Today, while reading some articles on human behavior and psychology, I came across “The Happiness Formula.” I’ve encountered the idea of this once before, in a class for my master’s program to become a health coach.

I had the same reaction this time as I’d had the first time: Wait a second, happiness is not something that can be boiled down into a formula

It seems a little hard to buy the idea of something as complex as happiness being simplified into a few letters and symbols. But whether or not I’m totally convinced, I’ve come to realize that there is a lot to learn from the research behind these formulas for happiness.

It turns out that there is a whole field of research in this area, and there are a lot of experts out there that each have their own explanation for what makes us happy (or not). In fact, there’s not just one, but several formulas and equations out there that promise to explain happiness.

The happiness formula

Dr. Martin Seligman, a leader in the world of positive psychology, is behind one of the most well-known and well-used of these formulas.

According to Dr. Seligman (in his book Authentic Happiness):

                    H = S + C + V

Hmm.. looks like a simple math equation with a few letters and symbols. So what does all that mean?

Let’s quickly break it down. In this formula, H stands for Happiness, S stands for Set Point, C stands for Circumstance, and V stands for Voluntary Control.

According to Martin Seligman's happiness formula, explained in his book Authentic Happiness. 

S – Set point (50%)

Our set point relates to our biological, innate disposition for happiness. Put simply, genetics partially dictate our happiness level. Some people’s happiness set point will be higher than others, meaning that on their average day, they will be happier than someone else on their average day. Researchers believe our genetic set point determines about 50% of our happiness.

C – Circumstance (10%)

External circumstances account for about 10% of our happiness. This means that things such as our living conditions, recent events, the things we own (or don’t), socioeconomic factors, our health, etc. do, indeed impact our happiness. But only to a certain extent. Probably a lot less than you might think. After all, 10% just isn’t that big a piece of the pie.

V- Voluntary Control (40%)

What might come as the biggest surprise to some people (myself included) is that after we account for genetics and our external circumstances, there is a whopping 40% leftover. And guess what Seligman and others have decided makes up that last 40%? Things we have complete control over, such as our actions, thoughts, and behaviors. In other words, there is a huge chunk that we have the power to change, and that really comes down to how we choose to live our lives.

There’s some criticism for this formula, and that’s understandable. How exactly, are these percentages decided? Aren’t certain external conditions way worse than others, and might those impact one’s happiness a little more than less severe conditions? How can happiness really be broken down into three simple categories like this?

But going too deep into that kind of analysis risks missing the big picture point here. Put the exact science aside, and you’re left with a simple, powerful message: Your happiness is not entirely dependent on factors outside of your control. In fact, a large portion of what determines your happiness is entirely in your hands.

Your happiness is not entirely dependent on factors outside of your control. In fact, a large portion of what determines your happiness is entirely in your hands.

If you’ve never considered this before, it can kind of shake things up. So maybe about half of your happiness is set. Another part (wayyyy less than most of us think) is dependent on the ever changing circumstances we find ourselves in. But the 40% (or so) that’s leftover is completely up to us. That leaves a lot of room to work with, even if things outside of your control aren’t looking so great.

So, What’s the Point of All of This?

Have you ever thought about how much time and resources you put into trying to change your circumstances? Or how much energy you put into wishing things were different – maybe that a certain event hadn’t have happened, or that you could afford that new car you’ve been eyeing?

For most of us, it’s a lot.

But how much time and energy and resources do you put into what we really can change, right now? The things that can have a huge impact on our level of happiness (40%, remember)? Things like our thoughts, actions, behaviors, beliefs, habits…

Making some simple changes to the pieces of our life that are under our control can transform the state of our happiness and wellbeing.

Doesn’t it sound way more worth your time to put some energy into the 40% we can change, rather than trying so hard to shift our circumstances (which only account for a tiny piece of the happiness pie anyways)?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and thinking about which factors I could focus on, personally, that could bring even more happiness into my life.

What kinds of changes could you make? What could happen if, instead of looking outwards to your circumstances, you looked inwards?

And what do you think about the happiness formula? If you could design your own, what would it look like?

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