What Science Teaches us about Happiness

What science teaches us about happiness

I’ve long been interested in the understanding happiness and so have studied the research over the last several years. Here is what science tells us happiness looks like:

The Genetic Component

Notice that 50% of our happiness is hard-wired. This has been determined by studies on identical twins. The first of these studies was conducted in the mid-seventies by researchers at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota. (As an aside, one of the lead researchers, Auke Tellegen, sat on my dissertation committee.) These researchers conducted a study of 75 sets of identical twins born between 1930 and 1950 who were raised apart.

Around their fortieth birthdays, the researchers reached out to the twins and ran comprehensive psychological assessments on them. One of the most important findings is that these twins, never having met, raised apart and measured separately, had similar happiness scores. No other demographic factors (education, religion, income, etc.) correlated more with their happiness than their genetics. The researchers found they could predict 48 percent of happiness based on the happiness level of twin. This is, by the way, a very high correlation.

This caused scientists to conclude there is a happiness “set point” based on genetics. Imagine a ten-point scale from 0 to 10. You may be anywhere along that scale from low to high. Of course, people with a high set point don’t have to work as hard at being happy. It’s part of their DNA.

My father was one of these people. He was naturally upbeat and positive almost no matter what life dealt him. He was a multi-millionaire who lost his entire estate in the later years of his life. I remember him quoting from the Rudyard Kipling poem “If,” the morning after he filed bankruptcy: “…If you can make one heap of all your winnings and lose it on one game of pitch and toss, and lose and never breathe a word about your loss…” He told me that morning that this was his creed. He was simply going to move forward. He had other problems including some pretty serious physical ailments. He had by-pass heart surgery on two occasions and lived for twenty years in almost constant pain from angina as well as a couple of broken vertebrae in his back. But he was happy.

Other people have a lower genetic set point on the happiness scale. They have to work harder in order to be happy. Bummer. They can be happy but have to take more responsibility for it.


So this brings me to a second source of happiness—circumstances. However, notice that only 10 percent of our happiness is determined by our circumstances. Only 10 percent! And yet this is what most of us believe creates our happiness.

What social scientists are telling us is that happiness is not determined by being rich or poor, beautiful or plain, healthy or unhealthy, married or divorced, etc. Not that these don’t influence happiness but they are not the primary determiners of our happiness. Even though people go through good and bad experiences or change their circumstances, they return to their set point, after between 6 and 12 months.

Dan Gilmore, a Harvard psychologist and researcher states that lottery winners and paraplegics are the same on a happiness scale. Can you imagine, for example, winning the lottery? Wouldn’t you be ecstatic? Initially, lottery winners get a big bump in their happiness scores but 12 months later they are no happier than prior to winning.

Likewise, paraplegics understandably drop in happiness following their accidents and yet some 12 months later they report being about as happy as they were prior to their accidents.

It seems that if you win the lottery, get a new job, get out of one relationship and into another, get a raise, buy a new car, move into a new and bigger house, over several months, you’re not necessarily going to be much happier than before. This is also true of people who experience and accident or have health problems. Changes in our circumstances may raise or lower our happiness by up to 10 percent but that seems to be the limit.

Wherever I go, there I am.

Intentional Activity (choice-making)

So this has led researchers to conclude that 40 percent of our happiness is determined by other factors. Some psychologists, such as Sonja Lyumbomirsky, call it intentional activity. I like to think of this as our choice-making ability.

Now, 40 percent isn’t everything. But it is a lot. I’d love to have 40 percent control over the weather, how my kids turn out, what happens in our national government, my stock portfolio, how my boss thinks (which is me come to think of it.)  This number means that our happiness is not up to chance. We can influence it by how we think and what we do, by the kinds of choices we make.

Here is the important point. People who are happier are not so because life treats them differently but because they make better choices. They have better mental strategies for dealing with life. And the good news is that these strategies can be learned.

Happiness Strategies

So, the question becomes, what are these strategies?

I want to begin to answer that question by providing you a short video about happiness. The video comes from an online educational resource called Soul Pancake. Before you watch it, let me just share a little backstory. The woman featured in the video is a former school teacher in Los Angeles who has opened her home in the evenings to struggling youth. Just before this video clip she went through a surgery which left her partially paralyzed. As you watch the clip, I’d like you to pay attention to what she teaches about happiness.

Video clip: the Perfect Score

I’d love to be together to talk about this video. Since we cannot, what sticks out for you? What did you learn about how she brings happiness into her life every day? Of course, we’re only talking here about how she starts her day. Did you notice that she starts her day by being intentional about what she wants? This day I choose… She then offers gratitude. She gives thanks for simple things, the kinds of things that most of us take for granted. She meditates. She does something she enjoys—she watches cartoons. And she thinks about who she might serve. She gives amazing service.

The ABCs of Happiness

As I have read and researched the topic of happiness for the past several years, I have discovered a pattern that I’d like to share with you. This is something I’ve given a lot of thought and compared against a lot of the science on happiness and think that the model I’m going to share is intuitive, easy to understand, and memorable. I call it the ABCs of happiness.

Notice the words “I choose…” in the middle of this diagram. Happiness does not just magically happen by saying the words “I choose to be happy.” It is not like turning on a light switch. Instead, we choose to use specific strategies of appreciating, becoming, and connecting and the outcome is greater happiness and joy. Happiness is less about mood and more about the discipline to use good mental strategies.
Here is a little deeper look at the meaning of the ABCs.

Appreciating (rather than resenting)

Appreciating is a mindset, a way of looking at the world. It is many things—seeing the good (abundance) of life, counting blessings, expressing thanks to someone who has made a difference to you, looking on the bright side of a setback, finding reasons to be glad, taking time to savor the simple pleasures of life, not taking things for granted. In essence, it is a deep sense of wonder and appreciation for life. It is so powerful that it is considered a mega-strategy for happiness and an antidote to negative emotions of envy, irritation, resentment, and worry.  People who cultivate appreciation and gratitude, consistently, are more hopeful, confident, energetic and happier.

Becoming (rather than getting)

Becoming is about pursuing inner goals and meaning over extrinsic goals. Research shows that people who develop internal qualities such as compassion and meaningful relationships are much happier than those who pursue such external goals as a wealth, a big house, or job title. Becoming has to do with discovering your life’s purpose, connecting to something larger than yourself. It is about knowing and using your talents on a daily basis, getting into flow (challenging activities in which you become totally consumed, losing your sense of time and self). It also includes engaging in practices (meditation, yoga, worship, scripture reading) which deepen your spirituality and connection to God or the cosmos.  People who make becoming more important than achieving external goals are universally happier than those who do not.

Caring (rather than isolating)

Caring is about developing quality relationships. The literature is clear that the happiest people in the world are those who have the best relationships. This is not surprising. We’re social creatures and our need for connection and love is as real as our need for food and shelter. Societies that emphasize community (Denmark) are much happier than those who emphasize achievement and getting ahead (Japan). Caring people are exceptionally good at building friendships and/or loving relationships within their families. They are givers more than takers. They are positive in their comments to build others up and more regularly perform service and even random acts of kindness. Research shows that there may not be a more important pursuit in our quest for happiness than cultivating good relationships with friends and family.

Final Thoughts

So this is a pretty brief overview of the ABCs of happiness. Most of the happiness strategies I can think of fall into one of these three categories. Hopefully, they are easy to remember and you can be mindful of them as you go about your daily activities.

One last point we can learn from the science of happiness is about neuroplasticity. Whereas we used to believe that the structure of the brain was set early in life we now know that the brain can actually adapt and change over time. Our brain changes depending on how we use it. Just like we can grow strength in an arm through exercise, we can strengthen areas of our brain if we use those areas of the brain. The brains of happy people look different than the brains of unhappy people.

In upcoming blog posts, I hope to teach you some powerful strategies to become a happier person. In truth, the mental strategies I’ll be teaching you not only change our behavior, they literally change our brains. That is what makes this journey so exciting.

(And, by the way, I’m creating a new online course entitled “Claiming Your Power to Live a Happy and Abundant Life” which I’ll be completing and posting on Udemy within the next few months. Stay tuned…)

About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

One response to “What Science Teaches us about Happiness”

  1. Ed Engel says:

    Another nice piece my friend! Thank you again for your life’s work, and continued interest in making life better, happier, and more meaningful for others. You are perfectly suited for the task. Press on!!

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