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 and he know how to stay 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.

 Circumstances

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: How to Become and Stay Happy

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 goodness (abundance) of life, counting blessings, expressing thanks to someone, 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. They suffer less depression and stress. They report a greater sense of purpose, more control over their lives, greater self-acceptance, more optimism. They are more empathetic, more forgiving, less materialistic and have more positive ways of coping with difficulties.

In short, appreciating, or gratitude, is more highly linked with mental health, happiness, and well-being than any other character trait. This scientifically proven fact makes developing appreciation and gratitude one of the most important things we can do to live a good life. And, the best news is that we can learn to be more grateful through deliberate practice.

Here are a few strategies to develop your gratitude and appreciation:

  • Pause during the day and notice three things, often simple things, that you are grateful for at this moment. Say them aloud or write them down.
  • Make a list of 100 things you are grateful for.
  • Start your day with gratitude, first thing as you wake up. Offer a prayer or make some gratitude statements before you get into your routine.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Write down daily, or at least weekly, the good things that have happened in your life today.
  • Express appreciation and “thanks” frequently to people who serve you or work on your behalf.
  • Write a letter to someone who has touched your life. Send it to this person or, if possible, meet with this person and share your letter face-to-face.
  • Send notes of appreciation to people who you admire or have touched your life.
  • Reminisce about good times in your life.
  • Keep mementos that remind you of happy times. Bring them out, once in a while, to think about what they mean.
  • Cultivate optimism. Instead of seeing what could go wrong, focus on what could go right.
  • Envision a positive future by writing down your “best possible future self.”

Becoming (rather than getting)

Becoming is about the inner journey. It is less about materialism in the form of accumulating and accomplishing and more about finding inner meaning and fulfillment. It is recognizing that happiness and joy come from intrinsic/internal goals vs. external goals. Research bears this out. Studies show that people who pursue intrinsic goals like gratitude, compassion, personal growth, and meaningful relationships are much happier than those who pursue extrinsic goals of a big house, nice car or fancy job title, etc. This is why so many who live in 3rd world countries can be as happy as people in more affluent societies.

Another way of thinking about becoming is that these are practices which grow and nourish your heart or soul or spirit, whatever you want to call it—that unseen part of you. I believe that our hearts or souls need to be nourished. In the same way that we nourish our physical bodies by feeding and caring for them, we can nourish our souls by connecting and caring for our inner self. I have discovered that nourishing and caring for ourselves is essential to finding deep and long-term joy, peace and happiness. In fact, it’s a way we overcome the stresses of life and an alternative to the need to prove ourselves as worthy through so many various forms of perfecting, proving, pleasing, performing or possessing.

Here are some ways we practice “becoming” and nourishing ourselves:

  • Spend time in outdoors or in nature.
  • Take care of your body through good exercise, diet and rest.
  • Do things you enjoy. Make regular time for fun hobbies and recreation (tv doesn’t count).
  • Find a hobby in which you can get into a state of “flow” (intense concentration and loss or awareness of self and time).
  • Pause, once in a while during the day, to stretch and become aware of your breathing.
  • Learn a practice to quiet your mind such as meditation, tai chi, yoga, or relaxation.
  • Slow down and take time to savor or fully enjoy this moment and/or every day activities.
  • Define your purpose or reframe a current role or responsibility in terms of a purpose. See the “why” behind what you do.
  • Set and go after freely chosen and meaningful goals.

Connecting (rather than isolating)

Connecting 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. The happiest people are good at building friendships and/or loving relationships within their families. And societies that emphasize community (Denmark) are much happier than those who emphasize achievement and getting ahead (Japan).

Unfortunately, social scientists also tell us that we are becoming more isolated and lonely as a society. In the 1940s and 50s when Americans were asked how many close personal friends they had, the average reported was three. Today the average is none. And social media and technology resulting in people spending less time together and more time in front of a screen—working, watching movies, surfing the internet, playing video games or comparing their lives to others on social media and coming up short. Alienation, anxiety and depression are soaring in our society today, particularly among young people. We are forgetting how to build friendships and social relationships.

So here are a few thoughts to build stronger social relationships:

  • Be a giver more than taker.
  • Put out to others (friendship, love, goodwill) what you want to receive.
  • Act in a friendly way by greeting others enthusiastically, looking them in the eyes and calling them by name.
  • Learn empathy by seeing another’s point of view, being curious and making it easy for others to open up and talk to you.
  • Be vulnerable and self-disclosing. Step out from behind a mask to let people see the real you.
  • Take responsibility for your experience and quality of your relationships rather than blame or build your case.
  • Keep on the look-out for ways you can help others. Do acts of kindness for loved ones and strangers.
  • Show admiration, affirm and build people up.
  • Learn good communication strategies (soft start-ups, repair attempts, building a pool of shared understanding) to resolve conflict.
  • Participate in recreation, civic, humanitarian or religious groups.
  • Seek out people with interests similar to your own.

Final Thoughts

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.

And know that I’ve written more articles about each of the ABCs that you can find on this web page.

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 other log 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.

If You Are Serious About Your Happiness

If you are really serious about living a happy and meaningful life, I’ve created a 6-hour video program entitled “CLAIMING YOUR POWER TO LIVE A HAPPY AND ABUNDANT LIFE” which not only teaches you strategies of happiness, but goes even deeper by teaching you an empowerment model to change your thinking, feelings and behavior so you can achieve those outcomes you most desire. Check it out.


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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