If you have a great suit-wearing job in a fancy office and lots of money, will you be happier than someone who works outside cleaning the streets? If you go to church and believe fully in the wonder of God, are you more satisfied than someone who believes in nothing? If you are celebrating your fortieth wedding anniversary in the company of your five children, are you happier than the eternal bachelor? What is it in life that makes us happy and can we measure it?
Psychological studies from the University of Minnesota have found some fascinating results by studying pairs of twins and their levels of happiness by using well-being data from a multidimensional personality questionnaire. In short, they looked at records of twins in Minnesota, then contacted them to see how happy they were. They used data from both monozygotic (identical) and dizygotic (non-identical) twins to study the effects of genetics and compared data for twins that had grown-up together and twins that had been separated at birth to consider the effect of environment.
What they found was rather revealing. Educational attainment and socioeconomic status accounted for less than 2% of variance, meaning that levels of happiness were unaffected by an individuals achievements at school or in their jobs. Then they looked at the difference between people who were married and those who were not and found that the difference in happiness was less than 1%. Extending this to religious beliefs, they once again found almost no difference in levels of happiness. What this indicates, is that people are almost equally happy, independent of their level of wealth, their marital status, or their religious beliefs.
What they found by using twins, was that there was a strong correlation between the happiness of the monozygotic (identical) twins whether they had been raised together or separated as infants. Between dizygotic (non-identical) twins, no such correlation existed. They also found that when retesting individuals after a long period of time, the levels of happiness correlated quite strongly. What they concluded from this research is that every individual has a baseline level of happiness and contentment that they return to and that this baseline level of happiness is largely (but not wholly) affected by genetics. In other words, some people are born happier than others.
This means that when you see those individuals who are always happy and you wonder how it is that they can light up a room and take so much delight in life, they might be genetically predisposed to be happier than others. Similarly, individuals who have that unscrupulous way of dampening the mood of an environment purely by their being present may be heavily suffering from their genes.
While these genetics play a significant part in our baseline happiness, the report also indicated that a person’s short term happiness was heavily dependent upon recent events. As explained in The Avant-Garde Life, short term incidents cause short term happiness (or lack thereof). This was indicated in another study which compared the happiness of individuals who had won the lottery with the happiness of individuals who had suffered paralysis. A short time after their defining incidents, their happiness levels were adversely or positively affected as was to be expected. However, a year after their defining events, both groups exhibited similar levels of happiness. This means that to stay happy for an extended period of time, we must continue to have happiness generating experiences. We cannot rely on a single event such as a promotion or winning the lottery to offer us extended happiness.
Funnily enough, in the study, 80% of participants thought that they were in the top 35% of individuals when only considering overall contentment compared with 42% believing that they were in the top 35% most intelligent. This indicates that most people believe that they are happier than average. This may be a result of evolution which promotes the survival of the happiest individuals. Equally, it may not. What it does show, is that we, as humans, are more inclined to have a baseline happiness than is above neutral.
The happiest people in the study were those who had close personal relationships and continually set themselves achievable goals. What was not clear, was which direction the cause travelled in. Did people become happy because of these goals and the people close to them? Or did they set goals and form strong relationships because they were happy?
Whatever you take from this study, it offers an interesting insight into our happiness. Although some of us are genetically more inclined to feel happier than others, we can also create our own happiness.
If you are not completely happy with what you are doing in life, download and read The Avant-Garde Life. It’s completely free and you can get a full refund if you don’t like it.
You can read the psychological report from University of Minnesota here.