We all want to be happy. And while there are hordes of books, advice columns, blogs, etc. that give advice on how to achieve that happiness, sometimes the advice is contradictory. Perhaps you’ve read several self-help books. Or made various efforts at enhancing your personal happiness. Yet, you find yourself still lacking the happiness and satisfaction you crave.
While eating disorders serve a variety of functions, the pursuit of happiness is a common one. Inside an eating disorder, someone likely believes that the size or shape of their body is partly (or mostly) responsible for their lack of happiness, or depression, or low self-confidence. It then follows logically that changing one’s body and losing weight will lead to increased happiness.
This is one of the great lies within an eating disorder. When women lose weight, they may experience a brief, but unsustained elevation in mood or confidence. When that initial feeling of success and happiness dissipates (which it will), instead of reflecting on how one’s body size, shape and attractiveness, are not the gateway to happiness, they believe they must not be “doing it right” and that more weight loss is the solution. Others, in the pursuit of weight loss, continue to find feelings of satisfaction and happiness to be elusive. Then, they conclude that they must be doing something wrong and that more weight loss is the solution.
The How of Happiness
In her book, “The How of Happiness”, the author and researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky depicts a pie chart of happiness, based on research of the factors that directly influence our well-being. In this pie chart, she explains that 50% of happiness is determined by our genetic “set point”. This is the part of your happiness level that is outside of your control. Some people are genetically more predisposed toward higher levels of happiness. While others have to work harder because their genetic happy set-point is lower.
A genetic predisposition explains 50% of our subjective happiness and well-being. What makes up the other 50% of our experience?
Lyubomirsky shares research to indicate that the other 50% of the pie is divided into two contributors: circumstances and intentional activity.
Intuitively, many people think circumstances would make up the majority of that remaining 50%. Circumstances are incidental but stable facts of your life, including gender, age, ethnicity, background, weight/size, attractiveness, health, or events that changed your status like marriage, educational attainment, employment, and income. People often think that others who hit the “life circumstance jackpot” or have achieved prestige, wealth, have a family and the white picket fence fantasy, must be happy. Based on these beliefs, we developed an attitude that we will be happy when we get x, or achieve y.
Counter to intuition, Lyubormirsky reveals that circumstances only account for 10% of the variation in our happiness. Only 10%! And yet we invest close to 100% of our energy and resources into enhancing or changing that 10%!
And within that small 10%, (that accounts for our total circumstance) is one tiny piece of our circumstance: our physical attractiveness and weight. We are brainwashed to believe that attractiveness is synonymous with happiness. The expectation is that the more someone meets the ideal standard of beauty, the more that person is happy. The reality, however, is that attractive people are not happier than the general public (Diener, Wolsic &Fujita, 1995; Meyer, Enstrom, Harstveit, Bowles & Beevers, 2007).
So the great lengths exerted to change body shape and size and approach that perceived, ideal beauty, really don’t enhance happiness!
What’s the real solution? First, to no longer buy into the belief that body shape, weight, or your circumstances in general, have a significant influence on your happiness (because they don’t!). This realization can help us decrease time and emotional energy spent on activities and pursuits that are fruitless. This realization can also help decrease all the comparisons we make between our own circumstances and those of others. The second part of the solution is to focus instead on the remaining 40% of the pie that is within our volitional control.
As mentioned earlier, the remaining 40% of the pie of happiness is described by Lyubormirsky as intentional activities. This is the part of our experience where we can really exert some influence and feel empowered! To feel empowered and experience an enhanced sense of well-being, we should create and engage in activities in our life that center on our values. Lyubormirsky offers several chapters worth of ideas that are valuable to explore as you start your own journey to cultivate more happiness in your life. But to explore this succinctly, what do you really want your life to be about? Are there values that have been neglected due to all the time and effort spent on changing your circumstances (perceived beauty or otherwise)? Are there values you have that you wish you spent more time pursuing?
Some ideas include (but are not limited to) values such as family, friends, spirituality, service, physical health, and talents. It can also include skills you can build or sharpen such as setting meaningful goals, learning meditation, forgiveness, practicing gratitude. Learning coping strategies to manage life’s difficulties, or practicing changing your thought patterns to be more adaptive and positive. This process of exploring your values and identifying new skills to develop can be fun and rewarding. As you focus your emotional energy and efforts in this important piece of the happiness pie, you feel free from the manipulative lies of ideal beauty and you will feel enhanced happiness, connection and well-being.
Diener, E., Wolsic, B., and Fujita, F. (1995). Physical attractiveness and subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 120-29.
Lyubomirksy, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want. Penguin books. New York City, NY.
Meyer, B., Enstrom, M., Harstveit, M., Bowles, D., and Beevers, C. (2007). Happiness and despair on the catwalk: Need for satisfaction, well-being, and personality adjustment among fashion models. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2, 2-17.