Happiness from a scientific perspective and what it means for you

In my last article, I explained the pro and con of turning your hobby into a job. One of the key drivers for people, including myself in choosing such a path is because they believe that doing more of what they like doing will result in enhanced happiness in their life.

But is it really true? To answer this question, I have looked at scientific research and what the researchers have to say about the construct of happiness. Research on happiness is a surprisingly recent affairs since historically psychology has been concerned with negative emotions (anger, anxiety, fear…) and cognition and little interest was given to the positive emotions (happiness, well-being, joy,...) until the emergence of positive psychology at the turn of the last century with Doctors Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, who labelled Positive psychology the study of positive emotions.

Until then, there had been pessimism and little indication that people had any control in changing their happiness levels. Previous studies indicated that individual happiness is largely governed by genetics and that people tend to return to their “set-point” of happiness pretty quickly after winning the lottery or losing a limb for example. It was also assumed that happiness level was largely stable over time due to the phenomenon of hedonic treadmill which suggests that any gain in happiness is only temporary because we adapt very quickly to change (think of a pay rise or the purchase of a new car and how quickly we habituate to these short-term happiness boost)

New research, however, is more positive on our ability to change our level of happiness level and this is what is described in the rest of this article which is mainly based on a paper by Lyubomirsky & Sheldon (2005).

Happiness can be best described as being formed of 3 factors and they contribute differently to our happiness level:

(1)   Genetically determined set point (50%)

(2)   Life circumstantial factors (10%)

(3)   Intentional activities (40%)

(1)   The genetically determined set point: it is the range within which the happiness of an individual will fluctuate. We all have different set-points, and some have wider emotional range than others, being able to experience more highs and more lows than someone with a more restricted set point.

It is mainly genetic (heritability estimated at 80%), rooted in neurobiology, dependent of our temperament, stable over time and outside our control.

Implications: some periods of our lives will be happier than others but they will remain within the limit of the set-point, since we cannot change that set-point, we should therefore look at the other factors to see if we can spend more time in the upper end of our set-point range.

(2)   Life circumstantial factors: they are the incidental but relatively stable aspects of one person’s life like gender, nationality, marital status, but also previous events happening in life history such as trauma and other variables such as occupational status, job security, income, religious affiliation or health.

All the elements above are intuitively related to happiness and if asked if they are important to you, you would likely answer that they are essential for you to feel content and happy in life.

Implications: research however shows that even if we spend most of our time, energy and money trying to change our life circumstances (a new job, a new house, an other car…), these on the factors contribute little to our long-term happiness levels. There are things that we have some control over but the hedonic treadmill effect and habituation is usually robbing us from the expected long term benefits we expect of them. So changing your life circumstances are short term strategies but not long term ones for sustained happiness levels

Note, however, that this is only true when the basic human needs are satisfied, the case of most if not all the readers of this articles. For someone who is not able to fulfill his needs for survival or security, any positive change in his or her life circumstances will be probably a significant step up in his or her long-term happiness level but when you are educated and somehow affluent it is unlikely to be the case.

(3)   Intentional activities is a broad category of activities that people choose to engage into and which take effort to pursue. Research has shown that the following activities influence the happiness level:

a.      Behavioral: sport, exercising regularly, being kind to others

b.     Cognitive: reframing events into more positive perspective, counting one’s blessing

c.      Volitional: striving for important personal goals or working for a meaningful cause

Many experiments have shown that these chosen and effortful activities are the ones which can increase our base line of happiness in the long-term when these activities are pursued and continued over time. These activities seem to be more resistant to the hedonic treadmill and therefore deliver sustained benefits.

Implications: the attributes of these activities are that they are episodic and in fact should not be turned into a routine otherwise psychological adaptation will set-in and they will lose their benefits. We should also leave time between doing this same activity as it keeps the activity fresh and strong. These activities should also be varied as then it is more resistant to habituation and more importantly they have to be intentional so again don’t automatize them into a routine, don’t take them for granted but take the time to reflect on what it brings to your life.

Marriage is a good example of an “activity” which can be turned into a life circumstance category and loses on its appeal to make us happy, or being kept as an intentional activity so it remains a source of happiness and inspiration.

So, to conclude this short article, if you turn your hobby into a job, the risk is to turn it into a “normal” job, a life circumstance and then the chance of this new hobby-job to increase significantly your happiness level is limited and probably short lived. The whole idea then is to keep it an intentional activity and really work at it to keep it fresh, non-routine and volitional, something you do out of choice.

Time will tell if I can make it work for myself and derive the pleasure I expect from it. Being aware of the pitfalls might not be enough but is at least a good starting point.



Reference: Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change; Lyubomirsky, Sonja ; Sheldon, Kennon M. ; Schkade, David; ; Candland, Douglas K. (editor) ; Baumeister, Roy F. (editor) ; Simonton, Dean Keith (editor); Review of General Psychology, 2005, Vol.9(2), pp.111-131


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