Just about everyone wants to be happy. Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” If happiness is something we strive so hard to attain, and if it is truly the end all and be all of life, then why does it elude so many?

There is a pervasive myth that we can be happy when we achieve (fill in the blank). I’ll be happier when I lose weight. I’ll be happier when I get a better job. I’ll be happier when I have more money in the bank. I’ll be happier when I get married. And the list goes on and on.

But happiness doesn’t depend on achievements, goals, money, relationships or anything external. None of these things will make us happy for the long haul. They provide a short-term spike in happiness followed by a quick return to normal, where we begin the search externally for the next big thing. For many, this becomes the cycle of their life. So, why does this happen?

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Recent research has shown that we each have a happiness set point, which is based 50 percent on genetics; 10 percent on circumstance; and 40 percent on intentional activity, such as habits, thoughts and behavior. This set point is where we are most comfortable, and where we tend to hover. When we get what we want, we are elevated and feel happy for a while, but then we return to our set point.

To achieve true happiness, we must raise this set point!

The science of epigenetics teaches that we have more control than originally thought over our genes, that they can be influenced by changing our habits. So when you factor in the genetic component, up to 90 percent of our set point can be influenced by our habits. That gives us tremendous power over the way we feel. 

According to Marci Shimoff, author of Happy for No Reason, people who are truly happy have an inner state of peace and well being that doesn’t depend on their circumstance. They have different habits. She recommends that to elevate our set point, we have to practice what she calls happiness habits.

Here are a four ways we can make change that lasts:

  • Don’t believe everything you think. The brain is wired to pay more attention to whatever it perceives as threatening to survival. Specialized circuits register negative experiences immediately in emotional memory. This is known as the negativity bias and is what most of us experience daily. Out of our 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day, approximately 80 percent are negative. Our patterns of thought ultimately determine how happy we are in life. Become mindful of them and make sure they serve you well. 
  • Savor positive experiences. According to Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positives ones.” Experts say it takes 20 seconds for a positive experience to stick long enough to create a new neuro pathway in the brain, much longer than it take for a negative experience to stick. Spend time enjoying the little things; eventually they will make a big difference.
  • Practice gratitude. Be grateful for what is working. We get more of what we focus on, so focus on what works. Look for the tiny things usually taken for granted and feel appreciation for them. Write at least five blessings down daily in a gratitude journal.
  • Forgive others. We cannot be happy when holding on to anger and resentment. Forgiveness is a process that includes letting go of negative emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, and replacing those with positive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors toward the offender. As Paul Boese said, “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” Release the pain and let it go.