Trying to make sense of life and to learn living it happily.

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Happiness Is a Skill

art by ~AmeNonDesiree

Our individuality is an intricate mix of character traits. Some attributes are inborn, others are acquired. Some are less changeable, while others may be more influenced by our upbringing, our circumstances, and our choice. Our personalities are also affected by the habits we form throughout our lives that are expressed through our behavior. And as we live through every day, we are also imperceptibly but invariably and constantly changing. This change may not be apparent in the span of a week or a month, but it is happening nonetheless, and because of it, we are not the same people at forty that we were at twenty, and still more different at sixty than we were at forty. The interplay of all of the above produces our unique personality, including the level of day-to-day happiness we feel.

Happiness is commonly thought of as an inborn feature, which cannot be taught or learned. However, the recent emergence of the science of positive psychology challenged this opinion. Renowned happiness psychologists such as Martin Seligman and Sonja Lyubomirsky believe that the level of our happiness is made up of several components. They estimate that it is about fifty percent our genetic capacity for happiness, about ten percent our circumstances, and the rest forty percent of our happiness level is made up by our voluntary control.

Thus, a large portion of our ability to feel happier depends on our own desire, choice, mindfulness, attitude toward outside circumstances, as well as our skills at being happy.

As a skill, being happy can be learned like any other skill. As we acquire knowledge and understanding about it, and as we consistently practice it, it becomes automatic.

Consider any skill you are good at, either physical or intellectual, such as walking, reading, writing, typing, driving a car, crocheting, cooking, dancing ballet en pointe, playing guitar, etc. It is difficult in the very beginning (if we can remember this far back), we cannot do it properly, we may even get frustrated, and dislike this skill. But if we continue practicing it, gradually we become able to exercise it without much thinking.

For example, think about the process of learning to speak a foreign language. Usually, we cannot just listen to it and begin speaking at once. In fact, when we start, we do not  begin with the speaking at all, but with learning of the basics, the building blocks - the letters, the sounds, the rules. We have to think about every word first, making mistakes with tenses and sentence structure. The more we practice, the faster it becomes automatic, thoughts translate into words, and sentences flow without our conscious effort. Speaking a foreign language fluently may take a year or ten years. Some people have a talent for it and can learn several languages rather easily. Others may struggle with this skill. But even they will speak well enough if they practice a lot.

Acquisition of any skill or trait follows the same pattern. First, we gather some knowledge about what that skill is and why we need to master it. Once we decide we need this skill, we first learn the theory about it. Then we practice it. In the beginning we must focus on the desired skill, thinking about every minor detail, exerting effort to get it right. We have to make a conscious effort to repetitively apply the body of knowledge we have. With repetition and the growth of our understanding, the skills become familiar, easy and even automatic. The skills we practice all the time become second nature.

art by ~myusernameisjenna
A character trait such as happiness in large part is also a product of repetitive behavior of a certain kind. We may have forgotten how we have gotten the way we feel and behave today, but little by little, we formed habits to automatically react with certain kinds of attitudes toward certain factors. As adults with formed personality, we observe the results - the set of our habitual attitudes and behaviors, our established mental outlook on life.

Happiness is not the only personality trait that can be managed. On the other end of our personality spectrum there is anger. Similarly to happiness, it is partially our disposition, partially an emotion that depends on our circumstances, partially an expression of our habits. Although it may be argued that some people are born predisposed to be more angry or more agreeable, there are anger management classes that successfully teach people how to take control of their anger. We can control our anger, if we put our minds to it. In the same way, we can learn to master our happiness.

People are born inclined toward some traits, and happiness comes easier to some than others, but it is a combination of nature and nurture. And we are in charge of nurture. Which means it can be taught, and should be taught, like a foreign language, starting from school and throughout our lives. 


  1. Child is born in state of Bliss, and unaware of unhappiness.
    Child, learns unhappiness.
    Therefore: "Happiness" is not a process of learning/studying/practicing.
    It is process of remembering natural state of being, and practice of unlearning unhappiness.
    Merooj Aghazarian
    Relationship consultant

    1. That is an interesting thought, although the first thing newborn babies do is cry.
      Rather, I think babies may be unaware of both happiness or unhappiness as these are abstract notions. They just feel the way it feels to them, without processing the feelings as bliss or unhappiness at first. We learn to label our feelings as we grow up. That is when we learn what "unhappiness" is supposed to mean, and oftentimes it is incorrect.
      I do not believe people can "unlearn" something, but we can certainly learn how to deal with it.

      Thank you for commenting.

  2. My challenge is one of resilience, bouncing back to my preferred state of happiness when it is upset quickly enough for it to remain a happy day.

    1. On one hand, it is natural to react to what is happening in our life, to feel joy or sadness, etc. We should strive to feel good about life in general, but we do not have to strive to smile all the time.

      On the other hand, there is a very good saying "There are not good days or bad days. There are just days. How you feel about them is entirely up to you!"

      Have a good day!