“Happiness is an inside job.” You’ve probably heard that before. But what exactly does it mean? And why is it so hard sometimes to find (and hold onto) your happiness? If you feel like negative events tend to have a big effect on you, or like your emotional state is out of your control, you’re definitely not alone. But studies have shown that happiness really is an inside job — you just need the right tools.
As it turns out, happiness depends on a number of different factors — but some of them are more important than others. Your DNA and personality contribute some, but external factors like popularity or money make up less than you might think. In fact, you have a lot more control over your happiness than you may believe. By practicing things like mental resilience, meditation, and gratitude, you can learn to build your happiness from the inside out.
In this article, we’re going to look at different ways to find and keep your happiness, by focusing on internal factors — that is, things you can do or change to improve your well-being. You’ll see that, with the right information, happiness really can come from within.
A significant part of your happiness is a result of your personal outlook. Being aware of your own emotions and mindset is a vital step towards happiness. This is covered in-depth in the section Internal Happiness in the biggest guide on how to be happy available online.
Where does happiness come from?
That’s a big question, one that scientists are still trying to answer. There are three things that contribute to one’s happiness:
- Our genetics (or DNA)
- External factors like wealth or fame
- Internal factors like mental resilience and outlook.
Our most useful data on genetics and happiness comes from twin studies like this one by Weiss, Bates & Luciano (1996). They asked sets of twins to rate their happiness and found that between 44% and 52% of one’s happiness came from genetic factors. This study by de Neve et al (2012) found that genetics accounted for only about 30% of the participants’ happiness.
As for external factors, the article by Weiss, Bates & Luciano found that socioeconomic and relationship status, for instance, accounted for only 3% of the variation. Another study by Denny & Steiner (2008) examined elite college-level athletes and found that internal factors (like mindfulness and self-esteem) influenced happiness significantly more than external ones (like performance in school or on the field).
So while genetic and external factors do play a role in our level of happiness, a big part of it comes from within. And that’s good news because it means that we can exercise control over our level of happiness, and take steps to improve it. The rest of this article is dedicated to some of those steps, and how they have an effect on your happiness and well-being.
How to build happiness from inside
Based on the studies discussed already, it’s clear that a significant portion of our happiness can be built from within ourselves. Here are 3 actionable tips that’ll help you build happiness.
1. Build mental resilience
“It is not so much the hard times we face that determine our success or failure, as the way in which we respond to those hard times.”
Mental resilience means being able to bounce back from negative experiences, or not let them affect in the first place; being able to cope with whatever life throws at you, without it having a drastic effect on your happiness. You might call it mental toughness. And it turns out that mental resilience is something that can be learned and strengthened.
With the right tools, you can shield your happiness from negative events, so that you stay in better control of your mood. Studies have shown that increased resilience has long-lasting positive effects on happiness.
Psychologists Jackson & Watkin determined 7 factors of mental resilience and 7 ways to boost it. They separated these skills into three groups:
- Analyzing the situation
- Remaining calm and focused
- Modifying your response
In order to build mental resilience, it’s important to take a step back from a given situation and try to evaluate it critically. The next time you encounter a situation that upsets you or threatens your happiness, try these steps:
- Stop and take a moment to pay attention to what you’re thinking and feeling. Try to avoid mental traps like jumping to conclusions or overestimating the impact of the situation. Take note of how your beliefs impact your opinion of the outcome.
- If you need to, remove yourself from the situation. Give yourself time to think things through and practice mental resilience.
- Finally, take action: challenge your beliefs about the situation. Avoid a ‘downward spiral’, or negative or ‘catastrophic’ thinking. That is, keep things in perspective.
At first, you may find it difficult to be resilient, but it’s just like riding a bike. By practicing, you’ll get better and better at shielding your happiness from the effects of negative events. Once you’ve acquired the skill, you’ll start to do it automatically.
2. Practice mindfulness
If there’s one big trend in the world right now, it’s meditation and mindfulness. There are a seemingly infinite number of books, YouTube videos and Instagram influencers out there promoting the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. And guess what — they’re not wrong!
The research is clear on meditation and happiness. People who meditate are generally happier and are perceived as such by their peers. So what exactly is mindfulness, and how does meditation make us happier?
Mindfulness is the act of observing and the state of being aware. It means actively thinking about our present situation and living in the moment, rather than rehashing the past or worrying about the future.
I want you to consider the following quote for a second:
“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
Mindfulness is all about living in the present, and meditation is one of the ways to achieve this. Meditation can be defined as any practice used to achieve emotional stability and mental clarity. If you’re thinking that it sounds a lot like mental resilience, you’re not wrong. Practicing meditation and mindfulness are great ways to increase mental resilience. In fact, this study by Smith, Compton and West (1995) shows that other approaches to building your happiness are strengthened when paired with meditation.
So whatever else you do to find happiness, adding some simple meditation techniques can help a lot.
3. Practice gratitude
I’ve written about the importance of gratitude before. There are lots of different ways to express gratitude, like keeping a journal or writing a letter or an email to somebody. You can express gratitude about past events, about your present situation, or about future opportunities. Studies have shown that gratitude and happiness are strongly correlated. People who demonstrate being thankful tend to be happier, and expressing gratitude in response to negative experiences can help decrease their effect on your happiness.
Another great way to benefit from gratitude is to engage in activities you can be thankful for later. Taking the time to relax and do something for yourself, developing rewarding relationships, and nurturing a happy, healthy body are all things you can do today to be thankful for tomorrow. When you plan your actions according to what makes you thankful, you’ll find yourself spending more time doing things you enjoy. That’s something to be thankful for now and later.
A gratitude journal is a great way to make thankfulness a part of your daily life. There are lots of ready-made gratitude journals out there, but you can also keep track of your gratitude in your Tracking Happiness journal. If you haven’t already started tracking your happiness, pick up my free template here.
There are so many ways to build our happiness from the inside out. Increasing your mental resilience, meditating, and expressing gratitude are just three ways to do so. If you found this page useful, be sure to check out the rest of the Happy Blog for other amazing tips and tricks on how to build your happiness from the inside out.
What’s your take on this topic? Do you agree that happiness is an inside job? Found something missing that you want to add? I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments below!
Founder of Tracking Happiness and lives in the Netherlands. Ran 5 marathons, with one of them in under 4 hours (3:59:58 to be exact). Data junkie and happiness tracker for over 6 years.