The Science of Happiness

Although genetics help determine your sense of well being, life choices and goals play an important part as well.

yellow-balloon
Photo by Christopher Griffith

Measuring happiness is a tricky business. Still, that hasn’t stopped individuals and institutions from trying to gauge how happy people are in an attempt to determine what it is exactly that brings joy. Most recently, British prime minister David Cameron proposed polling residents of the United Kingdom about their subjective well-being on an annual basis. Cameron hopes that by collecting this data, he can help the UK population thrive—perhaps even more than by improving the country’s financial standing. As Cameron said, “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB—general well-being.”

There’s a societal (in addition to an individual) benefit to making sure people are happy: Happiness is a cornerstone of productivity. Countless studies have shown that those with a skip in their step typically have better jobs, are evaluated more positively by their bosses, and make more money. They are also more charitable and more satisfied with their marriages, and they have stronger immune systems. These findings raise a couple of questions, though. First off: Does happiness cause all those terrific things to happen, or is it the other way around? Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of The How of Happiness (Penguin, $16, amazon.com), wondered this, too. So in 2005 she and her research team reviewed approximately 250 studies conducted over the previous 25 years and determined that, lo and behold, being happy brings you great things. The second question: Exactly how high on life do you need to be to reap these rewards? (Do you have to be a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10, or is being a 7 sufficient?) In this case, no one really knows. Happiness is extremely subjective, says Tal Ben-Shahar, a professor of psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center, in Herzliya, Israel, and the author of Being Happy (McGraw-Hill, $18, amazon.com). What constitutes radiant joy for one person might not even rate as a good mood for another.

What the experts do know is that you can increase your sense of happiness, no matter where you happen to fall on the emotional spectrum. And that’s a fairly new discovery. Scientists used to believe that people had a genetically predetermined happiness “set point” and could do little to alter it. One illustrative case: In a widely publicized University of Minnesota study conducted by psychology professor David Lykken in 1996, Lykken concluded, “It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller.”

But recent research has largely disproved that idea. A study of 60,000 adults, published in 2009 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that genes were responsible for only a portion of a person’s sense of well-being. “Life goals and choices have as much or more impact on happiness,” wrote researcher Bruce Headey, an associate professor and a principal fellow atthe Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, in Australia. Lyubomirsky takes it one step further: Of the approximately 50 percent of our happiness that isn’t biologically driven, she says, 10 percent is connected to life circumstances (you’re beautiful, say, or uniquely talented). But that leaves 40 percent unaccounted for—and up to us to shape.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t guarantee much in terms of jump-starting joy. As Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of Stumbling on Happiness (Vintage, $16, amazon.com), notes, most of us don’t always know what makes us happy. This is largely due to a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation: After an initial rush, we quickly adapt to whatever it is we think will make us happier and soon begin to take it for granted, at which point it no longer brings contentment. “For example, when you step into an air-conditioned room on a hot and humid day, you feel spectacular,” says Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and a coauthor of Practical Wisdom (Riverhead, $27, amazon.com). “But after about five minutes, it’s simply what it is: comfortable, but no longer pleasurable.” The same principle holds true for money. We think the more we have, the happier we’ll be. But this is not the case. David Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan, found that there is little correlation between cash and contentment (for most Americans, there’s not much emotional benefit to earning more than $75,000 a year, according to a recent study).The same holds for a dream date or a coveted job. One study followed high-level managers for five years and found that while voluntarily changing jobs brought a quick increase in satisfaction, that emotional high dissipated within the year.

 

The secret to manipulating the 40 percent of happiness that is within your control lies in other, nonmaterial areas. There are several frequently cited and easy ways to tip the happiness scales in your favor: One, repeat behaviors that have made you happy in the past, such as going on a ski trip with friends or taking the scenic route home from the grocery store. Two, immerse yourself in whatever you’re doing. (This is a state psychologists refer to as flow—you get caught up in something that feels bigger than yourself while staying present in the moment.) And, three, do something that serves a larger purpose, whether it’s a job you find meaningful or volunteer work in the community. “Doing good can make you feel good,” says Schwartz.

Gretchen Rubin is living proof that you can boost your happiness levels. One rainy afternoon a few years ago, she realized that though she had a good life and was fairly happy, she knew she could feel better and appreciate life more. So she decided to dedicate the next year to making herself happy—and to write about it in what became a best seller, The Happiness Project (Harper, $26, amazon.com). In January, she cleared her cluttered closets. The RealSimple.com blogger then tackled nagging tasks, like going to a dermatologist for a skin check. In June, she vowed to focus on friends. She willed herself to meet three new people in every new situation, and she used a computer program to remember friends’ birthdays. By the year’s end, she truly felt happier.

Rubin couldn’t alter her genetic predisposition for happiness; none of us can. But she did ratchet up her levels of happiness by changing her everyday behaviors. And while these tweaks may seem inconsequential at the time you’re doing them, they can make a lasting and meaningful impact on your well-being. If that’s not reason enough to smile, what is?


Leslie Pepper is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in health.