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The Law of Happiness
Written By Dr. Henry Cloud
Dr. Henry Cloud is one of the leading psychologists in America. He's written over 20 books that have sold over six million copies, has been a guest on CNN and the Fox News Channel, and has written articles for the New York Times, LA Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He co-hosts the nationally syndicated radio program, "New Life Live."
How many of you are happy? Let me see your hands. Good. If you're not happy, then we're going to talk about what science says about the source of happiness. If you are happy, we're going to show you what science says about why you're experiencing happiness so you can make it a path. That's where we are headed in this message.
A number of years ago, the then-president of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Martin Seligman, made a call to the profession. He said that, for a hundred years, we've been a bunch of downers. We study depression, and anxiety, and addictions, and we know how to treat people with these conditions; we know how to help. However, what we haven't done enough is to research and take a scientific approach to figuring out why people are happy. Why are people happy? If they're not, are there things that we can learn that actually cause happiness that =people can learn to do? That was the charge.
What happened after Dr. Seligman's charge was that the profession, over the last decade, conducted much research on happiness and wellbeing and thriving. Though there certainly is more to be discovered, we now have a robust body of research that shows what it is that makes people happy. And what I'm going to do is to share some of those findings with you this morning.
The reason I entitled my newest book "The Law of Happiness," was that when I got into this research and I began to study it, as a Christian, all I can say was I was born again…again. Because, when I saw the scientific research, what the science validated repeatedly about the things that make people happy that is exactly what the law of God has described all along: Our Creator designed us to operate in certain ways. Those ways are described in all of His laws and statutes and scriptures. So, when we look at the scientific research, it works exactly as the Designer said it would. I'm going to share a little bit about that today so you can see how science and faith say exactly the same thing because they always do. Good faith and good science always meet in this incredible reality of life that God has created. That's where we're headed.
Okay, so what does this research say? The first big thing before we go into the particulars is the umbrella finding. This is the big news. Only ten percent of our happiness comes from anything circumstantial. In other words, whether we're sick or healthy, rich or poor, get the house we want or don't, live in the neighborhood we want or don't, get the relationship we want or not, get the job we want or not, or whatever it is, we humans tend to think, if we could have what we want, that would bring us happiness. Yet, that's not what the research shows.
The study looked at cultures all over the world; they looked at rich people and poor people. The findings showed that, once basic security needs are taken care of and people are safe, no matter what we get from the outside, here's what happens: We get about a ten percent bump in our happiness, similar to a honeymoon period. Then the new car smell goes away, or the ether wears off, and we return to something that the scientists refer to as a set point inside of who we are as a person. It shows that our happiness doesn't come from the things on the outside, but it's something that we bring to those circumstances. If we're an unhappy person and we get married, and then we have a honeymoon period, we're probably going to be an unhappy person who's married. If a normally unhappy person acquires more wealth, eventually that person will become an unhappy person who makes a lot of money. It all goes back to who we are on the inside. Science has shown this result over and over and over, that external things can't bring us happiness in the long term.
My dad used to tell me, "Son, don't ever think money will buy you happiness. But it will buy you a big red Cadillac to go look for it in." That was his advice, and that's what the research shows. So, if it's not all the things that everybody is striving for. You know, men are only one gadget away from happiness at any point, right? If it's not all the stuff we're striving for, then what is it?
Here's what the research shows: Ten percent of us is affected by whatever is going on. The remaining ninety percent of who we are is divided into two parts. The first big chunk is our constitutional makeup, our temperament, how we're wired, what we get from our genes and early developmental experiences. It's our makeup, our temperament.
Have you ever gone into a hospital nursery where some of the newborns appear happy with life? They haven't been here very long, but everything's good. Then you see this other set of babies, the future attorneys of the world. They're ready for a fight already, and they're not happy. They can learn happiness, but they don't start out with that kind of temperament.
What they also find is that, no matter what the group is and no matter what our constitutional makeup is, the next big chunk of factors that determines if we're going to be happy or not has to do with a basic set of life practices. That's what they find. It's not the new car, job, or relationship. Some of it is our temperament, but there is also this whole big chunk that comes from life practices. Happy people live their lives in a different way than unhappy people do. Now, if you have a clinical depression or some kind of illness, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm not talking about the diagnosable clinical depression, because we can treat that, and depressed people can get un-depressed. But un-depressed people can still be unhappy people. What we're talking about is life.
So what does this chunk of life practices look like? In my book, The Law of Happiness, I talk about 12 or 13 of these. This morning, we'll have a chance to focus on just a few of them. I want to let you see how the basic design of life, designed by God, is available for all of us when we begin to live it in the way that it was designed. So, what does this look like?
Number one: HAPPY PEOPLE CONNECT. What this means is that you and I were designed for relationship. Science has shown that your brain runs primarily on about three things: oxygen, glucose, and relationships. The brain needs oxygen going to it to work, and it needs the body to get food for it to work. What we also know is that, even from birth, you can feed and give water to a little baby, and if they're breathing but they're not loved, if they're not connected with others, the literal hard wiring in their brains does not form. If you later take pictures of the brains of children who have not been loved, who have not bonded with others, and haven't connected with others, they have literal black spots, dark spots where there's supposed to be gray matter; there's just nothing there; the wiring is absent.
What the research finds is that connected people have very different lives from those who are not. They recover from illness much faster. If somebody has a heart attack or a stroke, and they're in a support group where they process the experience, the incidence of second heart attack or stroke is much less. If they have a terminal illness, the quality of life and the length of time they have after diagnosis is much better. Their immune systems are better. They reach their goals better. They have less clinical problems. They have happier marriages. And on and on and on.
Being connected doesn't necessarily include those people around us, like in the office or even at home. Sometimes some of the most disconnected places can actually be in homes, because they're missing the vital ingredient that the Bible tells us about repeatedly - that we have a need for one another. God has created us not only to be gathered together, but also to have our hearts knitted together in love. There's only one way to do that is to begin to get vulnerable. We must need each other and support one another, especially in the hard times.
Let me illustrate how this works with your body. In one of the most important ways, your whole system changes when you're connected under stress. One of my favorite studies was where they took a monkey and put him in a cage. They would scare him, shaking the cage, and flashing lights at him. At that point, they'd take a baseline reading of the stress hormones in his brain. Now, if you are feeling sorry for the monkey, know that it gets better. Now, after they took this stress reading, they would do one thing. They didn't give him a valium or a Xanax, they didn't give him a beer or drugs, and they didn't give him a box of chocolates. What they did was to give him a buddy. They opened the door, put the second monkey in the cage, and closed the door. They continued the flashing lights and noise and shaking. They continued to scare him. But he had another monkey in the cage. Then they drew blood again and they measured the chemistry, and the stress hormones. What they found was that, because he had his buddy in the cage with him, his stress level dropped in half.
The most important thing that you can ever do in business, as a team, as a company, as a family, as a single person in life is to make sure you have your monkeys in the cage with you. And this has to be proactive. We have to make sure we have time set aside to make sure that we're telling everybody about the flashing lights and the cymbals and the stresses. If you do that, they could measure you over time in the degree of health and thriving and wellness, and if you were increasing connection, your levels would be drastically different. So, get connected.
Number two: HAPPY PEOPLE ARE GIVERS. In the Bible, it says, "It's more blessed to give than to receive." That's what science finds, as well. You are wired by God in such a way that, similar to your heart, you have two pipes coming in and two pipes going out. Your heart is supposed to be receiving and it's supposed to be giving. And that's how God has wired us. What they find when they do the research is that givers' health, immune system, functioning, and moods, improve when life is about pouring ourselves into the service of loved ones and communities and our businesses and our God. It changes you. Your physiology changes because you're wired to give.
I learned the reality of this in a very personal way one morning. My oldest daughter would have been about three and a half or so at the time and she was going off to preschool. She's 11 now. We had been talking about giving, and I said, "Olivia, let's try something. At preschool today, why don't you share something with one of your friends, see how it goes, and come back and we'll talk about it."
So, later on that day I said to her, "So, how did it go?"
And she said, "Well, I had a cookie and I looked over and Suzie didn't have a cookie. So, I took mine, broke it in half, and gave it to her. That's what I did."
I said, "Livie, that's great! That's exactly what we're talking about." I thought, lesson learned, we can move on.
Then she looks up at me with those eyes and she says, "Daddy?"
I said, "What?"
And she said, "What is it?"
I said, "What's what, Livie?"
She said, "What is it in here?" And she pointed to her little chest.
I said, "I don't understand, Livie. What?"
She said, "Daddy, what is it in here? In here?"
I said, "What are you talking about?"
She said, "When I gave the cookie to the girl, it felt really warm inside here. What is that?"
I was about to lose it. I said, "That's love, Livie. That's how God made us. When we're sharing, it changes how we feel inside." And before I really lost it, I said, "Actually, it's because the serotonin and other neurochemistry, things that you don't understand, begin to…" I turn into the scientist, right? But, it was true that, not only does research show this, what else happens is we experience it when we do it. So, think about this as you pursue happiness, that part of the path has to be in giving.
The third one element of happiness is that HAPPY PEOPLE HAVE GOALS. I wish I could talk about this one for a long time today. We don't have very much time, but I'll tell you that, when they study people, they find that there are parts of the brain that are activated when you have a goal. When you're moving toward a goal, the brain anticipates the goals and it measures the gaps between where we are and where we want to be. Then, it marshals forces to get us going. As we accomplish goals, a lot of stuff begins to happen. If it's a positive, intrinsic goal, and you have a purpose, as we open up to and anticipate something positive, then in the neurotransmitters dopamine begins to fire, and you begin to change. Purposeful life begins to have meaning. It increases our happiness when we have lifetime goals, and a yearly goal, and a monthly goal, and even a daily goal. When I go to bed tonight, I want to make sure I've accomplished my goals. What we find is, when we have goals, performance improves, moods improve, and health improves.
My youngest daughter, who by nature is a right-brain artist; she always lives more in today than tomorrow. When she started school, around six years old and learning to read, it was difficult to get her to read the next thing. At that point, she liked to get the book, see the pictures, and just get lost in all of it.
At that time, I was trying to push her down the road to reading a little bit. So, every Sunday afternoon or evening, we would have a family meeting where we would talk about our goals for the week, what we wanted to achieve that week. Each week we would try to stretch our goals to be a little harder. This particular week, Lucy said, "Dad, I'm going to read ten books." At the time, I was dying, struggling, trying to get her to read just one and she says she's going to read ten.
I said, "Luce, you're not going to read ten books. You can't even read one. We have to get a realistic goal. How about two?
She said, "No, Dad, I'm going to read ten." I saw I wasn't going to win this, so to teach her a lesson that your goals have to be realistic, I said, "All right, fine, read ten, that's fine. I'm going on a trip for a few days. When I come back, we'll see how you've done." I leave thinking there's no way that she's even going to get the first one read, because her goals were too much!
So, I come back, walk in the door, and the whole family is standing there. I can tell something's up. They nudged my daughter and I said, "Luce, what?"
"Dad, I read 14 books!"
"Fourteen books? You're kidding me."
"Yeah!" She told me how she did it, and how much she read each day. We had the biggest celebration. I'll tell you why this happened. It was because she set that goal. She broke through that initial period of where it's tough, because goals aren't easy. In fact, research shows that difficult goals are more often reached than simple goals. My daughter broke through the difficulty because she had set a goal, and now that girl is a reader. She reads all the time. Every time we go to bed at night, she's reading. It was so exciting and you could see God's wiring in her begin to happen.
The following Monday night, I was tucking her in and we said our prayers. Then I said, "Lucy, I have a problem."
She said, "What?"
I said, "I can't work. I went to work today, but I couldn't work."
She said, "Why?"
I said, "Because I'm trying to work and I'm trying to concentrate and all I can think about is the fact that Lucy read 14 books!" I'm jumping up and down.
She said, "Dad, you must calm down."
I said, "What?"
She said, "You have to take that thought and put it back here because your work is very important. You have to take that thought about the books and put it back here so you can work. Your work, it has to come from your core." I'm thinking that this six year old has too much psychology in her head already. But goals are important.
I'll close with is this: What the research finds is that HAPPY PEOPLE HAVE A FAITH ORIENTATION. Faith increases happiness. We have this chip inside of us that gets activated when we're involved in the spiritual life with God. Faith is a life changer and there are all sorts of measures for this, from improvement in health and wellness and all sorts of stuff. Faith orientation changes who we are, exactly as the Bible says it does, because we were designed not only for relationships with monkeys but for relationships with God.
My father, when he was 40 years old, almost dropped dead in a theater. He was way overweight. He had started a company and gotten really busy. The stress was so great that he passed out. They took him to the hospital. The doctors said, "It's your heart and you have about six months to live. Get your affairs in order." He went from there to another hospital where they studied his condition for about a month. They came back with their findings, saying, "Nothing's wrong with your heart, but you are going to die if you don't change your life practices." They warned him, "You have to get rid of this stress."
My dad told me that he changed a lot in his life and one of the things was to make a deeper commitment to his faith. He started a practice every day of arriving home from the office at 5:30 p.m. to sit in his chair, praying to God, "Lord, all of this stuff I'm doing and worried about, I'm going to give it to You." And he put it into the lap of God. Then he would read something from the scriptures reassuring him about God's provision. He walked with God every day. A few years ago, we buried my dad at 94. His life, along with my mother, was a life practice of giving and serving in faith.
I know that there are many people who give and serve in faith, and still calamity comes. We know that. And life is not long for everyone. However, we do know this - that our quality of life and our happiness is enhanced by the life practices in which we engage, in the way God has designed us for whatever our time is here on earth. God instructs us. Science proves it. God bless you all.