The Scientific Pursuit Of Happiness

Scientists have been analyzing happiness for a long time–probably for as long as “science” has existed as a discipline separate from philosophy or religion. The basic questions being explored are straightforward: Why do some people seem to be happier than others? How much personal happiness is genetic, and how much is the product of environment or intentional activity? These age-old questions have taken on added urgency recently, with so many people in the modern world struggling with depression, stress, and anxiety–and COVID isn’t exactly helping, either.

A recent article summarized the current scientific landscape on the analysis of happiness. It notes that the modern framework for the analysis was set by a 2005 article in General Psychology called “Pursuing Happiness: The Structure of Sustainable Change.” The summary of that article describes its analysis as follows: “surprisingly little scientific research has focused on the question of how happiness can be increased and then sustained, probably because of pessimism engendered by the concepts of genetic determinism and hedonic adaptation. Nevertheless, emerging sources of optimism exist regarding the possibility of permanent increases in happiness. Drawing on the past well-being literature, the authors propose that a person’s chronic happiness level is governed by 3 major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and practices.”

Only scientists would use a phrase like “chronic happiness level.” But stripped of the scientific verbiage, the article posited that some element of individual happiness is determined by genetics and therefore beyond your control, another element is based on your environment, and yet another element is based on activities and practices that affect your happiness–activities and practices that you can control. The 2005 article even attributed percentages to each of the three elements, with 50 percent of the variance in happiness attributed to genetics, 10 percent to environment, and 40 percent to activities and practices. This 50-10-40 hypothesis was seen by some as a “happiness pie.”

As with any scientific hypothesis, the “happiness pie” analysis has been criticized, primarily on the ground that it is pretty hard to distinguish genetic factors from environmental factors. One 2019 article in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, there evidently is such a publication) noted: “We conclude that there is little empirical evidence for the variance decomposition suggested by the “happiness pie,” and that even if it were valid, it is not necessarily informative with respect to the question of whether individuals can truly exert substantial infuence over their own chronic happiness level.”

It’s the scientific equivalent of the theological argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But there does seem to be consensus on three basic propositions: (1) genetics play a role, and some people are genetically disposed to be in a happier frame of mind than others; (2) your environment has an impact on happiness; and (3) what you are doing at a particular point in time–such as running through a sprinkler on a hot summer day, like the happy kid in the photo above–can affect your happiness.

In view of that, what’s the point of arguing about what percentage of happiness should be assigned to each of those three factors? You can’t control your genes, and you can’t control how your environment shaped you when you were growing up. But you can identify what you enjoy–whether it is exercising, listening to your favorite music, spending time with friends and loved ones, volunteering, or some other activity–and try to work those activities into your day. And, in big-picture terms, you might be able to change your environment going forward to a place or setting that is more likely to make you happy, too. And part of changing your environment is identifying what makes you unhappy–like jerky behavior on social media, for example–and trying to change or avoid it.

So why debate percentages? If trying to structure your day to maximize the conduct and activities that you really like can make you happier–even if it is only an incremental increase–why not do it? What have you got to lose?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s