Yes, I know. There are dozens of books written about how to increase your happiness, probably hundreds of different blogs all promising you the secrets to the keys of happiness, and thousands of articles written on this topic. Since the positive psychology movement got started a while back, it’s been going bananas. And why wouldn’t it? Who wouldn’t like to learn some “secrets” to unlocking their inner happiness?
Happier people tend to live longer, live healthier lives, make more money and do better at work. It’s a chicken and egg problem, though. Does happiness bring those kinds of things, or do those kinds of things lead us to be happier?
While we may not exactly know the answer to that question yet, we do know the answers to many other questions about happiness.
1. You control about half your happiness level. Although the exact level will vary from individual to individual, it appears that up to about 50 percent of our happiness levels are preset by genetics or our environment (called our happiness set-point). But that’s good, because it also means that about 40 to 50 percent of our happiness is within our power to raise or lower.
2. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Once we get to a certain level of income that is enough to pay our bills and keep us in the lifestyle we’ve grown accustomed to, more money doesn’t result in more happiness. The only two exceptions to this rule is if you give money away, or if it significantly improves your social rank. People who give money away appear to sustain greater levels of happiness over time than those who don’t.
3. Lottery winnings create only temporary, 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 level of happiness. People who have won the lottery appear to be no more happy than those who haven’t in the long run. Sure, we could all use the extra money, so play the lottery or gamble only what you can afford and for the sheer enjoyment of doing so — not for the potential big windfall.
4. 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 you have, generally, the happier you will be. And while marriage is significantly correlated with increased happiness, it has to be a strong, healthy marriage in order for that to be true.
5. 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. That’s likely 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. So ditch buying so much stuff for yourself or your kids — you’re only buying artificial, temporary happiness.
The Darker Side of Happiness Research
You should also be aware that there is a growing backlash against such “happiness psychology.” After reading an except from Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” I can say I haven’t been impressed by the first round of criticism. In an excerpt, Ehrenreich demonstrates her own lack of basic psychological science grounding in tangents about psychological assessment design and whether a simplistic equation used for illustrative purposes really captures “happiness.” It appears to be a very uneven book where she makes arguments based upon personalities (Seligman’s, for example) and specious connections (The Templeton Foundation). These are both Logic 101 fallacies (personal attack and guilt by association) that, while making for interesting reading, does little to address the positive psychology research itself.
There are legitimate criticisms to level at the field. For example, a great deal of the research in positive psychology is conducted on college students for course credit. College students, the vast majority of who are in the late teens or early adulthood, are not representative of the general population (findings from college research don’t always hold up when done with a more representative sample). And many studies are done in an artificial laboratory setting, where the researchers have set up an experimental situation that may or may not be representative of the real world. They do this so they can control all the variables except that which they are studying, but it create an artificial environment that while trying to mimic the real world, often falls far short. Human behavior is so complex that how we react toward researchers in a university lab setting may be very different how we react in a natural setting with our friends and family.
The five tips here, however, don’t suffer from these problems. They are reliable conclusions that you can put into practice in your life today. You do have control over how happy you want or allow yourself to be.