How much control do we have over our contentment?
Some people seem to have permanently sunny outlooks, while others never stop complaining. Naturally, scientists have asked why.
In a famous 1996 study, University of Minnesota researchers David Lykken and Auke Tellegen analyzed well-being questionnaires answered by 254 twins over a 10-year period. They found that identical twins’ happiness was much more closely paired over time than that of fraternal twins. In a smaller sample of twins separated in infancy and reared apart- removing the influence of a shared environment-the effect was slightly more pronounced.
The authors went on to calculate that about 50 per cent of happiness is genetic. The scientific community is still arguing about the exact numbers, but the basic finding is widely accepted.
If a large part of happiness is inherited, does that mean the rest can be acquired by upgrading your job, your house or where you live?
Decades of research support the theory of hedonic adaptation, sometimes called the “happiness treadmill”: after negative and positive life changes, individuals tend to revert to a baseline level of well-being. One study published in 2011 examined 3,658 Germans who moved into new houses because they were frustrated with their old ones. Housing satisfaction generally rose in the first year and then began falling, though remained higher than before the move. But life satisfaction remained unchanged.
Other studies have found that spikes in well-being after marriage or a job promotion tend to fade within months. On the flip side, even after traumatic changes like widowhood, disability and job loss, happiness levels usually trend upward again (albeit slowly and with more variability).
In other words, chasing material life changes doesn’t offer much joy. Does that mean happiness is out of our control? Not at all, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and the author of The Myths of Happiness.
After conducting a 2009 review of 51 “happiness interventions”-including writing letters of gratitude, counting one’s blessings and practising random acts of kindness-
Lyubomirsky and her co-author, Nancy L. Sin, found that these simple activities had a significant effect on well-being. In addition, savouring positive experiences tended to increase appreciation of them.
“Happiness is not something where you either have it or you don’t. You definitely can do something about it,” says Lyubomirsky.