Seeker Series: Sarah Harmon Discusses the Psychology of Happiness

Written by: Rachel Poor, Content Strategist at Norbella

It’s that time of year when many of us reflect on the year prior and set goals, intentions, resolutions, etc. for the year to come.

In my own reflections on the past year I started to wonder about happiness. Am I happy? What does that even mean, anyway? It was in this reflection that I started a conversation with a friend and colleague who studies positive psychology. She studies happiness. What a great gig!

Sarah Harmon is a mental health therapist and yoga teacher in Boston. For the last nine years she has worked with both individuals and corporations, guiding self-inquiry and leading workshops on the science of happiness.

Rachel: How did you become a happiness expert?

Sarah: I have been particularly drawn to positive psychology, the area of happiness and the discussion of happiness for a while, even before I became a licensed therapist. I have a father who is a perpetual optimist and he’s always positive, so I think I’ve always been drawn to that type of attitude. When I became a therapist, I realized positive psychology was something I wanted to learn more about and integrate into my own clinical work. The more I learned, the more I became interested in the ownership that we can take over our happiness.

Rachel: So already we’ve used the word happy a lot, can we start there? What does that even mean? What does it mean to be happy?

Sarah: Great question and a very important one. Many of us have a goal of “being happy” and it can become an endless journey or quest chasing this goal. It’s important to remember that we’re human — so being happy ALL the time is unrealistic. We need to feel negative emotions in order to feel positive ones! With that said, we absolutely can take ownership of our own happiness. So back to the definition — I really like Sonja Lyubomirsky’s definition of happiness as it’s an umbrella term covering everything from contentment to euphoria.

Positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

When we say the word happy, many people automatically go to the place of euphoria like that image of someone jumping for joy on the beach, and the sunset, and everything is wonderful and beautiful. But that’s the extreme of happiness. We’ve been conditioned to think of happiness as euphoria, more often it looks like contentment.

Being happy is not just the emotions that come along with happiness, it’s also having a sense of meaning and purpose. This felt sense of purpose leads to more positive emotions and vice-versa.

“Research shows that fifty percent of your happiness is genetic.”

Rachel: I never really thought of contentment as equal to happiness. If someone were to ask me if I was happy, I’d never think to answer “yes, I’m content.”

Sarah: That’s a great point, many of us use being on cloud nine as a barometer of happiness. This is one of the perils of the Insta-culture, we are so influenced by what we see and especially on social media.

If I posted a picture of myself in a content place, just drinking my tea — no one would really care. It’s a lot of pressure for both the poster and the receiver, curate only the best parts of your life. However, we need to think about that neutral, contentment as a goal; not the peak of your vacation, or your day, etc.

To take this a step further, there is a something called affective forecasting. Humans predict how we will feel in a certain situation, and we’re actually very bad at it. This is the happiness list we’re all guilty of creating, the I’ll be happy when…I finish that deadline, I meet the right man/woman, I get the promotion, the list is endless. And then it happens, we reach that goal or milestone and we’re not struck with the euphoria we were expecting. We tend to over-emphasize the impact of the bigger events in our life and under-emphasize the smaller events. The small events in life often have a more significant impact and there isn’t as much expectation attached to them.

Rachel: How much control do we have over our own happiness? I mean, is being happy just a choice? I can decide when I wake up if I’m going to be happy or not today?

Sarah: Research shows that fifty percent of your happiness is genetic. We are all born with a happiness set point and while it’s hard to quantify that, there is something called the happiness scale, which includes a series questions to help you identify your set-point. There are four questions and you answer on a scale of 1–7, seven being very true. For example, I consider myself a very happy person.

The other side of that coin is the discussion around genetic expression. For example, if your genetic set point is on the lower end it’s ok because your environment/people around you can have a strong impact and help to express the more optimistic genes and help them thrive.

Rachel: OK, so you’re suggesting happiness is more nurture than nature?

Sarah: That’s what research is pointing to. Fifty percent is genetic, ten percent is circumstantial that’s the I’ll be happy when trap many of us fall into, and the other forty percent is completely up to you. We have the power to affect our own happiness by being intentional about everyday activities and habits we choose to engage in. Those can be actual physical habits, those could be thinking habits, etc. And within that forty percent there are multiple strategies we can use to improve our happiness score. Gratitude and mindfulness have the most research out there in terms of their impact on mood, and overall emotional and physical health. I consider mindfulness to be the backbone and most important practice of all. Without mindfulness, you can’t really practice the other ones well. Some of the other happiness cultivating strategies are: optimism, forgiveness, acts of kindness, self-compassion, and finding meaning in the things that don’t go well. It’s interesting to note that these intentional habits/practices aren’t rocket science, but Sonya has a great line — There’s a gap between what we know is good for us, and what we actually do.

Rachel: Wow, I had no idea there was so much behind happiness (laughs). Is it fair to say happiness is contagious?

Sarah: Absolutely! There is something called Limbic Resonance a fancy term for contagious energy. We all have those people in our lives, you know the Debbie Downers, those that are always complaining? It’s easy to catch that energy if you’re not aware, this is why mindfulness is really important, if we’re not aware of that person’s energy then we can easily get caught up in the negativity.

Rachel: This is really fascinating, I feel like we could talk about this for hours. Thank you so much for your time and sharing this wisdom and insight, it’s giving me a lot to think about/digest.

So before we conclude, what are a few things you recommend people do to increase their happiness levels?

Sarah: I love this stuff, it fascinates me too and I also could talk about this for hours (laughs). A few things to help boost your own happiness are:

  1. Take a moment to pause, take a deep breath, and jot down three things you’re grateful for. These could be people or something simple like the fact that you have on matching socks. Remember — we aren’t looking for the highlight reel events!
  2. Do something kind for someone else. Kindness is a gift that gives back exponentially. When we are on the hunt for helping others, the lens we see the world through changes. We are less caught up in our sh*& and it feels good to make others feel good!
  3. MOVE! Get out of your chair and do a stupid dance or some jumping jacks. Taking care of your body and getting exercise doesn’t need to mean going to the gym or doing a class. Think move more versus exercise more! A short walk or stretch can do wonders for a quick mood boost.

To learn more about Sarah and the science of happiness or to inquire about corporate wellness workshops you can find her on LinkedIn, Instagram or her website.

Rachel Poor is a Content Marketing Strategist at Norbella. Outside of the office she is a passionate outdoors enthusiast, board sport adventurer and yogi.

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