The Set Point of Happiness

Subjective well-being (SWB) is the nickname experts in this field give to happiness. Since your hell may be my paradise, subjectivity is the single greatest variable in the happiness equation. Homeless people in Calcutta have been found to be less unhappy than those in California (because they have a stronger sense of community), reports Ed Diener, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, while the Amish appear to be rarely bored, though churning butter might not be everybody's idea of a party.

Each of us, it seems, is born with a happiness "set point," a genetic level—from giddy to grumpy—around which SWB tends to settle, regardless of what happens to us. A now famous study of identical twins reared in different environments suggests that the set point determines about 50 percent of our disposition to happiness.

"Happiness is genetically influenced but not genetically fixed," says University of Minnesota professor emeritus of psychology David Lykken, PhD. "The brain's structure can be modified through practice," Lykken says. "If you really want to be happier than your grandparents provided for in your genes, you have to learn the kinds of things you can do, day by day, to bounce your set point up and avoid the things that bounce it down."

There are as many SWB-raising tools as there are people in need of a lift. Using a number of tools at once appears to be most effective, according to Diener, who is coeditor of the Journal of Happiness Studies. Such tools can range from commonsensical—getting sufficient sleep and exercise, nurturing close relationships, maintaining an optimistic outlook, using your best skills in work and play—to attitude shifts and inner work that might not spring immediately to mind, says David Myers, PhD, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan. He also recommends keeping a gratitude journal, taking control of your own time, even "acting happy" to raise SWB (since there seems to be a direct link between facial expression and emotion). While such tools seem almost too simple to be true, they are extraordinarily effective, over time, in retraining the mind toward well-being.

In writing about SWB, Diener suggests that happy people rely on familiar shortcuts rather than overthink every little situation. (For example, someone who feels down in rainy weather but gets an emotional boost from the movies would automatically beat her way to the nearest multiplex the next time there's a big storm.) On average, according to a survey out of the National Opinion Research Center, the more friends you have, the happier you are. The practice of forgiveness, University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson, PhD, says, is "a trait strongly linked to happiness." A daily moment of forgiveness, then, might be one way to raise your SWB.

Perhaps the most exciting news is that science has compelling evidence that mental practices like meditation promote SWB. At the University of Wisconsin, professor of psychology and psychiatry Richard Davidson found in his research that high levels of activity at the left frontal area of the cerebral cortex coincided with feelings of happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy, and alertness; activity on the right frontal area corresponded to feelings of sadness, anxiety, and worry. Meditation appears to be one way of redistributing the balance, sparking more left-brain activity and thus positive emotion.

It's hard to find someone in this country who has devoted more time to exploring this relationship between the mind and happiness than Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and author of Coming to Our Senses (Hyperion, 2005). "We have a sort of autoimmune disease—chronic stress and discontent—caused by not looking deeply enough into this question of genuine happiness," says Kabat-Zinn, who is a coauthor on one of Richard Davidson's studies.

In that study, one group met for a two- to-three-hour mindfulness meditation class each week for eight weeks—plus a one-day retreat—in addition to being asked to practice 45 minutes a day. Not only did subjects report significantly lowered anxiety levels and negative emotions immediately afterward, but four months later they continued to show a distinctive prefrontal shift in brain activity associated with positive emotions. They also had significantly higher levels of antibodies in response to a flu shot, compared to the control group.

"It's possible, even in the midst of hardship, to experience simple pleasures," Kabat-Zinn says. "To know delight, what's right and beautiful with the world. With mental balance, we develop a keel-like ballast that helps us to remain stable even under extreme conditions."

"We're better off aiming for happiness moment to moment than trying to engineer happiness through long-term planning"


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