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How Happiness Comes from Within – Examples, Studies, and more

by Hugo

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I was having dinner with a relative recently in what turned out to be an excruciating exercise. While her life was going well from an objective point of view (if there is such a thing), all she could talk about was how miserable she was. Her children were disappointments. Her job was unfulfilling. Her home was too small. Her husband was lazy. Even her dog wasn’t meeting her expectations.

I don’t know why I was expecting something different from this person. She has always been a negative woman. But at least when her life was legitimately difficult, and she was going through a divorce immediately after an unexpected layoff, her complaints were understandable. Now, though, things were looking up. Could she not see any of the bright sides of her life?

It got me thinking about the concept of self-created happiness and misery. In other words, whether happiness comes from within, or whether it’s a consequence of what’s going on around us. Continue below to find out more.

On the surface, it seems obvious that happiness must come, at least partially, from within each of us. We can all remember situations in which the exact same thing happened to two different people and they had wildly differing reactions to it. Happiness isn’t all a result of external factors acting on human beings. Some of it arises from our reactions to, and perceptions of, outside events. If that weren’t the case, the relative I had dinner with wouldn’t have remained a miserable sad sack even though her circumstances had changed so dramatically.

Personality and inherent happiness

On the surface, it seems obvious that happiness must come, at least partially, from within each of us. We can all remember situations in which the exact same thing happened to two different people and they had wildly differing reactions to it. Happiness isn’t all a result of external factors acting on human beings. Some of it arises from our reactions to, and perceptions of, outside events. If that weren’t the case, the relative I had dinner with wouldn’t have remained a miserable sad sack even though her circumstances had changed so dramatically.

Much research has been conducted on the effects of personality on subjective happiness. Personality, of course, is a largely stable and unchangeable part of ourselves, much like our height or eye color. While we can change how we behave or even perceive the world, our characters lend us certain predispositions that are difficult, or impossible, to alter. For example, a neurotic and introverted “George Costanza” (of Seinfeld fame, for the unfamiliar youngsters among us) is unlikely to change overnight into an extraverted and agreeable “Kimmy Schmidt.”

In an extensively cited study on the personal experiences of happiness, Drs. Ryan and Deci summarized then-current research on the interactions between personality and happiness.

The doctors found that there was significant evidence that certain “Big-Five” personality traits were closely linked to either excesses or deficits of happiness. Extraversion and agreeableness were positively associated with happiness, while neuroticism and introversion were negatively associated with the trait.

freedom needed for happiness

Happiness is as happiness does

Personality isn’t the end of the story though. Happiness can also be viewed as a skill to be learned or taught. Certain behaviors, which, unlike personality, can be readily begun, stopped, or changed, are linked to increases or decreases in happiness.

Some of these behaviors are obvious. Excessive substance use, television watching, social media use, and sedentariness are all linked, in one way or another, to decreases in subjective happiness and increases in stress.

Other behaviors, like taking more time for yourself, spending money on experiences rather than material goods (as proven in this happiness essay), spending time outdoors, and cultivating meaningful relationships, are associated with increases in happiness.

The good news is that these are areas of one’s life that can easily be changed. If you find yourself spending too much time on Facebook and the couch, take a walk with your husband and spend an hour with a good book instead. Over time, you’ll find yourself calmer and happier than you would feel otherwise.

Happiness as a point of view

Closely related to behavioral changes, a change in your perceptions might also create a big difference in how happy you are. Mindfulness, the body of knowledge relating to the awareness of how we currently feel about and perceive the world around us, can have dramatic effects on our subjective understanding of that world.

While some people know mindfulness as simply another meditative technique, it is actually a way of keeping one’s consciousness grounded in the present moment, rather than losing oneself in the anxieties and stresses of the future or the regrets of the past. Several studies, including this one, suggest that improving mindfulness techniques has positive outcomes with respect to raising the amount of happiness people experience.

This suggests that how people see the world, and not just the things they see in it, affect how much happiness they feel on a regular basis. Happily, like behaviors, our perceptions can be shaped and adjusted through conscious effort, creating a greater likelihood that we will feel contentment.

be confident and dont worry about stuff that doesnt matter how to be happy

What if you don’t have happy personality treats?

The research on personality got me thinking. I wonder if a person with a neurotic, disagreeable, and introverted temperament is doomed to struggle with happiness? Given the difficulties associated with changing deep-rooted personality traits, are those individuals with traits negatively associated with contentment and happiness always going to be behind the eight-ball? Can adjustments to behavior and perspective completely make for a temperamental handicap?

If this is you, then logically it will be a little harder to change your ways. However, it’s certainly not impossible.

There are already a lot of in-depth articles on the Happy Blog about improving certain personality treats, like:

These articles contain actual examples of how others have improved their lives in order to live it more happily.

And you can do so too.

Recommendations and advice

We’ve seen enough to make some simple recommendations at this point. I wouldn’t blame you if you were to respond to these tips with a knowing smirk. They really are quite high-level and could likely form the basis for dozens of articles on their own. But they bear repeating if only to remind those few among us who have forgotten the obvious that there are things that can be done to realize happiness.

1. Know thyself

While you might not be able to change your personality, you should at least know where you land on major measures of things like neuroticism and agreeableness. Learning where you stand compared to the population will let you know if you are likely to have a predisposition towards seeing the world through rose-colored glasses or are more of the Eeyore-type.

eeyore happiness comes form within

2. Behave thyself

Smarten up! You can’t expect happiness to come from within if the person within spends all her time eating candy bars and watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Behave in such a way as to maximize time spent doing meaningful things that bring consistent happiness: volunteer at a charity, go on a date with your wife, or walk your dog. While it may take some time to see results you will notice a difference if you give substantial behavioral change a chance.

3. See thyself

(ok, I’ll stop with the “thyselves”)

Ensure that you are engaging mindfully with the world. While you can take a class or hire an instructor to learn this skill, there are plenty of resources around the internet that will assist you in becoming more mindful. It’s not a terribly complicated concept, nor does its execution demand a lot of time or effort. It’s simply a matter of dedicating some spare mental energy to learning the techniques.

Happiness can’t always come from within

There are two important caveats that bear mentioning before I wrap up. First, none of the foregoing is meant to suggest that someone with a significant mental illness can simply change how they act and view the world and find immediate relief. Mental illnesses, like depressive and anxious disorders, are an entirely different ball game that require immediate medical treatment.

Second, some people, through no fault of their own, find themselves in tremendously difficult circumstances. Victims of war, poverty, and abuse can’t simply think and act their way to happiness when the world they live in causes such misery. I am not so obtuse as to suggest that the solution to their problems lies within their grasp alone.

Final thoughts

I’ve skipped over a lot in this article and barely skimmed the surface of self-created happiness. I haven’t touched on whether the people around us should count as self-created or environmental happiness if we’re allowed to choose the people we spend time with. I haven’t examined whether a person’s ability to engage in behavioral or perspective change depends heavily on his or her environment.

What we have learned is that many internal factors, including personality, behavioral habits, and perspective, can affect how much and how deeply one feels happiness. Whether that means “happiness comes from within” remains up for debate though because the internal factors I’ve just mentioned depend so heavily on external factors. Complicating matters even further is that many of those external factors may be changeable, depending on our circumstances.

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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Thrive under stress and crush your goals with these 10 unique tips for your mental health.

I think it’s fair to say at this point that at least some of our happiness comes from within. And of that portion, at least some of that can be acted upon to increase the overall amount of happiness in our lives. If the lady I had dinner with, or someone like her, is reading this, I urge you to seize whatever agency you have over those parts of your experiences you can control and make the changes necessary to realize just a little bit more happiness in your life. You deserve it.

Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

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