Can people increase their own happiness?

In the past few weeks I have explored the current scientific knowledge about happiness. This is the second in a series of posts to give you a brief update on the things I found.

Determinants of Happiness

Happiness can yield many benefits, but what determines peoples’ happiness? According to contemporary psychology, “happiness can be compared to health in the sense that it is also determined by your genes, the environment around you, and your behavior in life” (Veenhoven, 2009, p.14). Seligman (2003, p.45) presents this finding in the form of an equation, which has been adopted by many scientists.

H = S + C + V

Where H is one’s enduring level of happiness, S is ones set point, C represents one’s life circumstances, and V represents factors under one’s voluntarily control.
As it turns out, the amount of influence that these factors have on the enduring level of happiness is similar for all people, and can be summarized in a pie chart.

Pie chart

Pie chart

As Lyubomirsky (2007, pp.20-21) has found, 50% of happiness is determined by a genetic set point. Counter intuitively, only 10% is determined by life circumstances (whether you are rich or poor, healthy, unhealthy, married, divorced, etc), while 40% is the result of actions under voluntary control.

Genetic set point

Genes determine for a great part our ability to be happy. The genetic set point is our ‘happiness thermostat’. It is very difficult to steer away from this set point, if only momentarily. A study amongst paraplegics and lottery winners showed that upon becoming paralyzed or winning the lottery, paraplegics became very unhappy, and lottery winners very happy. However, when measuring their happiness levels a year later, both groups had nearly returned to their original level of happiness (Gilbert, 2006).

Another effect of the set point is hedonic adaptation. When visiting the city of New York for the first time, Jackson Toby, a Rutgers University professor and friend of my parents told me to savor our visit, because “You can never experience something for the first time twice.”
This in a nutshell, is just what hedonic adaptation means. Every time we have a similar experience, the impact on our emotions and our happiness becomes less. This is why the first taste of a bowl of ice cream might be delicious, but the sensory experience becomes increasingly less pleasurable with every spoonful.
The effect of hedonic adaptation diminishes over time. When not having eaten ice cream for over a week, a first taste will again be delicious, regardless of all the ice cream consumed in the past. “Variety is the spice of life because it is the natural enemy of adaptation” (Haidt, 2006, p.96).

Research has shown that there are some things that humans never adapt to, such as noise, long commute, a lack of control, shame and conflicts within relationships. These issues either have to be dealt with, or they can decrease a person’s happiness considerably (Haidt, 2006, pp.92-94).

Life circumstances

In 1967, Warner Wilson concluded that the happy person is a “young, healthy, well-educated, well-paid, extroverted, optimistic, worry-free, religious, married person with high self-esteem, job morale, modest aspirations, of either sex and of a wide range of intelligence” (1967, p.294). Within the last forty years, science has discovered that some of Wilson’s conclusions were right, and some were wrong.

For example, research has shown that all human beings need enough money to provide their basic needs such as food, water and shelter. Once those needs are fulfilled, money is often insufficient to increase one’s happiness a lot. Researchers have found that some progress can be made by spending money on experiences rather than on material goods (Bennett, 2009). As it turns out, how important money is to people is of greater influence on their happiness than money itself (Seligman, 2003).

More importantly however, is that life circumstances only account for 10% of the variance in happiness. This is backed up by many studies, one of which demonstrates for example that the richest Americans, those earning more than ten million dollars annually, report levels of happiness only slightly greater than the office staffs and blue-collar workers they employ (Diener, 1985).

Factors under voluntary control

One of the most surprising findings in positive psychology is the great effect of voluntary controlled activities on one’s happiness. The interesting aspect about this is that while it is impossible to change genetic makeup and impractical to change life circumstances, it is possible to change behavior in daily activities. Thereby people can have the ability to control up to 40% of what makes up their happiness.

However, choosing the right behavior can be difficult. As Veenhoven explains: “We control part of the factors that determine our happiness. Among these are the choices we make in life. We try to choose based upon our expectations of the best outcome, but our expectations are often mistaken” (2009, p.15).

When contemplating future actions, the expected contribution to happiness was once described as (The odds of the gain) * (The value of the gain) (Bernoulli, 1954). Humans are the only species actually able to imagine the future, due to the addition of the frontal lobe at the front of the brain. This enables the brain to anticipate how we would feel if something would happen, and is also called affective forecasting. However, these predictions are affected by cognitive biases, preventing us from planning our future actions the way Bernoulli would want it (Gilbert, 2006).

When assessing our affective forecasts of money and comparing them to research, Gilbert concludes “we think money will bring us lots of happiness for a long time, and it actually brings a little happiness for a short time.”

The frontal lobe forecasts that freedom of choice will bring us more happiness, because individual freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile and essential to being human. But once the amount of options becomes too many, it makes us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied (Schwartz, 2006). This is one of the many examples that shows humans are generally bad at affective forecasting.

To work around the defects of affective forecasting, positive psychologists have been researching what kind of voluntary controlled activities can contribute to happiness.

Levels of voluntarily controlled activities

Seligman (2003) concludes that voluntarily controlled activities can increase life satisfaction on three levels. These levels add to life satisfaction according to the equation below.

Life satisfaction through Voluntary controlled activities = Positive affect + Engagement + Meaning

‘The Pleasant Life’ is a level at which one increases life satisfaction by maximizing the amount of experienced positive emotions, and learning the skills to amplify those emotions. There are some drawbacks to this level. First, the ability to experience positive emotion is heritable, and can only be increased by as much as 15-20%. Second, positive emotions habituate rapidly, and thus their impact on one’s life satisfaction can decrease with every subsequent experience.

‘The Good Life’ is a level at which one increases life satisfaction by identifying one’s signature strengths and using them in the mansions of life. By re-crafting love, work and leisure to fit one’s strengths, one can experience more engagement in life. Through this, one will derive a state of flow, which is distinct from pleasure because it requires intense concentration, distorts the sense of time, blocks the experience of emotions, but is very satisfying (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).

‘The Meaningful Life’ is a level at which one increases life satisfaction by identifying one’s signature strengths, and uses them in the service of something larger than oneself. By contributing to positive institutions for example, one can experience a very profound sense of life satisfaction. Philanthropy is a good example of ways that life satisfaction can be gained on this level.

In conclusion, research has shown that the effect of meaning on life satisfaction is the greatest. The effect of engagement is considerable, but the effect of pleasure is very small. The greatest life satisfaction can be obtained by increasing all levels, and thus living ‘The Full Life’, where the sum is greater than its parts (Seligman, 2004).

– Bennett, D., 2009. Happiness: A buyer’s guide. [Online] Boston Globe Available at: [Accessed 15 September 2009].
– Bernoulli, D., 1954. Exposition of a New Theory on the Measurement of Risk. Econometrica, (22), pp.23-36. Originally published as ‘Specimen theoriae novae de mensura sortis’ in 1738.
– Csíkszentmihályi, M., 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.
– Diener, E., 1985. Happiness of the very wealthy. Social Indicators Research, (16), pp.263-74.
– Gilbert, D., 2006. Stumbling on Happiness. London: Harper Perennial.
– Haidt, J., 2006. The Happiness Hypothesis. London: Arrow Books.
– Lyubomirsky, S., 2007. The How of Happiness. New York: The Penguin Press.
– Schwartz, B., 2006. TED Talks. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 15 September 2009].
– Seligman, M.E.P., 2003. Authentic Happiness. London: Nicolas Brealey Publishing.
– Seligman, M., 2004. The State of Psychology. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 15 September 2009].
– Veenhoven, R., 2009. Een leven lang happy. August.
– Wilson, W., 1967. Correlates of avowed happiness. Pschological Bulletin, (67), pp.294-306.


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