The Keys to Happiness: Partly Genetic, But You Control the Rest

Is happiness genetic? Largely, but we can learn to savor good experiences.

May 10, 2012 — -- Is there a "set point" that determines your level of happiness, regardless of your status in life? Is it something you have little power to change?

For several decades psychologists have wrestled with that question, and in recent years many, if not most, have embraced the idea that we are born with a tendency to be happy, or sour, and it doesn't have much to do with our surroundings or lifestyle. One researcher compared it to height. Try as you may, you probably aren't going to get any taller.

But a new study contends that happiness is very different from height or other genetically-determined characteristics. The study concludes that the "set point" is really a range, and we can move up and down on the happiness scale within that range.

All we have to do is keep our lives interesting, and be satisfied with what we already have.

Sounds easy, and psychologist Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri, Columbia, argues that it is -- although most of us may not succeed.

"We all have good things happen to us, and they lift us for a while and then we kind of fall back where we started," Sheldon, lead author of a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, said in a telephone interview. "We're trying to figure out how people can get more out of the good things that happen to them."

Sheldon and his coauthor, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, have collaborated on several research projects over the last couple of decades. They have come up with a program that they think could help us inch our way up the happiness scale, and stay there longer, although there will always be a tendency to drop back to our personal "set points."

Their effort is an attempt to deal with an idea that has been kicking around for four decades, called "Hedonic Adaptation," or the "Hedonic Treadmill." That theory suggests that good things may move us up on the happiness scale, but in time the glow dims and we return to a point established chiefly by genetics. Bad things may move us down on the scale, but the impact of even traumatic experiences also diminishes over time, although some research suggests it's harder to forget the bad than remember the good.

We deal as best as we can with bad things as a way of avoiding depression, and that forces us back up the happiness scale. And as for the good things, as soon as we get them, we want more, thus pushing us back down toward the median.

Sheldon and Lyubomirsky argue that simple lifestyle changes can help keep us a bit happier, "despite pessimism from the current literature that the pursuit of happiness may be largely futile," as Lyubomirsky puts it.

It all comes down to two words: variety and appreciation.

There's a new love in your life? Keep it alive by introducing new experiences and variety. That will keep the relationship fresh and rewarding, and, well, happy. Appreciate what you've got.

"To appreciate something is to savor it, to feel grateful for it, to recognize that one might never have gotten it, or might lose it," the study says.

Without that, you're likely going to lose interest and cast about for something better, whether it's a new mate or a new car. It seems we are never satisfied, and that brings the happiness barometer down.

The researchers tested 481 students over two semesters to measure their level of happiness and determine if savoring a good thing could last even a few weeks. In most cases, it didn't. The participants quickly returned to their regular levels of happiness.

But some participants were able to maintain that elevated level of happiness by keeping the memory alive and appreciating what they already had.

How to Find Happiness. Is It Genetic?

Case closed? Not exactly.

There's still the question of how much our happiness depends on genetics, and how much it is affected by our lifestyles and possessions.

The researchers have come up with a formula that they have used in a number of publications. It's 50 percent genetics. The circumstances we find ourselves in -- like where we live, the quality of our love lives, whether we have a few bucks in the bank -- account for only about 10 percent. The remaining 40 percent is "within our control, how we think and behave."

But where did those numbers come from?

"Basically, we kind of made them up," Sheldon said, adding quickly, "but not entirely."

The 50 percent genetics is based on other research of identical twins who were separated at birth and had no contact with each other. A huge study in Germany found that separated twins ranked almost exactly the same on the happiness scale, regardless of their personal experiences.

"And if you look at studies of various superficial circumstances, like income, where you live, how many cars you have, those are pretty small," Sheldon said. "They don't seem to account for more than about 10 percent.

"So that left 40 percent that we conclude, although not everybody would agree with this conclusion, is the percent that is affected by what you do."

That certainly indicates that our happiness can be greatly influenced by what we do, and if the number is anywhere near correct, simple changes, like appreciating what we already have, can make a significant difference in our level of happiness.

But if that number is way off, as many psychologists would contend, then there isn't a lot we can do to make us keep smiling. Still, it may be worth a try.