Actualized Leadership: Happiness

Actualized Leadership: Happiness

Happiness is not a goal, it’s a by-product.
Eleanor Roosevelt

Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it.
Viktor Frankl

Chase away the demons, and they will take the angels with them.
Joni Mitchell

After our last blog that explored FEAR I thought it appropriate to examine what is often on the other side of fear and vulnerability: tranquility, serenity, and happiness.  Rather than thinking of happiness as a goal unto itself, we should think of it as an outcome of living at our fullest potential, which often requires risk, vulnerability, and courage.  The purpose of this blog is to explore and define happiness, to examine the genetics or DNA of happiness (and estimate your happiness set point), and to discuss ways to increase your overall sense of happiness and satisfaction.

Happiness Defined

The word happiness comes from the Old Norse word “happ” which means good luck and fortune.  Although happiness has historically been thought of as something that happens to you, we now know scientifically that a significant portion of happiness – roughly 50% – is based on how you think, what you feel, and what you do.  And although there are many characteristics that are often associated with happiness, such as sensual pleasures, serenity, and flourishing, we will focus on the straightforward definition of feeling primarily positive emotions during one’s lifetime.

Happiness Set Point

Dr. Pierce Howard has conducted seminal research into this question of happiness, and the role that personality plays in feeling happy.  In “The Owner’s Manual for Happiness” Dr. Howard’s research states that to a certain degree, personality determines happiness.  His findings suggest that individuals who tend to be more extroverted (e.g., outgoing, talkative, energized in a group or social setting, etc.) and less reactive (e.g., calm, serene, slow to anger, etc.) have a greater happiness “set point,” meaning that all things equal, they are happier than the rest of us.  Are you more extroverted or introverted?  Are you slow to anger, or reactive?  Take heed because to a certain degree, your personality traits dictate your overall sense of happiness.

In “The How of Happiness,” Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that roughly one half of our happiness is determined by genetics or our personality “set point.”  The other half is determined by our thoughts and actions (40%) and by life circumstances (e.g., wealth, possessions, family relationships, etc.), which determine the remaining 10%.  Her major finding is that we tend to focus almost exclusively on the 10%, when, in fact, we would be much happier if we put that time and energy into the other 40% – what we think about ourselves and others, how we feel, and the patterns of behavior and habits that dictate our lives.

In his book “The Five Things We Cannot Change” David Richo reminds us that the “Rules of Life” apply to all of us, not just an unfortunate few.  The five rules are: Everything Changes And Ends, Things Do Not Always Go According To Plan, Life Is Not Always Fair, Pain Is A Part Of Life, and People Are Not Loving And Loyal All The Time.  Richo suggests that while we must internalize these “rules,” we must view them as natural, not personal.  Then, and only then, when we accept and embrace the Rules of Life, can we experience true and lasting happiness.

Research has conclusively demonstrated that there are very specific things we can do to be happier.  Expressing gratitude, nurturing social relationships, forgiving others, experiencing flow, practicing religious, spiritual, or meditation practices, and regular physical activity are all related to greater happiness.  There are several previous blogs devoted to these topics, and they follow:




Many of these activities require some degree of self-control and delayed gratification.  Author Ed Yong has a wonderful definition of self-control:  Self-control is just empathy with your future self.  Think about that for a moment; you are forgoing immediate gratification (e.g., another beer, etc.) in order to achieve a longer-term sense of happiness (e.g., better health [and no hangover tomorrow], etc.) for your future self.

There are some immediate behaviors we can and should do to cultivate happiness: Eat less, exercise more, get out of bed when we don’t want to, drink less alcohol, and drink more water.  We can also express gratitude and thankfulness.  And when we remember that “life becomes easier when you learn to accept an apology you never got,” we can effectively make the powerful connection between forgiveness and happiness.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl reminds us that when we find meaning in our suffering, it ceases to be suffering.  Said another way, having a sense of meaning and purpose is absolutely critical for our long-term happiness.  He also said that too many of us ask the question: What do I want from life?  Frankl suggested that the only way to find lasting happiness was to ask yourself:  What does life require from me?  What am I called to do?

What is life calling you to do?

Are you heeding this call or ignoring it?

Will you get up tomorrow when you don’t want to, before you have to, to exercise, pray or meditate?

Or, will you “snooze” through another day that is calling?


  1. Josh Bigham

    What a very insightful article! I was especially enlightened by the breakdown of how our happiness is determined. I would like to look into this topic more. You mentioned several authors. Which one would be your first recommendation? Thank you.

    • Dr Will Sparks

      Thank you Josh. I would recommend two books: Dr. Pierce Howard’s “The Owner’s Manual for Happiness” and completing his “Workplace Big 5” personality that will help you determine your “Happiness Set Point,” and also the “How of Happiness” … both are excellent resources!

      • Josh Bigham

        Thanks Will for the recommendations. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

        • Dr Will Sparks

          Thank you Josh – Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  2. Kristi Calderwood

    Perfect timing on the article – I was just listening to the tail end of Michael Singer’s Book this morning, The Untethered Soul, and He was relaying the same message: “Regardless of your philosophical beliefs, the fact remains that you were born and you are going to die. During the time in between, you get to choose whether or not you want to enjoy the experience. Events don’t determine whether or not you’re going to be happy. They’re just events. You determine whether or not you’re going to be happy.” To me – this most clostly aligns with David Richo’s view in your post and how things are going to happen – it’s just a part of life and we can choose how we want to embrace that moment. What I find most interesting is the genetics view by Sonja Lyubomirsky, especially given the struggles I see for some people close to me to be happy. I definately will be picking up that book. Thanks Will!

    • Dr Will Sparks

      Thank you Kristi … I think it’s important to realize the underlying structure of happiness (part genetic, part our attitude/thoughts/actions) so we can focus our improvement efforts in areas that will really make a difference!

  3. Samar H.

    This topic resonated with me to a great degree; so much that I have shared the blog it with many friends and family members!

    So nice (and rare) to read something so meaningful and cohesive!

    • Dr Will Sparks

      Thank you very much Samar – I sincerely appreciate your kind feedback, and wish you all the best this Holiday Season.


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