The Pursuit of Happiness Part 1: Can we change our Happiness?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal  that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Sweet Happiness…..  We have an unalienable right to pursue it in the United States, just as much as life, as written in the Declaration of Independence.

How are we to best pursue it?Sonya Lyubomirsky, PhD is professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside.  She has published on the subject of happiness for nearly 2 decades.  In a seminal paper titled Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change, she presents a model explaining a person’s chronic happiness.   Dr. Lyubomirsky and others have used the model as a framework to affect sustainable change in happiness in the lab.  I love this paper and want you to see why in this post series.

Is Happiness a Worthy Pursuit?

The introduction to the paper is excellent because the authors lucidly address the common question for critics of happiness literature, which is “Is happiness worth pursuing?” ( Some don’t think so. ) That is, is the pursuit of happiness merely a symptom of Western comfort and self-centeredness? As a scientist, I think it’s a relevant criticism/question.  It seems that people (myself included)  believe they should move in an upward spiral, toward ever greater personal well-being.

The authors cite experimental evidence and conclude that happy people gain:

  • social rewards: less divorce, more friends, stronger support, more social interactions
  • work outcomes: greater creativity, productivity, quality and income
  • greater self-control and coping
  • bolstered immune system
  • longer lifespan
  • more “other-centered” behavior: prosocial spending, charitable giving, cooperation

Why don’t we know more about changing Happiness?

The problem, it seems is that we know a lot about predictors of happiness but little about about how to change it.  For example, scientist have identified demographic status, personality traits, attitudes, goal characteristic, income  and many others.   I’ve posted on income and happiness.

The reasons for the lack of information are that it’s difficult and expensive to conduct longitudinal (following people through time) and intervention (run an experiment) studies.  Also, researchers tend to focus on pathology (ie depression) rather than positive mental health.  Possibly most important, a general pessimism over whether it is even possible to effect sustainable increases in happiness.

Sources of pessimism:

  1. There is a genetically determined happiness set point.  Twin studies show that 50-80% of well-being is heritable.  The generally accepted figure is 50%.
  2. Personalty traits are cognitive, behavioral and affective complexes that are consistent across situations and the life-span.
  3. The hedonic treadmill suggests that any gains in happiness are temporary because humans quickly adapt to positive change.
  4. The pursuit of happiness could paradoxically lead to unhappiness if it’s pursuit becomes an obsession that distracts from enjoying the moment or if, failing to achieve happiness, people experience disappointment.

Sources of optimism that Happiness can be changed:

  1. Emerging research suggests that limited changes can be made, for example, practicing the virtues of gratitude and forgiveness. (Here are 2 posts of mine on practicing gratitude, as examples.  Post 1Post 2)
  2. Motivational and attitudinal factors that have been linked to well-being may be amenable to some volitional control.  Examples include the pursuit of certain types of goals, optimism, avoidance of social comparison.
  3. Older people are happier suggesting that happiness can be increased over time.

The Model of Happiness

The authors define happiness as is it is most often cited in the literature: frequent positive affect, high life satisfaction and infrequent negative affect. Collectively this group of measures is known in the literature as subjective well-being a.k.a. happiness.  The subjective definition use is important, as this relies on people’s self-reports. For who better to tell you how happy they are?

Here is the key figure from the paper, backed by research.

Genetic Set Point – 50%

The happiness set point is genetically determined and assumed to be fixed, stable overtime and immune to influence or control. The famous twin study by Lykken and Tellefen in 1996 showed that up to 80% of happiness was shared between monozygotic twins seen at 20 and 30 years of age. For dizygotic twins correlation was close to zero.

“You got all the good stuff, and I got all the crap!”  Sequel forthcoming  – “Triplets”

Implications for changing the Set-point to change happiness:

The science behind this genetic set point is in its infancy but seems to be rooted in neurobiology with immutable interpersonal, temperamental and affective personality traits such as extroversion, arousability and negative affect which are highly heritable and change little over lifespan. Thus, while science may discover a way to change this set point, currently this does not appear to be a fruitful avenue to alter one’s chronic happiness.

Circumstances – 10%

These are the incidental but relatively stable facts of an individual’s life. These may include the national, geographic and cultural region as well as demographics such as age, gender and ethnicity. This can also be life events such as childhood trauma, accidents, winning awards and also life status variables such as marital status, occupation, job security, income, health and religious affiliation.

Initial research regarding associations with circumstances and happiness revealed very little association, which was paradoxical at the time. It is believed that the smaller than anticipated effects are accounted for by Hedonic Adaptation.


Implications for changing Circumstance to to change happiness:

Examples of changing circumstance are getting a pay raise, winning the lottery, relocating to California, buying a new car and cosmetic surgery.   These circumstantial changes may not provide lasting boosts in happiness.  The reasons are hedonic adaptation, the sometime extreme cost of circumstance change (time and money) can outweigh the benefits and a possible ceiling for circumstances on happiness boost (ie 4000 sq ft house vs 5000 sq ft house) which is basically diminishing returns at the margins.

Intentional Activity

Defined as “discrete actions and practices in which people can choose to engage”.  These must take effort to enact.  Therein lies the distinction between circumstance and activity; circumstance happens to people (passive) and activity is acting upon circumstance.

The 3 main categories, which overlap, are:

  • Behavioral activity: exercise, acting kind, mindfulness meditation
  • Cognitive activity: counting blessings, re-framing to positive light, practicing optimism, being open to beauty, relishing small pleasures
  • Volitional activity: personal goals, meaningful causes

Implications for changing Intentional Activity to change happiness:

The is the thought by the authors to be the best potential route for sustainable change in chronic happiness.  The field is in it’s infancy and literature is just starting to emerge.  So is there enough evidence convincing one to practice these activities?  

In Part 2, we’ll see if and how science is permanently changing happiness.

2 Replies to “The Pursuit of Happiness Part 1: Can we change our Happiness?”

  1. heard about your truck accident via your post. So happy that you are on this side on the grass and are in recovery.
    hope the move is going well. I wish I could have helped you “negotiate” crossing the street as well as you negotiated you contract!


    1. Lol! Yeah, there is no negotiating with large trucks. Thanks again for the help with negotiation! I’ve used those skills in other smaller cases too, like party prices, car repairs, etc.

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