Being Happy: Enjoyable Activities Beat Improved Life Circumstances

Engaging in new activities increases our happiness more than an improvement in our circumstances.


[Photo by tookie]

Being happy and staying happy is all about our day-to-day activities according to this theory of sustainable happiness. Research suggests that the contributions to our happiness are 50% genetic, 10% from our life circumstances and fully 40% determined by our day-to-day activities. But what evidence is there for this theory?

One prediction from this theory is that engaging in new activities should increase our happiness more than an improvement in our circumstances. This is exactly what Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2006) tested in three related studies.

New activities vs. new circumstances

Two different signs were put up around a university campus asking for participants. One asked for participants who had recently seen an improvement in their circumstances while another asked for those who had recently taken up a new activity.

The study also tested how much these changes had been affected by hedonic adaptation (see sustainable happiness post) and variety. This was to make the comparison fair, so that both groups had not yet adapted to their new circumstances or activity and it was still providing variety – both factors thought important in sustainable happiness.

The results showed that those who had recently engaged in a new activity felt happier than those whose circumstances had improved. This provides some preliminary evidence but data collected over a period of time (longitudinal) is more convincing, so that is what Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2006) did in their second study.

Here they recruited participants in the same way but this time measured their happiness at three time-points. The results again supported the theory with the effects of improved circumstances increasing happiness, but the boost from a new activity being more lasting. Finally a third study along the same lines also found similar results.

The power of randomisation

A problem with both these studies is that participants in both groups were self-selected. This creates problems for the interpretation of the results. For example, perhaps the type of people who take up new activities are also prone to stay happier for longer periods. If that is the case the results aren’t really showing the benefits of activities over circumstances.

This is exactly why experiments using random allocation to groups are so useful for psychologists. Once people have been randomly allocated to groups, the counter-argument about self-selection is ruled out.

Sheldon and Lyubomirsky are, therefore, currently carrying out a study with random allocation which will soon be published (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2007). Early indications bode well for their theory as the results support their previous studies. So, it looks like their previous results are not the result of self-selection.

Activities win

These studies emphasise that new, enjoyable activities have more potential for making us happy than improvements in our circumstances. Indeed activities may have as much as four times more power to make us happy.


Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). Achieving sustainable gains in happiness: Change your actions, not your circumstances. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 55-86.

Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). Activities last and circumstances fade: An experimental study of the effects of two types of life-change upon sustainable new well-being. Manuscript in preparation.

Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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