Intriguing new research challenges a long-held assumption about happiness: That everyone has a happiness "set point" to which they return, regardless of their life circumstances. Among a group of 150,000 Germans studied over 25 years, nearly 40 percent reported a significant shift in their well-being. The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also identified crucial factors to boosting happiness.
The set point theory argues that as much as half of our well-being is determined by genes and personality. Its major proponent was the late behavioral geneticist David Lykken, who studied twins raised apart. The theory suggests that whether we have euphoric or crushing life experiences, we tend to return to our happiness set point.
The new study by Gert Wagner, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany, is based on a survey of the same German adults from 1984 to 2008. Every year participants answered questions on life satisfaction, goals and other measures, such as how much they exercise and socialize.
Researchers averaged life-satisfaction responses to smooth out short-term effects, then ranked happiness by percentiles. Someone in the 99th percentile, for example, would be happier than 99 percent of the study participants. Some 38 percent of participants changed their position in the distribution by 25 percentiles or more during the study period. About one-quarter changed by 33 percentiles or more, and nearly 12 percent changed by 50 percentiles.
Aside from offering the hope of change for the naturally grouchy among us, the study identified key factors in boosting long-term happiness:
-Choice of spouse or romantic partner: People involved in a relationship with someone who tended toward anxiety, emotional instability and depression were less happy than other respondents.
-Emphasis on the family and helping others: Participants who strongly valued family and altruistic goals were happier. Women were also happier when their male partners ranked family goals high.
-Religious participation: People who attended church more often were happier. Researchers didn’t know if it was the spiritual or social aspect of the experience.
-Balance in working hours: Happier people felt they worked an ideal number of hours. Those who worked more or fewer hours than they preferred were less happy. Being unemployed or underemployed made a bigger dent in well-being than working too much, presumably because of the financial stress. (Other studies have found a sense of financial control boosts happiness.)
-Friendship and exercise: Socializing and exercising were both correlated with happiness. People who worked out were happier regardless of their physical shape. (Underweight men and obese women were more likely to be unhappy.)
Finally, the researchers weighed in on the money and happiness debate: "People with a lot of money are more satisfied with their lives… but mainly due to the more interesting and challenging jobs they have," study author Wagner told the Web site LiveScience. "Money is simply a byproduct of good and satisfying jobs. If you want to be satisfied with your life, you must spend time with your friends and your family."
If you're looking for more scientifically proven ways to boost happiness, check out The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a research psychologist at the University of California.
Do you think you have a happiness set point? What boosts your happiness –- both short-term and long-term?