Last week, while discussing the limitations associated with linking the pursuit of pleasure to a durable happiness, we referred to adaptation – in essence, the human tendency to adjust to changed circumstances, whether they be positive or negative.
This week, we will approach the same basic topic from another angle, looking at the set-point theory of happiness and considering its implications.
The basic claim of this theory is that each individual’s general level of happiness is going to be, at least in part, determined by genes. Some studies have found the heritability of subjective well-being to be as high as 80%, but advocates of the theory generally pitch the figure as being in the region of 50%.
In simple terms, this suggests that approximately half of our capacity to experience happiness is pre-determined, somehow ‘set’ by our genes. This, in turn, has been taken to indicate that each of us effectively has a default level of happiness, which we will tend to return to over time. For example, if we win the lottery, that may boost our happiness levels, but we will tend to drift back towards that set-point. The same logic applies with negative experiences. So, if, as referred to last week, we suffer a serious injury, that will impact adversely on our happiness levels, but the expectation is that we will gradually drift back up towards that default setting.
People tend to react differently to the idea of individual happiness levels having a set-point. In lectures I have given, when focusing on this area, I have seen some faces contort in horror, while others are more likely to smile and nod along. Whenever this happens, I make a joke to the effect that those who don’t like the idea of a set-point may have a lower default level of happiness than those who are less disturbed by it. As in-class jokes go, it doesn’t tend to get many laughs, which, perhaps, I can also write off to low set-point levels!
However, I invariably follow that up by seeking to reassure those unsettled by the theory by stating that, even if accurate, set-point may only account for 50% of our happiness at any given moment. That means, depending upon your perspective, the glass is either half-full or half-empty, which, again, may offer a hint as to where you reside on that set-point happiness spectrum.
Researchers such as Sonya Lyubomirsky have devoted time to investigating this area. She notes that it would be a mistake to regard the 50% figure as carved in stone. Instead, she notes that the exact figure may vary from individual to individual, but research findings tend to settle around the 50% on average. However, this is literally only half the picture. Lyubomirsky highlights the other 50%, and offers findings that at first glance may feel counter-intuitive. She states that life circumstances tend to account for around 10%, while volitional activities (i.e., how we choose to spend our time when we’re not working) account for 40%. What are the implications of these figures? Well, they hint that some of us may have misplaced priorities as it relates to our happiness strategies, while also harkening back to the idea that a happiness strategy geared around the pursuit of pleasure is doomed to disappoint.
In contemporary society, a lot of attention is given to individual life circumstances, and the message we receive on this point tends to be consistent – improve those circumstances and you will be happier. Lyubomirsky calls this assumption into question. Get a promotion, get a pay increase, get a more prestigious job, buy a new car, move into a bigger home… these are all examples of things society tells us we should aspire to and, all things being equal, we also expect to become happier when we tick any of those boxes. And that may well be the case, but if life circumstances only account for around 10% of our happiness levels, then it may well be that we devote far too much time and energy to this angle, while perhaps neglecting more fertile ground.
The 40% around volitional activities is where we find the potential to reap most benefits. This highlights how important our free time is, and how we should be conscious of what we do with it. The implication is that we should all pry ourselves off the couch and step away from the remote control and put some more thought into what we do with our time. What do you enjoy? What are your interests? What puts you into a flow state? What gives you a sense of purpose or meaning? The logic is that the more time we spend on these activities, then the happier we will be.
This latter point highlights that we are not captives of the set-point. It is entirely possible that Person A may have a higher default level of happiness than Person B. But if Person B makes a point of pursuing volitional activities linked to their interests and talents and in service to others (in line with the Three Happy Lives), while Person A tends to live on the couch and subsist on a steady diet of soap operas and boxsets, then, all other things being equal, Person B will most likely tend to be happier than Person A, despite perhaps having a lower default level.
Set-point theory is not without its critics, but as with any theory in psychology, it is open to improvement (or replacement) over time. One of the developments we have seen is the proposal, as alluded to by Lyubomirsky, that we would be better served to think in terms of a set-range, rather than a set-point. There is no doubt that the idea of a set-range may sit easier with us than that of a set-point, with the former suggesting more leeway for movement, and avoiding the impression of rigidity invariably conjured up by the latter.
Reading the above and noting the limited role life circumstances appear to play in making people happier, you might ask the question of how all this relates to money. There is no shortage on that area, and it is a point that we will address next week.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.
Sonya Lyubomirsky on happiness: