There has been a lot of talk about a global, multi-year study "The Decline in Female Happiness" that indicates that women's happiness has declined over the past 30 years and that, as we get older, women get sadder. In response to Marcus Buckingham's recent posts and the book he just released this week, people have debated what the data means and why women are increasingly unhappy.
Although the data and the debates surrounding it are fascinating and important, the research we did for our book, What Happy Working Mothers Know (Wiley, September 2009), focused on how women have been able to make choices that moved them from unhappy to happy. We surveyed and interviewed over 1000 working mothers, many of whom describe themselves as happy. Our goal was to understand what made them happy despite the pressures, tragedies and setbacks of life. What we found was inspiring largely because it is so attainable for everyone. We added to our original research, the work of many positive psychologists who have demonstrated that happiness has a direct impact on our health and our performance in everything we do.
Happiness is a science. Research has shown that 50% of happiness is genetic. If you've ever met people who seem happy all the time no matter what, you're probably right that they are. Even if you were not born genetically happy, you influence the remaining 50% of your happiness. According to model created by Dr. Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of "The Happiness Hypothesis" (Basic, 2005), happiness is the sum of your genetic happiness set point (50%), your circumstances (10%) and your voluntary activities (40%). If you consider that you choose how you react to circumstances such as an illness in the family or a job loss, you control 50% of your happiness.
If happiness is a science, it can be taught and learned. Just like we cultivate good health through a healthy diet, exercise, getting enough sleep and drinking enough water, we can cultivate happiness by being aware and disciplined in the way we spend our time and energy. Both time and energy are finite and mothers, particularly working mothers tend to have far more demands than their time and energy can address. They are tips and tools for becoming aware of where you are spending your time and energy and then how to preserve some for yourself. Even a small change in your routine, such as making time each week to spend with someone who gives you energy or taking a few minutes a day to meditate, can make a positive difference in your happiness.
Guilt is probably the biggest obstacle to happiness for mothers in the US. We try to live up to an impossible standard -- of being "perfect" mothers while we excel at our work and look beautiful and young every day. It's exhausting and wasteful. When we focus on what is truly important to us and shut out the noise and expectations of others, we find that we can be good mothers and good at the others things that we truly value. Guilt really is a waste of time and energy.
No matter where you are in your life, you can learn to be happy. It takes self awareness, some tools and guidance and the discipline to make decisions that will get you on the path to your happiness. Because happiness leads to better physical health, better mental health and higher performance at work and at home, the best thing you can do for your loved ones is to make yourself happy. Happiness is not a luxury, it is a necessity and we should start treating it that way.