Do you know what determines your happiness?August 11 , 2011

In my talks and workshops, inevitably there is a point when I have to pause while people absorb a particularly surprising fact from the research on happiness. What do people find so shocking?  It’s what determines our happiness. [Hint: it’s not buying new shoes…]

Researchers have shown that:

  • 50% of our happiness is based on our genes.  The random set of genes you received from your biological parents defines your overall range of happiness.  Some of us won the genetic lottery, are blessed with sunny dispositions and naturally see the good in life.  Others of us have a tendency towards pessimism and glass-is-half-empty thinking. Some scientists describe this as a basic happiness “set point.”
  • (Here’s the shocker) Only 10% of our happiness comes from external circumstances.  Your financial resources, your career, the climate where you live, your health, whether you have a life partner, how hot you look – all these things determine just 10% of your ongoing level of happiness.  (Think about how upset this fact makes marketers trying to get us to buy our way into happiness!)  Why?  It’s due to adaptation.  No matter what good things or bad things happen to you – a promotion at work, a new car, getting married to the love of your life — you adapt and after a time (often not very long) it no longer carries much emotional benefit.  Think about the last time you worked hard to accomplish something or bought something you really wanted.  How long did the buzz last? How long before those positive emotions were replaced with the desire for the next thing?  In one well-documented study, researchers found that both lottery winners and people who had become paraplegic returned to their original baseline level of happiness within one year of their life-changing event.  Striving to achieve and acquire, while a fine way to spend your time, is not a path to sustainable increases in happiness.
  • So guess what?  That remaining 40% of our happiness comes from our intentional activity: what we do and how we think.  Forty percent of our happiness is therefore IN OUR CONTROL.  Researchers have been actively testing what activities and thought patterns add to our happiness and which ones reduce it.  Study after study has shown that as people integrate these activities into their lives and make new habits, they sustainably increase their happiness.

This is what excites me most about this work.  This is why I write this newsletter, speak publicly and coach my clients about this material.  Change IS possible.  We can sustainably increase our own happiness and many of these new habits and activities take just a few minutes a day.

In future newsletters, I’ll introduce you to many of these tips and techniques for you to try out in your own life.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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