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Happiness Needs Good Genes & Luck - Research Shows Joy is 60% Out-Of-Our-Control

Posted: Fri, April 19, 2013 | By: Genetics

by Davison Westmoreland

Psychologists typically define happiness as a combination of three things: (1) life satisfaction, (2) the frequency and degree of positive affect, (3) and the relative absence of negative affect. Researchers have found that we have essentially no control over roughly 50% of our happiness levels. 10% of happiness is determined by life circumstances (money, marriage, etc.) while 40% is determined by daily activities (how you think and what you do) (Lyubomirsky & Sheldon 2005).

This essay first appeared in Davison’s blog, http://socraticnewsblog.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/happiness-what-the-research-says/


Genes: Approximately 50% of happiness is determined by our genes. The genetic influence on happiness is often described as an individual’s happiness “set point,” because this is your baseline happiness level.

  • Biological: Genes determine certain biological processes, such as serotonin levels, that can affect one’s happiness (De Neve 2011).
  • Personality: Of the Big 5 personality traits (neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness), extraversion and neuroticism are the most related to happiness. Extraverts are happier than introverts. Neurotics are less happy than emotionally stable individuals. (Steel & Schmidt 2008). Conscientiousness and agreeableness are also positively related to happiness (DeNeve & Cooper 1998).

  • Other traits: Having an internal locus on control (DeNeve & Cooper 1998), optimism (Augusto-Landa & Pulido-Martos 2011) and self-esteem (Lyubomirsky & Tkach 2006) are positively correlated with happiness.

Life Circumstances:

Life circumstances are point-in-time demographic characteristics. Surprisingly, researchers can only predict about 10% of one’s happiness level with this information. This is largely due to the fact that people tend to adapt to changes in their life circumstances so that their level of happiness returns to their set point. This is known as hedonic adaptation. Individuals, for example, usually adapt to the positive change in happiness brought about by marriage in roughly two years. Studies have shown, however, that unemployment, death of a spouse, divorce, and disability can have a lasting negative impact on happiness (see below). (Lucas 2007).

  • Age: There is not much change in average happiness levels until around age 55 after which happiness starts to increase, peaking around 67, with a quite sharp decline around the age of 75 (Frijters & Beatton 2012).

  • Geographic Location: Living close to the coast, in a warm climate, and in an area with low wind is associated with increased happiness. (Brereton & Clinch 2008). The happiest country is Norway (the U.S. is ranked 12th). The happiest state is Hawaii.

  • Education: Higher education has a positive effect on happiness, even after controlling for health and income. High school, however, has no effect. (Yakovlev & Leguizamon 2012).

  • Employment: Employment is related to happiness. As noted earlier, unemployment can have lasting negative effects on one’s happiness (Maennig & Wilhelm 2012).

  • Income: While life satisfaction increases with income, positive and negative affect have no relation with income beyond $75,000 a year (Kahneman & Deaton 2010).

  • Marriage: Married people tend to be happier than those who aren’t married (Stack & Eshleman 1998). People who marry later in life experience less of an initial boost from marriage, however, they report lasting gains over time (Lucas & Clark 2006). Marrying someone who is neurotic reduces happiness (Headey & Muffels 2010).

  • Children: People who have kids report an increase in happiness that tends to adapt to the baseline level over time. The impact of a second child is positive, but not as strong as the first, and a third child actually has a negative impact on happiness. Those who have children at an older age gain the most from having kids. (Myrskyla & Margolis 2012).

  • Health: For men, being underweight, but not overweight or obese, is associated with lower happiness. Obese women are relatively unhappy, while women classified as overweight on the BMI index report about average levels of happiness (Headey & Muffels 2010).

  • Religion: Religion is positively correlated with happiness (Green & Elliott 2010).


Activities are behaviors performed over a period of time. They account for 40% of one’s happiness level. Since changing one’s life circumstances is difficult and since the benefits tend to be relatively short lived, many researchers believe that changing one’s daily activities is the best way to increase happiness. To be effective, the activities should (1) fit your personality, interests and needs, (2) vary in content to avoid hedonic adaptation, and (3) vary in timing to avoid hedonic adaptation (Lyubomirsky & Sheldon 2005).

  • ▪ Commit to goals: Committing to and attaining goals is strongly associated with happiness (Tkach & Lyubomirsky 2006).
  • Find meaning in your work: People can view their work as a job (a means to an end), a career (a means to an end with advancement), or a calling (find meaning in their job). Those who are able to mind meaning in their work are significantly happier (Wrzesniewski & McCauley 1997).

  • Spend time with friends and family: Spending time with friends and family is strongly associated with happiness (Tkach & Lyubomirsky 2006). Also, forgiving others has been shown to increase happiness (Van Oyen Witvlier & Ludwig 2001).

  • Perform random acts of kindness: People who perform 5 random acts of kindness a week are significantly happier than those who don’t. People, however, who perform the random acts of kindness on a single day, are happier than those who spread them out over the course of a week (Lyubomirsky & Sheldon 2005).

  • Eat well: People who eat 7 to 8 servings of fruits and vegetables a day are happier than those who don’t (White & Horwath 2013).

  • Exercise: People who exercise are happier than those who don’t (Stubbe & de Moor 2007). Passive leisure (television and video games) is negatively correlated with happiness (Holder & Coleman 2009).

  • Spend money on experiences, not things: People gain more happiness from spending money on experiences than spending money on things (Van Boven & Gilovich 2003). Spending money on others, rather than yourself, has also been shown to increases happiness. Spending money on strong-ties (close friends and family) increases happiness more than spending it on weak social ties (Aknin & Sandstrom 2011).

  • Express gratitude: People write down five things they are grateful for each week for 10 weeks are 25% happier (Emmons & McCullough 2003) Once a week works better than three times a week (Lyubomirsky & Sheldon 2005). Savoring the present (Quoidba & Berry 2010)  and anticipating positive future events (Van Boven & Ashworth 2007) have also been shown to increase happiness.

Additional Points:

  • Why be happy? Happy individuals are more likely than their less happy peers to have fulfilling marriages and relationships, high incomes, superior work performance, community involvement, robust health, and a long life. (Lyubomirsky & King 2005).

  • Causality: Some of the points listed above are correlational, so we don’t fully know if marriage makes people happy, or if happy people tend to get married, for example. Many of the activities listed above, however, are causal, given that they have been shown to directly increase happiness over time.

  • The mean: Just because the average divorced person is less happy than the average married person, doesn’t mean there aren’t situations where divorce will bring greater happiness.

  • Downside of happiness: People who are very happy achieve less (in terms of education and income) than people who are moderately happy. The pe

  • ak of achievement is at a happiness level of between 7 and 8 on a scale of 1-10. Furthermore, while the ratio of positive to negative emotions in happy people has been found to be 2.9:1 or higher, a ratio above 11:1 can be detrimental (Fredrickson & Losada 2005). Negative emotions should be experience when appropriate to the situation (Oishi & Diener 2007).


Aknin LB, Sandstrom GM, Dunn EW, Norton MI (2011) It’s the Recipient That Counts: Spending Money on Strong Social Ties Leads to Greater Happiness than Spending on Weak Social Ties. PLoS ONE 6(2): e17018. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017018.

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Davison Westmoreland is founder/director of socraticnews.com. He attended University of Virginia, and he now lives in the Washington D.C. area. 

This essay first appeared in Davison’s blog, http://socraticnewsblog.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/happiness-what-the-research-says/


Heh.  I came to trash this because of what I considered to be an ignorant headline—but the research looks solid.

Instead, I would argue that “out of our control” is very much a current state that is changeable via (mental health) education (and research).  Further, saying that happiness is 50% genetics is saying that it is eminently changeable—we are not *only* our genes.

Happiness *CAN BE* under our control.  We just need to figure out how to do it without trashing our other goals.

By Mark Waser on Apr 19, 2013 at 9:10am


By Mark Waser on Apr 19, 2013 at 10:29am

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