Psychologists have historically been skeptical of the idea that we can become happier people over the course of our lives. We each have a genetic set-point of happiness, many believe, and even if we do experience momentary boosts of happiness above this set-point, we quickly adapt to this change and return back to our normal level.
A recent article by psychologists Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky in the Journal of Happiness Studies challenges this theory. They concede that about half of our happiness is likely due to genetic influences. But in three studies they tested whether life circumstances—such as our health, income, and where we live—and intentional activities—conscious choices we make for ourselves, such as joining a club or starting a meaningful new project—have the potential to increase our long-term happiness above our genetic set-point.
They found that circumstantial changes and intentional activities both increase happiness in the short term. But the right kinds of intentional activities are also able to sustain those changes over several months. Circumstantial changes, by contrast, didn’t show a long-term effect on happiness.
One complication with this research is the difficulty in distinguishing between some changes in circumstance and intentional activities. Some events (such as getting married or going to college) can be both. But according to the authors, the effect of those events depends on how we interpret them: For one person they might be circumstances that are easily taken for granted, and to someone else they serve as intentional activities that help contribute to a series of pleasurable experiences.
So what intentional activities should we undertake? A variety of other research suggests that happiness can be increased by counting one’s blessings, not comparing oneself to others, making a conscious effort to feel optimistic, pursuing goals that are personally motivating and interesting, and becoming more forgiving.
No matter the activity, Sheldon and Lyubomirsky stress that increasing happiness seems to require consistent focus and determination over an extended period of time rather than the quick fix of a one-time circumstantial change. “Our data suggest that effort and hard work offer the most promising route to happiness,” they write. “In contrast, simply altering one’s superficial circumstances (assuming they are already reasonably good) may have little lasting effect on personal well-being.”
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