No Quick Fix for Happiness

By Laura Saslow | March 1, 2006 | 0 comments

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.”

Tracker Pixel for Entry

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure


Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

blog comments powered by Disqus



Greater Good Events

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017
Clark Kerr Campus, UC-Berkeley
Sunday, June 25 - Friday, June 30, 2017 OR Sunday, July 16 - Friday, July 21, 2017

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017

The GGSC’s six-day Summer Institute equips education professionals with prosocial learning strategies, tools and processes that benefit both students and teachers.


Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!


Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.


Greater Good Resources


Book of the Week

Roots of Empathy By Mary Gordon Mary Gordon explains how best to nurture empathy and social emotional literacy in all children—and thereby reduce aggression, antisocial behavior, and bullying.

Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement