One of the most valuable things to come out of the field of positive psychology is the number of reliable measures of complex concepts like gratitude, mindfulness, inspiration, and yes happiness. In past decades, researchers attempted to measure happiness with one-item questions like, “Taken all things together, how you would say things are these days?” Although these sorts of questions did detect interesting differences among different people and different groups, they were extremely simple, not very reliable, and very open to diverse interpretations.
Although the measurement of happiness is inherently subjective (indeed, happiness and “subjective well-being” are often used interchangeably), recent researchers have created measures that are more useful and informative than some of the early, more rudimentary measures. These scales can be used with a wide variety of clients to get a general sense of their well-being and natural positivity.
Can you become happier?
Admittedly, some researchers have taken a rather pessimistic stance, viewing happiness as an inherent trait that’s difficult if not impossible to truly alter. Recent years have seen an explosion in research in behavioral genetics.
This groundbreaking field has begun to provide insight into the seemingly unanswerable nature vs. nurture question. For example, if you are an extraverted person, is it because you inherited a genetic predisposition to be extraverted? Or did you simply have a lot of role models for extraversion as you were growing up? In other words, are you extraverted because of your genes or because of your environment? And how on earth could we ever know?
At first glance, this seems rather disheartening and suggests that your happiness level isn’t under your control at all. But this is not the case. Happiness researchers tend to think of everyone as having a happiness “set point” or baseline that is only about 50% genetically determined. Body weight provides a useful analogy. Some people don’t seem to have to work to stay slim. They eat what they want and don’t exercise, and their weight seems to magically hover at a healthy number
Others are frustrated by the fact that they have to be incredibly careful about their diet and exercise in order to remain at a healthy weight. More likely than not, these people have very different genetically-determined set points for weight. The first person’s weight naturally gravitates to a lower number than the second.
However, as the billion-dollar diet and fitness industries constantly remind us, intentional behaviors can be adopted to control one’s weight. The same goes for happiness. Some of us are naturally happier than others, but everyone can work to rise above their set point and make themselves happier.
Recall that about 50% of your level of happiness is genetically determined. Another portion is determined by your life circumstances. Examples include your demographics (e.g., gender, age, and ethnicity), personal experiences (e.g., past traumas and triumphs), life status variables (e.g., marital status, education level, health, and income), your physical appearance, and the physical setting where you live.
If you were to sit down and write a very brief autobiography, it would probably contain a lot of information about your life circumstances. You still have about 50% of your happiness yet to be determined.
If so, more likely than not, you are wrong. Changes in life circumstances only account for about 10% of your happiness! This seems surprising, but think about it for a while. Imagine that you wished you lived in a warmer climate. Why do you think this would make you happier? Are you envisioning lots of opportunities to experience nature and beauty? If so, remember the concept of hedonic adaptation.
The ocean breezes and beautiful sunsets might make you happy at first, but gradually, these things would fall into the background of your emotional life, and you won’t pay attention to and enjoy them like you once did.
Did you mention above that more money might make you happier? If so, you are certainly not alone! Money has long been thought of as a proxy for happiness – by regular folks and policy makers alike. But there is much research to suggest that, once your basic needs are met, money doesn’t predict happiness well at all! Why might this be? Well, recall the work on affective forecasting. Because we aren’t good at knowing what makes us happy, we often spend our money on bigger houses, nicer cars, designer clothes, and gadgets that are all prone to hedonic adaptation. These things might bring an initial boost in happiness, but it doesn’t last.
A second reason is that we tend to compare ourselves to others, and unless you are a corporate CEO (who may not be all that happy, anyway), there will always be someone around with a nicer office, bigger house, or better toys. Your standards will go up as you acquire more goods and compare yourself to people who are better off. Such is the nature of the hedonic treadmill.
In sum, changing your life circumstances is not likely to increase your happiness in a sustainable way. This is actually good news, if you think about how much time, money, and effort it would take to change many of these circumstances. One of the most surprising things about research on happiness is the discovery that lasting changes are much easier to achieve and are yours for the taking.