How to be happy – 8. Make happiness an inside job

Lesson: Externals don’t have a big impact on happiness

You might think the happiest people are the ones with great life conditions – money, health, youth and a good marriage. But researchers have used statistical techniques to quantify how much circumstances contribute to happiness, and their findings tell a different story.

Here’s what they’ve found:

  • –Factors like age, gender, social class, culture, marital status and employment are only weakly-to-moderately associated with happiness (1;2)
  • -The combined contribution to happiness of circumstances, demographics and events in a person’s life is small (between 8-15% of happiness variance in statistical terms) (1; 3)
    -A large twin study found education, income, marital status, socioeconomic status and religiousness each contributed little to happiness (at most 3% of variance) (4)

Now, there are certain times when externals make a big difference to happiness:

  • Better conditions can dramatically boost happiness under very deprived circumstances (5)
  • Acute stress or unpleasant life episodes can undermine happiness (6)
  • Both within and between nations, the poorest are the least likely to be happy (7)

Beyond extreme stress or deprivation, though, circumstances add little to happiness. And in developed nations there’s little relationship between income and happiness (7).

Happiness strategy: Make happiness an inside job  

We all know people who seem to ‘have it all’ yet lack any contentment in their lives. And we can easily think of celebrities blessed with looks, money and success who struggle with drugs, depression and despair.

The circumstances and conditions of our lives don’t provide a direct link to our happiness level, and looking to these externals may be a misleading path to happiness – as the studies, and life, show. Realizing that being happy is an inside job could be the single smartest thing you do toward your own happiness goal. Future strategies will shed more light on just how to develop these internal resources.

Meanwhile, you may be wondering what would happen if we changed our circumstances – got a new job, won the lottery, or moved to a new state. Surely that would make us happier, right? 

Tune in for the next strategy to find out.

Research sources:

(3) Andrews, F. M., & Withey, S. B. (1976). Social indicators of well-being: Americans’ perceptions of life quality. New York: Plenum Press.

(7) Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2002). Will money increase subjective well-being? Social Indicators Research, 57(2), 119-169.

(1) Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125(2), 276-302.

(6) Headey, B., & Wearing, A. J. (1992). Understanding happiness: A theory of subjective well-being. South Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.

(4) Lykken, D., & Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7(3), 186-189.

(5) Oishi, S., Diener, E. F., Lucas, R. E., & Suh, E. M. (1999). Cross-cultural variations in predictors of life satisfaction: Perspectives from needs and values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(8), 980-990.

(2) Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 141-166.

How to be happy:
101 practical strategies drawn from positive psychology.

This post is part of a series covering simple, practical, research-inspired, happiness strategies you can use in your own life. For more information about the series, check out the 101 Happiness Strategies main page.

Image by ewanr under Creative Commons.

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