Equation that turned everything I thought I knew about happiness on its head

Cass Dunn’s book came into my life at the perfect time.

When I picked it up earlier this year, I was in the throes of the ‘January blues’. To set the scene: The Christmas holidays had just come to a close, which meant saying goodbye to family and friends; goodbye to long, balmy summer evenings – and hello to routine.

Then, like a much-needed tonic, Crappy to Happy landed on my desk, shamelessly dangling in front of me my ‘best life’ in ‘simple steps’. Needless to say, I was intrigued.

The happiness equation

In essence, the book proposes each of us is born with a happiness ‘set point,’ which accounts for 50% of our overall happiness. This is, for the most part, out of our hands and a product of our genetics. In other words, best not to dwell. But it does explain why some people are more prone to buoyant optimism than others.

On the other hand, our circumstances – the job, the car, the 5-star seaside holiday in a French villa with a Ryan Reynolds look-alike – make up an additional 10%; leaving 40%, which unlike the others, comes down to our conscious thoughts and practices, Dunn insists.

It’s a sobering thought really, given most of us, this writer included, assume happiness is to be found in some foreign (usually, just-out-of-reach) place or circumstance: The Job, The One, The Beach Bod. Most of us are probably guilty for lusting after something, wistfully telling ourselves some variation of ‘I’ll finally be happy when… ‘. However, if Dunn is to believed (which I am convinced she is, by the way), in reality these things make up a measly tenth of our happiness.

What is happiness?

Speaking down the phone from her Sunshine Coast home, Dunn tells me, in the cheerful tone you would expect from a happiness expert, how she first became interested in happiness psychology while working as a life coach, a job primarily built on helping people nail down and achieve their goals. It was then, she recalls, that she became “constantly struck” by how many clients were fixing their happiness to said goals: “I was like, hang on, this is backwards, we have to learn to be happy now and deeply content with where we are, otherwise we do run that risk of always looking for the next thing.” Dunn even has a name for this: the ‘hedonic treadmill’, which is psych-speak for always never quite feeling satisfied with what we have in the present day or moment.

For better or for worse (depending on your set point), this grass-is-greener mentality is largely out of our control and comes down to our biological instincts, Dunn says. “We have evolved to grow and strive and achieve, so we set goals and this is why we’re all drawn to personal development,” Dunn explains. But at what cost? Dunn warns that by constantly putting off this so-called True Happiness (whatever that is) day after day after day, we are in very real danger of it never arriving. “We humans also very quickly adapt to our circumstances, so as soon as you do achieve the next thing that becomes the new normal and suddenly that doesn’t feel so good anymore so we are already looking for the next thing, and then we are looking for the next thing, and we can very easily stay on that treadmill if we’re not mindful of, yes, have a goal but let us be very present and appreciative of where we are right now.” Put simply, we are the dog and our happiness is the tail.

Happiness as gratitude

So if boujee holidays and Chanel bags won’t help our quest for contentment, what will? I put this to Dunn, who tells me the scientific evidence lands overwhelmingly in favour of a single, well-preached, practise: gratitude.

“There is loads of research to support and, to be honest, it’s just the fastest way to turn around a crappy mood, when you’re feeling shitty about something, remembering what you’re grateful for can just snap you straight out of it,” she insists. “Taking time out every day in some capacity to reflect whether it’s a gratitude journal, spending a moment to go inwardly about what you appreciate each day, writing letters of gratitude or thanking people – I don’t think we do that enough anymore.”

Happiness as mindfulness

Another thing: Dunn is also a strong advocate for some form of mindfulness or meditation, or even just taking time out each day (“The ripple effect can be really profound”). The point is not to sit and be quiet for 10 minutes, she points out, but to “become more aware of those habits of mind and tendencies to jump to judgement” and to cultivate the ability to notice our autopilot reactions so we become a little less caught up in it. And if you have time to scroll Instagram or pour that wine after a long, you have time to meditate, she adds.

“We tend to seek the escape from the pressure by doing things that are not necessarily supporting our well-being and our productivity and health and happiness in the long-term. There is always a choice how we spend that time and sometimes we take the easy option that feels like a short term feel good but long term not really supporting us to live our best live. I’m not saying stay off social media, I’m saying let’s be aware of how much time we are frittering away while telling ourselves we don’t have the time to spend on our well-being.”

Admittedly, I can’t remember the last time I wrote down what I was grateful for or took 10 minutes to meditate – yet, I am well acquainted with wasting time on social media and reaching for the the comfort of a crisp glass of rosé come 5pm.

But Dunn now has me convinced of the benefits of these things, not to mention, questioning whether the things I thought would make me happy, really, truly would.

Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong places: an overseas holiday, a promotion, a toned belly. Maybe all along, it’s been closer than I thought: in those 10 minutes of calm in the morning, remembering everything I already have.

Crappy to Happy (Hardie Grant) is available now.

Jessica Rapana is the acting editor of Body+Soul, follow her on Instagram and Twitter.