What are the sources of happiness?
Happier people are more likely to live longer and tend to be healthier, more successful, and more socially engaged than people who describe themselves as less happy. But what causes happiness? And can we change how happy we are?
Three basic sources of happiness
Researchers have explored three basic sources of happiness: genetics, including temperament and personality; life circumstances, such as wealth and health; and our own choices.
We tend to overestimate the importance of life circumstances in how happy we are.
We think if only we had more money, or a better job, or fell in love, that we would be happier. And we sometimes underestimate how much control we have over our own happiness. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, analyzed studies and reports that 50% of our happiness is set by our genes, 10% by life circumstances beyond our control, and 40% by our own actions.
Researchers say that people tend to have a “set point” or “baseline” level of happiness, but that this point can change.
Even though genetic factors like temperament and personality play a large role, there is almost an equally large role under our own control. We have the power to make choices that can raise—or lower—our set point.
One way to become happier is to cultivate positive emotions.
At one time psychologists saw positive emotions simply as the sign of a happy person. Now they are learning how positive emotions actually cause us to be happier.
Some of the positive emotions that psychologists are studying:
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson's research
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has done research demonstrating the positive effects of experiencing these emotions on a regular basis:
The undo effect. Fredrickson demonstrated that positive emotions “undo” some of the physical effects of stress, such as increased heart rate. Study subjects who experienced a positive emotion returned to a normal resting heart rate more quickly after experiencing stress than subjects who had not experienced a positive emotion.
Broaden and build. The broaden-and-build theory describes how positive emotions broaden our outlook on life and help us build skills for stressful times. Fredrickson points out that negative emotions—anger and fear, for instance—evolved to narrow our focus and help us get out of a threatening situation safely. Positive emotions, on the other hand—like kindness, amusement, interest, and gratitude—put us in a frame of mind to explore the world around us and build a larger repertoire of actions that we can draw on in stressful times. Fredrickson sees a parallel in the animal kingdom. Think, for instance, of how a cat playing with a toy is “practicing” to catch prey. People playing and laughing over a game of softball may be strengthening social ties, increasing their physical health, sharpening reflexes, and increasing their confidence.
Fueling resilience. Positive emotions are the “fuel” for resilience. They help people find meaning in ordinary and difficult events. Finding meaning in life events leads to more positive emotion, which in turn leads to a greater ability to find meaning and purpose. Fredrickson calls this an “upward spiral” of greater well-being.
Fredrickson and her colleagues have analyzed people’s ratio of positive to negative emotions in various situations, including individuals, marriages and work teams, and found that a ratio of three to one positive emotions to negative emotions is the point at which people tend to flourish and thrive.
So while there are strong influences on our happiness—genetics and temperament and, to some extent, life circumstances—there are actions and choices we can make with the other 40% to cultivate positive emotions daily and greater happiness over our lifetime.