If I were to ask you what makes you happy, you would probably have no problem providing me with at least a few answers — a new car, less body fat, a higher-paying job, a lottery win, a better 3k time, and so on. Answers to this question usually have a similar theme; i.e., our happiness depends on external circumstances (Lilienfeld et al., 2010).

You may be surprised to learn that materialistic things rarely determine long-term happiness. That which you have always assumed would make your life much more joyful may not actually improve long-term happiness. Happiness is determined by innate factors and perceptions, as well as experiences.

Albert Ellis claimed it was irrational to suggest that happiness was caused by external circumstances. According to Ellis, happiness depends on our interpretations of events.

British philosophers John Locke and Jeremy Bentham claimed that happiness is determined by the number of positive events experienced in life (Lilinefeld et al., 2010, & Eysenck, 1990). On the other hand, Eysenck says the No. 1 myth regarding happiness is that happiness is determined by the number and nature of pleasurable events experienced.

A study conducted by Kahneman and colleagues (2004) tracked the moods of 909 employed women. Their moods and activities were tracked by asking them to record the previous day’s activities and experiences. The researches concluded that most major life circumstances (household income, jobs benefits) correlated minimally with moment-by-moment happiness. What did correlate strongly with happiness was sleep quality and proneness toward depression.

Money and Happiness

In order to be happy we need enough money to pay our bills and have a little room to purchase extras. There appears to be an income threshold where making more than this amount contributes very little to being happier.

Having a household income below $50,000 is moderately related to happiness. A household income above $50,000 results in a vanishing correlation between money and happiness. There is some data indicating that the income threshold may be a little higher or a little lower than $50,000.

Americans who earn $50,000 per year are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year, but Americans who earn $5 million per year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 per year. People who live in poor nations are much less happy than people who live in moderately wealthy nations, but people who live in moderately wealthy nations are not much less happy than people who live in extremely wealthy nations (Gilbert, 2007, p. 239).

Hedonic Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill hypothesis states that just as we adjust our walking or running speed to match the speed of the treadmill, we adjust our moods to match life’s circumstances. Direct evidence for the hypothesis comes from studies investigating people who have experienced either extremely positive (group 1) or extremely negative (group 2) life events. People in Group 1 are happier than people in group 2, but often for very short times. Consider the following examples:

Big lottery winners report being super happy after winning the lottery. However, their happiness falls to baseline levels about two months later. People who become paralyzed from the waist down return to almost baseline levels of happiness within a few months after the accident (Silver, 1982; Lilienfeld et al., 2010).

Young professors who are denied tenure are very upset after receiving the news, but within a few years they are just about as happy as those young professors who received tenure. Negative events can sometimes produce life-long decreases in happiness. Divorce, loss of a loved one, or loss of a job can lead to permanent decreases in happiness (Diener et al., 2006).

Videos on Happiness

We do not know what makes us happy (but we think we do).

In this video Dr. Jennifer Aaker gives us a brief glimpse at what makes us happy, and what doesn’t make us as happy as we might think. Aaker describes what she calls drivers of happiness. Some matter less than you think, and some matter more.

Drivers that matter less than you think include money, beauty, youth, intelligence and education. Those that matter more include self-esteem, social skills, free time, volunteering and humor.

Aaker suggests that money, beauty, intelligence and so on can make you happy, but generally this happiness dissipates rather quickly. She emphasizes the importance of volunteering, and its positive implications on happiness. She also points out people get happier as they age, and are happy when they have the perception that they can control their time.

Dan Gilbert discusses This Emotional Life, a PBS program he hosted. Gilbert offers an answer to the question “what causes happiness?” He points out that there is a set point for happiness, despite good or bad experiences. Humans are good at adjusting to their circumstances, and no matter what they experience they are likely to have a general level of happiness, independent of their experiences.

Gilbert suggests that we should be more skeptical when considering what causes happiness. Much of what we think we know about happiness is wrong.

In “This Emotional Life,” Dan Gilbert says there are three key findings on the science of happiness:

  1. we can’t be happy alone
  2. we can’t be happy all the time
  3. we can be happier than we are currently

Humans are social animals; we need to socialize. The biggest predictor of happiness is the extent of our social relationships. A primary reason that our brains have evolved in the manner they have is so we can be social.

Gilbert says “friendless people are not happy.” It is not realistic, nor is it desirable to be happy all the time. Negative emotions are natural. When considering negative emotions, what is important is learning to appropriately regulate those potentially damaging thoughts. Being happy all the time implies epistemic irrationality (holding beliefs that are not commensurate with available evidence).

With a few minor changes you can probably be happier than you currently are. This adjustment doesn’t require much effort, and may be easier than you think.