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Friday, October 22, 2021

Column: Finding lasting happiness

Forty-four percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, breaking down their lofty long-term aspiration for self-improvement into smaller, more tangible goals. But what’s really beneath the desire for self-betterment?

Great philosophers have said that what we want in this world – more than wealth, beauty, or power – is happiness. The gold digger believes that wealth will bring happiness, while the attention seeker hopes that happiness will come as a result of receiving interest and adoration. Whether we realize it or not, most anything we strive for in life is ultimately motivated by this pursuit.

Bestselling author and Yale Law School graduate Gretchen Rubin wrote a book titled The Happiness Project that chronicled her yearlong experimentation with how to best achieve optimal happiness.

“Time is passing, and I’m not focusing enough on the things that really matter,” Rubin writes. In exploring what makes us most happy, Rubin offers wisdom on how to arrive at lasting contentment. Her book mentioned that people have a base rate of happiness, drawn 50 percent from genetic predisposition, 30 percent from life circumstances, and 20 percent from individual choices. Such a large chunk belonging to genetic predisposition explains why some people who seemingly “have it all” may seem perpetually dissatisfied, while others who have been dealt a more meager hand at life may display surprising optimism and resilience. Despite the immutable 80 percent that accounts for happiness, the remaining 20 percent still leaves room for people to alter their baseline happiness levels. Furthermore, freewill might place individuals in situations that could facilitate either positive or negative life circumstances, influencing the 30 percent accounted for by environmental factors.

This being said, people can make themselves happier. In line with what many psychologists would say and with what Rubin addresses in her book, this process begins in the mind. The mind has extraordinary influence over how we feel and behave. Some of us are more prone to chaotic thought processes, over-fixation, and inability to escape our heads. Others find it easier to unshackle themselves from their thoughts. Whether or not your mind is more of a prison or a sanctuary, the work required for boosting happiness starts here.

To examine the mind, let’s think of it like a bee’s nest, where the thoughts are the bees. During a state of true bliss, those little worker guys should be at their equilibrium, calmly buzzing while working efficiently, rather than hitting their stingers against the wall in aggravation. Countless external disruptions exist in this world, however, which either knowingly or unknowingly prod at the bee’s nest and disrupt the equilibrium of the thoughts (excessive texting and screen time, over-caffeination, dehydration, sleep deprivation and poor nutrition to name a few). Working together, these influences breed clamor and melee inside the mind that contribute to an elusive sense of dissatisfaction. Instilling healthier habits in our life, while being mindful of how important these straightforward habits are, can boost happiness levels astronomically.

For instance, Rubin cited a study that said most people do not get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night. The average adult sleeps only 6.9 hours a night, 20 percent less than in 1900. The study found that getting one extra hour of sleep each night would boost daily happiness levels more than a $60,000 dollar raise would. Whether or not this is accurate, it is indubitable that straightforward habits can drastically reduce or increase happiness levels.

These straightforward habits are not always easy to implement, however. At UC Davis, striving for the common human goal of happiness can sometimes take the backburner to functioning as efficient students. Our minds may become more cluttered as we chug copious cups of coffee trying to stay awake, or grab a carbalicious bagel on the way to class, ignoring how these decisions affect our mental health while leading us astray from our ultimate goal.

UC Davis psychology professor Bob Sommer admits that sometimes he drinks coffee to be more efficient and productive, sacrificing social interactions for academic productivity (“The caffeine has a positive effect on writing productivity, but there is a cost in interpersonal relations, so I gave up coffee in class but still rely on it for writing.”).

So next time you’re dissatisfied and you don’t know why, be mindful. What’s disrupting your mental order? Is it something you can fix?

As college students, our ability to feel dissatisfaction is more pronounced because we now have greater cognitive capacities for over-analyzing, questioning the meaning of things, and identifying voids. The real world looms just beyond the horizon. We have careers to worry about, relationships, the rest of our lives; these are worries that needn’t have touched us in high school. Still, no matter our backgrounds or predispositions, we all have a shot at lasting happiness.

Reach ELENI STEPHANIDES at estephanides@ucdavis.edu.

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