Can I really increase my happiness? - Possibilities and limitations of the pursuit of happiness



In July 1776, something remarkable happened, when thirteen American colonies announced their independence from Great Britain. It was back then that every citizen in the newly formed United States of America was granted the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This was the starting point of a historically unique success story - the story of a former colony becoming a hegemonic power in the 20th century. And although the right to pursue happiness is more than 200 years old, it seems more prevalent today than ever before.

Especially individuals from younger generations want to have a happy and fulfilled life. A high income is no longer the only parameter of success as it was for the baby boomer generation born between 1946 and 1964. Instead, young people want to travel and explore the world. They want to make a difference in other people’s lives or support a higher cause like fighting climate change. Young people strive for self-actualization. How can I realize my inherent potential has replaced Where do I make the most money when it comes to looking for the right job. This is symbolic for a generation that has incorporated the inability to buy happiness with money. Instead of repeating mistakes of previous generations, they embark on their own journey to happiness.

But is such a journey to happiness a worthwhile undertaking? If money can’t buy happiness, is there any evidence that other sources are able to sustainably increase it? And even more fundamental, which factors do affect our happiness? In 2005, US American psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M. Sheldon and David Schkade investigated these questions.


Your genes affect your happiness

They found our levels of happiness to depend on three different factors. First, there are our genes. In twin studies, researchers were looking at identical twins that grew up apart from each other and they found these twins to have similar levels of happiness. This suggests that our genes play an important role, when it comes to our happiness. And there is even more evidence supporting this notion. Our personality depends on our genes and is thought to be generally stable throughout life. It does not change much, when we get older. An example for a personality trait is neuroticism. People high in this personality trait tend to ruminate or worry more, which makes them generally less happy than their counterparts low in neuroticism. According to the researchers, our genes account for as much as 50% of our happiness.


External circumstances also influence your happiness

Obviously, our external circumstances impact our happiness as well. These circumstances include everything from our ethnicity to our personal history, from our income to our cultural background. However, the extent of this impact is often vastly overestimated. People assume that they would be a lot happier, if they won the lottery, found the right partner or got a promotion. However, it turns out that people adapt to almost all external circumstances rather quickly. When asking lottery winners about their happiness a year later, researchers found their happiness to be essentially the same as the happiness of people who didn’t win anything. A similar phenomenon occurs in marriages. Although married people are on average happier than singles, the difference is not as big as singles assume.  This phenomenon is called hedonic adaptation and is the reason, why researchers suggest external circumstances to account for only 8-15% of our happiness. When something positive happens to us, we get an initial happiness boost that decreases with time. 


Every man is the architect of his own fortune

 The last factor of influence is called intentional activity. While the two factors mentioned before are rather difficult to change, we have a relatively high degree of control over this factor. Intentional activity refers to the things we think and do intentionally. While external circumstances happen to us, intentional activities are our reactions to them. But it is more than that. It is our intentional decision to engage in physical activities or to follow goals that are meaningful to us. It also includes savoring the things we already have, like friendships, food or shelter. It has been shown that these activities don’t suffer from hedonic adaptation. In one study, researchers discovered that pursuing these activities correlated with higher well being in the future. In contrast, positive changes of circumstances did not show such a correlation. According to the researchers, these activities account for approximately 40% of our happiness.


We can influence our levels of happiness intentionally, but should not put too much emphasis on that

Summarizing, it can be said that we have a great deal of control over our own levels of happiness. Approximately 40% of our happiness can be influenced by intentional activities. It is not to say that it is easy to cultivate gratitude and appreciate the simple things, for example, but it can be learned pretty much like playing soccer or driving a car. Practice can help to make cognitive intentional activities like savoring the little things a mental habit and sustainably increase our happiness. Exercising regularly will undoubtedly also help to become happier overall. 

However, many people focus surprisingly often on goals that might not result in enduring personal happiness.  Sure, to finally buy the new iPhone or to get a promotion comes along with a happiness boost. But this kind of happiness boost might be short-lived. You will be happier in the beginning, but very soon new goals will replace the old ones - the new promotion or iPhone is in sight. Moreover, the pursuit of happiness might have a downside if people put too much emphasis on it. Negative emotions are as much a part of a functional life as positive emotions and trying to surpress them might be harmful. Also, putting too much emphasis on the pursuit of happiness can be detrimental. It can lead to an ongoing evaluation of the status quo: Am I happy? Am I happy now?  And this will very likely have a negative impact on the overall level of happiness.



Authors: Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M. Sheldon, David Schkade

Title: Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change

Journal: Review of General Psychology

Year: 2005