Here’s a really fascinating TED talk by Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness. His main point is that our happiness is primarily dependent on how we think about our life, vs. what’s happening in our lives. I’ve always thought this was true, and noticed it in my own life, but I didn’t really have the data to support it. The great thing about Dan’s talk, for me, is that he makes the scientific case.

It turns out that we’re able—as Dan says—to ‘synthesize’ happiness; we have a “psychological immune system” that’s set up to allow us to experience happiness almost without regard to our specific circumstances. One truly compelling piece of data he offers: lottery winners and paraplegics, one year after the event (either winning the lottery or losing the use of their legs) report nearly identical levels of happiness.

Gilbert doesn’t really go into one further implication of this, the one I find most interesting: the fact that some people take better advantage of this human ability to ‘synthesize happiness’ than others. And there are real and substantial benefits for doing that. A good deal of research has been done about optimism, showing that those who make effort to find hope and possibility in their circumstances (e.g., synthesize happiness), tend to be healthier, have better relationships, and live longer.

And Gilbert’s data supports this—people who report being happy even though they’re in difficult circumstances aren’t just ‘faking it’; they actually feel genuinely happy, and reap all the psychological and physiological benefits thereof. In other words, folks who find the potential to be happy in their lives aren’t just superficial Pollyannas…their will to happiness improves their experience of life.

This will toward happiness is very different from being in denial—that is, pretending that bad things aren’t happening, or refusing to feel anger, disappointment, anxiety, fear, or other emotions in response to difficult circumstances. When we’re using our ‘happiness capacity’ to its fullest extent, we’re accurate fair witnesses about our circumstances; we feel what we feel…and then we look for ways to move through the difficulties, learn from our failures, and re-find our happiness.

Being able to do this in situations both personal and professional is a hugely beneficial skill. When we can access our own power to find happiness in our lives, we become less dependent on specific outcomes for happiness—and therefore less motivated by fear or greed to do things that won’t ultimately serve us or others. Just believing that you can shift your own level of happiness is more than half the battle. Most often, people who are chronically unhappy believe that their unhappiness arises from their circumstances, and that they, therefore, have no control over it. Here’s a simple approach to increasing your level of happiness and satisfaction, regardless of the particulars of your life:

Find 3 positives: Sometimes we get into a ‘momentum of unhappiness’—where everything in our lives seems bad. You can often stop or reverse that momentum by acknowledging even a few things in your life that are good. A couple of months back, I was having a really bad day: I was tired and cranky, I’d just found out some tough news about a client, and it suddenly seemed overwhelming. I felt myself tipping into everything-is-bad mode. I stopped and asked myself, “What’s not bad?” The first three things that came to mind: my husband, my kids and grandkids, my health. Just remembering those enormous gifts in my life shifted my emotional state almost immediately.

Be a ‘fair witness’ of the negative: Another way we get ourselves enmeshed in unhappiness is by doing what psychologists call “catastrophizing”—that is, blowing up the difficult things in our lives to make them seem much worse than they actually are. For example, we don’t just say to ourselves, “I blew that presentation,” we say, “that was the worst screw-up ever, and I’m definitely getting fired.” Whenever you find yourself talking or thinking about something that’s happening in your life as though it’s the worst thing in the history of the world, take a minute to step back and ask yourself how bad it really is. You might ask, “One a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being somewhat uncomfortable, embarrassing or irritating, and 10 being career- threatening or life-threatening—how would I rate this circumstance?” You may be surprised how many “horrible” things are actually 2s or 3s when you look at them objectively.

Question your assumptions. Most people would assume that paraplegics are much less happy than lottery winners. But it turns out, as noted above, that assumption is wrong. We are often held hostage by our negative assumptions about our own situations. For instance, when my first marriage broke up about 6 years ago, I discovered there is a strong societal assumption that it takes years to get over the dissolution of a long-term marriage, and that woman, especially, have a hard time re-building their lives and finding happiness after such a break-up. I questioned that assumption on a daily basis. Every time someone said it to me, or I read it, or it came up inside my own head, I said to myself, “Is that really true? Does that have to be true?” It was extraordinarily empowering. And questioning your assumptions leads to the next step…

Revise your self-talk. I write and talk about this a lot, because it’s so powerful. And it’s at the core of Dan Gilbert’s message: we can talk to ourselves differently about our circumstances, once we’ve questioned our assumptions. A great example: two clients of mine recently got let go from their executive-level jobs, in very similar circumstances. One of them is deeply unhappy—mired in anger, sadness, and fear about the future. I know (because I’m trying to help him with this) that his self-talk—his mental monologue—goes something like this, “I can’t believe they did that to me, after all I gave that company. I was the only one making my numbers, but that didn’t matter, because I wasn’t a suck-up like everyone else. How can I possibly get another job like that, at my age? Everyone knows I was fired. It’s like I’m damaged goods. I’ve got two kids in college!” The other executive is talking to herself something like this, “It’s shocking and it makes me mad, for sure—the whole situation seems deeply unfair, given my performance. But I was pretty unhappy there, especially during the last year, and I’m relieved not to have to deal with that situation every day. I’m going to take this as an opportunity to find a company and a job where I can do great things and be rewarded for it.” Remember, these two people have nearly identical circumstances: but one’s self-talk is setting her up for happiness and future success, while the other’s self-talk is predicting (and more likely to be creating) unhappiness and failure.

Finally, surround yourself insofar as possible with people who are happy themselves and who support you to be happy. Being around people who are chronically unhappy—who can’t see the positives, who ‘catastrophize,’ who make negative assumptions about their lives and about life in general, who have (and verbalize) unsupportive and unhappy self-talk—will make it much more difficult for you to cultivate your own happiness. Don’t get me wrong: it’s important to have friends, family and colleagues who will accept and empathize with your initial venting and unhappiness when something difficult happens in your life. But then you want the folks around you to support you to move through those difficult emotions to re-find your happiness. In other words, have people in your life who will help you build your psychological immune system, rather than compromise it.

It’s powerful to realize that our happiness is largely in our control, rather than an artifact of some ideal set of external circumstances. Once you recognize that, you’re well on your way to a truly good life.