Can We Control Our Own Happiness?
By Gail Schuster, LCSW
Our culture teaches us that happiness is something we should all seek in life. Fairy tales end with the message, “and they all lived happily ever after.” Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy” was the most popular single of 2014; back in 1988, the Bobby McFerrin single “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” occupied a place on the Billboard Hot 100 for a full six months. When we wish people well, we often say it in terms of happiness: Happy Birthday, Happy Holidays, even Happy Friday. Definitions of happiness generally include a range of positive emotions such as joy, pride, contentment and gratitude.
A significant body of research exists on the subject of happiness, and it has yielded results that can be helpful to us in our own pursuit of happiness. For example:
- We control about half of our happiness level. Although the exact level will vary from individual to individual, it appears that up to 50 percent of our happiness levels are predetermined by genetics or environment. That means that on average, we each can influence some 40 to 50 percent of our own happiness.
- Money doesn’t buy happiness. Once we have sufficient income to pay our bills and maintain the lifestyle to which we’re accustomed, more money generally doesn’t result in more happiness. People who give money away appear to sustain greater levels of happiness over time than those who don’t.
- Lottery winnings create only short-term happiness. Winning the lottery makes people happy in the moment, but that happiness fades fairly quickly and then people return to their prior levels of happiness.
- Relationships are a key factor in long-term happiness. While research has demonstrated that this effect is strongest for married people, other research has shown that strong social connections with others are important to our own happiness. The more of these we have, generally, the happier we will be. And while marriage is significantly correlated with increased happiness, this is true only in the case of strong, healthy marriages.
- Focus on experiences, not stuff. People who spend their time and money on doing things together — whether it be taking a vacation to someplace other than home or going on an all-day outing to the local zoo — report higher levels of happiness than those who buy a bigger house, a more expensive car or more stuff. This is probably because our memories keep an emotional photograph of the experience, whereas the material things don’t make as big an emotional imprint in our brains.
It is a core value in our culture that happiness is important, but our culture also can send inaccurate signals about what activities lead to happiness. Studies such as those cited here show that while some aspects of happiness are pre-determined, others are not, and we can choose actions that may increase our sense of happiness and contentment.