A Summary of Happiness Research

A Summary of Happiness Research

Do you want to become happier? Let’s start with some background. Happiness researchers typically define happiness as a combination of three things: (1) life satisfaction, (2) the frequency and degree of positive emotion, (3) and the relative absence of negative emotion. Researchers have found that we have essentially no control over roughly 50% of our happiness levels. 10% of happiness is determined by life circumstances (money, marriage, etc.) while 40% is determined by daily activities (how you think and what you do) (Lyubomirsky & Sheldon 2005).


Summary of happiness research- genes

Approximately 50% of happiness is determined by our genes. The genetic influence on happiness is often described as an individual’s happiness “set point,” because this is your baseline happiness level.

  • Personality: Of the Big 5 personality traits (neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness), extroversion and neuroticism are the most related to happiness. extroverts are happier than introverts. Neurotics are less happy than emotionally stable individuals. (Steel & Schmidt 2008). Conscientiousness and agreeableness are also positively related to happiness (DeNeve & Cooper 1998).
  • Other traits: Having an internal locus on control (DeNeve & Cooper 1998), optimism (Augusto-Landa & Pulido-Martos 2011) and self-esteem (Lyubomirsky & Tkach 2006) are positively correlated with happiness.


Summary of happiness research- life circumstances

What do most people try to do to become happier? They try to make major changes to their circumstances (point-in-time demographic characteristics). They’ll buy a new house, get a new job or move to another city. However, these tactics are not very effective (which probably explains why so many people struggle to be happy). Surprisingly, researchers can only predict about 10% of one’s happiness based on data on the person’s life circumstances. The reason is largely due to the fact that people tend to adapt to changes in their life circumstances so that their level of happiness returns to their set point. This is known as hedonic adaptation. Individuals, for example, usually adapt to the positive change in happiness brought about by marriage in roughly two years. Studies have shown, however, that unemployment, death of a spouse, divorce, and disability can have a lasting negative impact on happiness. (Lucas 2007). Let’s look at major life circumstances.

happiness research

  • Age: There is not much change in average happiness levels until around age 55, after which happiness starts to increase, peaks around 67, declines around the age of 75 (Frijters & Beatton 2012).
  • Geographic Location: Living close to the coast, in a warm climate, and in an area with low wind is associated with increased happiness. (Brereton & Clinch 2008). The happiest country is Norway (the U.S. is ranked 12th). The happiest state is Hawaii.
  • Education: Higher education has a positive impact on happiness, even after controlling for health and income. High school, however, has no effect. (Yakovlev & Leguizamon 2012).
  • Employment: Employment is related to happiness. As noted earlier, unemployment can have lasting negative effects on one’s happiness (Maennig & Wilhelm 2012).
  • Income: While life satisfaction increases with income, positive and negative emotion have no relation with income beyond $75,000 a year (Kahneman & Deaton 2010).
  • Marriage: Married people tend to be happier than those who aren’t married (Stack & Eshleman 1998). People who marry later in life experience less of an initial boost from marriage, however, they report lasting gains over time (Lucas & Clark 2006). Marrying someone who is neurotic reduces happiness (Headey & Muffels 2010).
  • Children: Children cause an increase in happiness that tends to adapt to the baseline over time. The impact of a second child is positive, but not as strong as the first, and a third child actually has a negative impact on happiness. Those who have children at an older age gain the most from having kids. (Myrskyla & Margolis 2012).
  • Health: For men, being underweight (but not overweight or obese) is associated with less happiness. Obese women are relatively unhappy, while women classified as overweight on the BMI index report about average happiness levels (Headey & Muffels 2010).
  • Religion: Religion is positively correlated with happiness (Green & Elliott 2010).


Summary of happiness research- activities

So where does that leave us? Activities are what you think and do day-to-day. They account for an impressive 40% of one’s happiness. So if you want to become happier, targeting activities is your best bet. All of the below activities are scientifically proven ways to make you happier. They’re all about adding more positive thoughts, emotions and behaviors into your life.

  • Family and altruistic goals: A study found that family goals (e.g. “having a good marriage”) and altruistic goals (e.g. “helping other people”) were positively related to happiness, while success goals (e.g. “success on the job”) were significantly detrimental (Headey 2008).happiness research
  • Nurture relationships: Spending more time with friends and family is strongly linked to happiness (Tkach & Lyubomirsky 2006). One longitudinal study, spanning over 75 years, found that warmth of relationships was the single greatest predictor of happiness. Having deeper conversations is one way to build stronger, warmer relationships. So, commit more time to strengthening your relationships.
  • Eat well: Studies show that eating a Mediterranean diet increase positive emotion and reduces negative emotion. Specifically, fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil and legumes increased positive emotion, while sweets/ dessert, soda and fast food decreased positive emotion. Fruits, vegetables and nuts decreased negative emotion, while sweets/deserts, fast food (for women only), and red meat (for women only) increased negative emotion (Ford & Jaceldo-Siegl 2013).
  • Exercise: People who exercise are happier than those who don’t (Stubbe & de Moor 2007). One meta-analysis looked at 105 studies that analyzed the effect of exercise on happiness. They found that the ideal program was low intensity exercise for 30-35 minutes on 3-5 days a week lasting for at least 10 weeks (Reed & Buck 2009). Another study found that strength training at a low intensity (light or no weights) with longer rest periods led to the greatest improvement in happiness over the control group (Bibeau & Moore 2010).
  • Imagine your best possible self: A study in 2001 asked participants to visualize their best possible self for 4 consecutive days (King 2001). Here’s an example of the instructions: “Imagine yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of your life dreams, and of your own best potentials.” Try this by taking a few minutes a night to image your best possible self. Don’t necessarily picture the same thing every night. Think of yourself 1, 5 and 20 years from now. Think about everything from your career to your romantic life.
  • 3 good things: One study asked participants to write about 3 good things that happened to them and why every night for a week (Seligman & Steen 2005). The results were impressive. Happiness improved and continued to increase. Happiness increased by 2% after 1 week, by 5% after 1 month, and by 9% after 6 months. Participants noticed that after about 3 or 4 days of doing the exercise, they began to look for positive things throughout the day that they could write about. So, obviously the exercise had a profound impact on how they saw the world.
  • Express gratitude: Another study divided participants into three groups: one wrote down 5 things they were grateful for once a week for 10 weeks; another group wrote down 5 hassles; a third wrote down 5 events. The researchers found that the gratitude group was 25% happier than the hassles group (what most people do) (Emmons & McCullough 2003). Another study found that expressing gratitude worked better when performed once a week versus 3x times a week (Lyubomirsky & Sheldon 2005). So, pick a day each week (maybe Sunday) and list 5 things you’re grateful for.
  • Perform random acts of kindness: People who perform 5 random acts of kindness a week are significantly happier than those who don’t. Interestingly, those who perform the random acts of kindness on a single day are happier than those who spread the acts out over the course of a week (Lyubomirsky & Sheldon 2005). So, pick a day and perform 5 random acts of kindness (they don’t have to necessarily be big).
  • Use your signature strengths: One study had participants take an online test to identify their top 5 “Signature Strengths.” Participants were instructed to use one of these strengths in a new and different way, every day for a week. The researchers found that using signature strengths caused happiness to increase, and remain at an elevated level at the 1 month, 3 month and 6 month follow ups (Seligman 2005). To get started, take the “VIA Survey of Character Strengths” on this page from the University of Pennsylvania (takes 20-30 minutes). If you’re pressed for time, you can take the “Brief Strengths Test” on the same page (takes < 5 minutes).
  • Always Have Something to Look Forward To: One study asked participants to think about their Thanksgiving holiday both 2 weeks before and 2 weeks after. The researchers found that participants experienced significantly more intense positive emotions when anticipating Thanksgiving than when reminiscing about it  (Van Boven & Ashworth 2007).
  • Spend money on experiences, not things: People gain more happiness from spending money on experiences than spending money on material objects (Van Boven & Gilovich 2003). Spending money on others, rather than yourself, has also been shown to increases happiness. Furthermore, spending money on strong-ties (close friends and family) increases happiness more than spending it on weak social ties (Aknin & Sandstrom 2011).
  • Temperature: Happiness is maximized at an average temperature of 57 degrees Fahrenheit. So, don’t be afraid to turn down the thermostat a little (Tsutsui 2013).
  • Variety: In order to prevent you from adapting to any of these happiness strategies, adding variety to the acts is very important. In a study on random acts of kindness study, half of participants were told to vary the acts of kindness they performed, while the other half were told to stick to the same acts. The participants who varied their acts of kindness steadily improved their happiness throughout the 10 week study. Participants who didn’t vary the acts actually became less happy (but eventually rebounded to their baseline level by the end of the study) (Boehm & Lyubomirsky 2009). So, be sure to vary the above activities.


Summary of happiness research- Conclusion

Paradoxically, trying to be happier can actually make you less happy (Mauss 2011). This appears to occur because people who focus on happiness get disappointed at times when they aren’t as happy that they hope to be and thereby become paradoxically less happy. Instead, focus on the process of making the happiness activities listed above habits in your life. The results will follow.


Summary of happiness research- citations

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De Neve, Jan-Emmanuel. Functional Polymorphism (5-HHTLPR) in the Serotonin Transporter Gene is Associated with Subjective Well-Being: Evidence from a US Nationally Representative Sample. Journal of Human Genetics. Vol 56, May 2011, 456-459.

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Ford, Patricia A.; Jaceldo-Siegl K. Intake of Mediterranean foods associated with positive affect and low negative affect. Journal of psychosomatic research. 74(2), Feb 2013, 142-148.

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