happiness or sadness, there is still another 50% to be explained. Circumstances or events account for about 10% of happiness. Tragedies and adverse life experiences, it turns out, can reduce happiness for a while, but our usual outlook on life often returns in spite of “bad stuff.” The remaining 40% — described as intentional action — is under our control. That is quite significant as it means we can control our ability to experience happiness.

On Women’s Memoirs blog today, I have posted a video showing some unexpected findings about happiness. Then I’ve shared one study and posted two writing prompts. I hope you’ll join me there to see how you can incorporate the findings from happiness research both in your writing and in your life.

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