Can we train ourselves to live fuller, happier lives?
The science of happiness
What makes people happy?
It’s a question humans have been trying to answer for millennia. But over the past several decades, behavioral scientists have made huge strides in determining the basic building blocks of joy and contentment. Primary among them? The quality of your relationships. A famed, 80-year-long Harvard University study of adult development has found that close relationships, with both family and friends, help keep people happy throughout their lives. Health matters, too, as does creative work and freedom from mind-numbing routine. But the small, day-to-day stuff matters as well. The frequency of events that trigger happiness is a better predictor of satisfaction than the intensity of such events. In other words, the person who has several positive experiences throughout the day—a pleasant exchange with a friend or boss, a compliment from a spouse—is likely to be happier overall than an isolated person who wins a major award.
Does money help?
Yes and no. A 2010 study found that happiness levels increase up to an annual salary of $75,000, but after that, higher earnings have little to no effect. “Once you get basic human needs met, a lot more money doesn’t make a lot more happiness,” says Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard University and the author of the best-selling Stumbling on Happiness. Another study, conducted in 2015, concluded that higher incomes can be useful for reducing sadness but not for enhancing happiness. But more recent research has determined that money can indeed buy happiness—if you know how to use it. People who spend more of their money on the activities and causes that are important to them express more satisfaction with their lives. The biggest boost comes from spending money on others, especially those close to you. Any degree of generosity will increase your joy, but “the closer you are to the recipient, the happier you’ll be,” says Michael Norton, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.
Can we work on being happier?
Absolutely. Though some psychologists maintain that we have a “set point” of happiness—one that we return to time and again throughout our lives, even after a trauma or a lucky break— experts increasingly argue that contentment is something we can cultivate and increase with a set of learned skills. One way is to count your blessings. Studies have repeatedly shown that expressing gratitude—by keeping a weekly journal of things you are grateful for or jotting down a short list each day, for instance—leaves people feeling less stressed, healthier, and more optimistic for the future. In fact, research conducted in 2015 found that practicing gratitude—in this case, writing letters of thanks—actually triggered particular patterns of brain activity in participants, and that later brain scans showed these neural effects continued to be strong. In other words, gratitude can be self-perpetuating, making it easier to see and appreciate the good in your life down the road. Other research has noted the positive effects of meditation, exercise, volunteering, and applying yourself to a hard task.
How can a challenge make you happy?
Setting and achieving goals is a key part of working toward happiness, research has found. Your brain releases dopamine—also known as the “feel good” neurotransmitter—every time you accomplish a task you’ve lined up for yourself. One way to hack that process is to give yourself small, achievable goals, so that you trigger dopamine hits as you work your way through a to-do list. But for this to be effective, it’s key to set specific goals that you know you can accomplish. In a 2014 study, one group of volunteers was given specific, concrete goals like “increase recycling,” while a second group was given broader goals such as “save the environment.” Even though the groups later completed the same tasks, the participants in the second group reported feeling less satisfied than those in the first group.
Are some happiness factors out of our control?
Genes and age do play a role. Studies of identical twins who were separated at birth show that they reported similar levels of happiness far more frequently than fraternal twins did, suggesting that some level of satisfaction might be hereditary. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have even suggested that genes account for about 50 percent of the variation in people’s happiness levels. Global surveys from more than 70 countries show that happiness tends to decline as people move into middle age and bottoms out around age 44, and then steadily rises in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. There are several possible reasons. It could be that as people get older, they learn to care less about what others think, or that they become more adept at avoiding situations they don’t like. It could also be that experience has taught them that happiness isn’t something that just happens, and that there are ways to set a course for a happier life. “When people face endings, they tend to shift from goals about exploration to ones about savoring relationships and focusing on meaningful activities,” says Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity. “When you focus on emotionally meaningful goals, life gets better.”