It’s one of the great paradoxes of life that we all want to be happy, yet so few of us seem to know exactly where happiness comes from. Happiness itself can be defined in many different ways, it may have all kinds of components, it may be a life’s work, or even no work at all, but we are, most of us, in pursuit of this elusive goal.
Psychologists have good and bad news about our search for happiness. The bad news is that we have essentially no control over 50% of our happiness levels. Happiness, like many of our other attributes is partially set by our genes. While these do interact to a certain extent with the environment, on a day-to-day basis this 50% can be considered immovable.
What about the other 50%? This is the start of the good news (almost).
First there are the overall circumstances of our lives, our ‘demographics’. This includes things like how much money we have, our education level, whether we live in rich or poor countries, how old we are, whether we are married or not and whether we are religious.
All of these factors have some relationship to happiness. For example, higher levels of education are associated with more happiness, as is higher age and even being married (I know, I know!).
These are all factors which, generally speaking, are difficult to change. Granted, it is easier to get married than it is to become younger, but they are both still relatively long-term circumstantial factors.
While circumstantial factors do matter, the surprise is how small a contribution they make to our happiness. Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2007) estimate it at only 10%. This is completely dwarfed by the genetic contribution to happiness.
So if we can’t change our genes and we can’t, broadly speaking, change our life circumstances, what on earth can we change?
The only thing that is left is what we actually do every day. What Sheldon and Lyubomirsky refer to as ‘intentional activity’. They see the activities we take part in as moving our happiness levels within the set range determined by our genetics and our life circumstances.
But which activities to choose, and how should we carry out these activities? Answering this question is all about understanding how quickly humans adapt to new and exciting experiences.
The first time we try something stimulating that we find enjoyable, it is likely to increase our happiness levels considerably. Whether it’s that first parachute jump, the first kiss with our partner or just a new and exciting book we’re reading. New experiences tickle our pleasure centres and we feel good.
Unfortunately when presented with that very same stimulus again and again we soon become used to it. This is what psychologists have called ‘hedonic adaptation’. The amount of pleasure we can get from the same experience tails off with repeated exposure. The first chocolate tastes a damn sight better than the last.
This lead Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and Schkade (2005) to suggest that the activities we choose should have three characteristics:
- They should fit our needs and our personalities. E.g. If you don’t crave excitement parachuting is unlikely to fit with your needs. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be perfect for someone else.
- Their content should vary. Do you always run around the same circuit? Or fly your kite on the same hill? Or walk the same route through the forest? Varying the routine is likely to minimise the effects of hedonic adaptation.
- Their timing should vary. This also helps to avoid hedonic adaptation.
Change of priorities?
When I think about the proportions which genetics, life circumstances and intentional activities contribute to happiness, it makes me think about our priorities in life. The genetic component is essentially a write-off – there’s precious little we can do about this until gene therapy or some equivalent lets us adjust our pre-set happiness levels.
This means that our sustainable levels of happiness are down to our life circumstances and our everyday activities. But, crucially, our everyday activities are four times more important, in terms of happiness, than our life circumstances.
To provide a rather cliched example: consider whether it is better to be at work trying to get a promotion, to get a raise to increase your life circumstances or to be at home with your family (this presumes your family make you happy!).
Of course it’s quite possible to get more pleasure out of being at work than being with your family – although not many will admit to it.
The here and now
There’s another interesting implication from this finding about what contributes to our happiness. Some might say that this balance of 10% life circumstances to 40% everyday activities means that to be happy, long-term plans and goals should be ignored in favour of the here and now. After all, why bother to strive for a better job if it won’t increase your happiness? Surely it’s better to just do whatever makes me happy right now?
Long-term plans do, of course, contribute to our day-to-day happiness, but indirectly. A better job, leading to more money can mean we have more freedom to do those day-to-day things which we like. Life circumstances and day-to-day activities clearly interact. To talk of one without the other doesn’t make sense in the real world.
These qualifications acknowledged, people often do place much more importance on their life circumstances to the detriment of everyday pleasurable activities. What the psychology research suggests is that it’s those quotidian pleasures that have the power to make us happy and keep us happy, provided they hold enough variety.
Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111-131.
Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). Is it possible to become happier? (And if so, how?). Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1, 1-17.