RODALE NEWS, LENOX, PA—Is your happiness within your control? Is making the correct choices in life—choosing a spouse, a career, a lifestyle—the best way to be happy in life? Or is your level of happiness pretty much hardwired, a product of your genes and your childhood experience? We'd all like to know how to be happy in life, and there's more at stake than our psychological well-being. As positive psychology research has shown, happiness has an impact on our physical health, as well.
THE DETAILS: In the mid-’90s, social scientist Ed Diener, PhD, pointed to a mountain of research suggesting that people have a “set point” level of happiness that remains relatively stable throughout life, regardless of the events they experience or the choices they make. He cited the fact that most people’s characteristic level of happiness is only temporarily affected by life events. Whether someone wins the lottery or suffers a life-altering injury, within about a year, that person tends to revert back to his or her preexisting level of well-being. And identical twins raised by the same parents tend to be almost identical in how happy they are as adults, regardless of the choices they've made in life. When it comes to being a happy adult, genes and childhood experiences have a powerful influence. So, according to set point theory, the way to be happy in life is to pick your parents well, because it’s their genes and their parenting that ultimately predetermine how happy you’ll be throughout your life.
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But this is not the way we like to think of ourselves. We have freedom. We believe that our life choices affect how happy we will be. We choose jobs, spouses, and lifestyles believing that making wise choices will make us happier. In the years since Diener’s research, psychologists have found there are many choices we make that really do impact our happiness. While they acknowledge the impact of genes and personality, they have found the life choices we make account for about 40% of our happiness.
This understanding fits with my experience. Every day, I see how the choices my clients make have an impact on their long-term happiness. When they embrace a healthy lifestyle, including daily exercise, their energy and happiness skyrocket. When they make a career move that allows more quality time with family and friends, their life becomes more fulfilling.
The world’s largest study to date of the long-term effect of life choices on happiness highlights that we really do have the ability to make ourselves happier. The research, published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, involved 60,000 Germans between the ages of 25 and 64 who were surveyed periodically between 1984 to 2008. The researchers found that many of the participants became significantly more or less happy with their lives over the course of the study period. Although the evidence was gathered in only one country, previous research has indicated that levels of happiness found in one developed country almost invariably replicate in others.