10 Keys to True Happiness

The best part -- it's well within your reach.

By Bob Holmes | Kurt Kleiner from Reader's Digest | March 2004

Better living through science is possible. Over the last 70 years or so, researchers have been probing happy and unhappy people, and they’re finally zeroing in on the factors that make a difference. What follows are the top ten. By the way, the experts think your genes account for about 50 percent of your disposition; the other nine factors make up the rest.

1. Wealth
Money can buy a degree of happiness. But once you can afford to feed, clothe and house yourself, each extra dollar makes less and less difference.

Whenever and wherever they look, scientists find that, on average, wealthier people are happier. But the link between money and happiness is complicated. In the past half-century, average income has skyrocketed in industrialized countries, yet happiness levels have remained static. Once your basic needs are met, money only seems to boost happiness if you have more than your friends, neighbors and colleagues.

“Dollars buy status, and status makes people feel better,” says Andrew Oswald, an economist at Warwick University in Coventry, England. This helps explain why people who can seek status in other ways — scientists or actors, for example — may happily accept relatively poorly paid jobs.

2. Desire
How much stuff do you need to feel good? In the 1980s, political scientist Alex Michalos, professor emeritus at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, asked 18,000 college students in 39 countries to rate their happiness on a numeric scale. Then he asked them how close they were to having all they wanted. He found that the people whose aspirations — not just for money, but for friends, family, job, health, the works — soared furthest beyond what they already had, tended to be less happy than those who perceived a smaller gap. Indeed, the size of the gap predicted happiness about five times better than income alone. “The gap measures just blow away the absolute measures of income,” says Michalos.

This “aspiration gap” might explain why most people fail to get much happier as their salaries rise. Instead of satisfying our desires, most of us merely want more. In surveys by the Roper polling organization over the last two decades, Americans were asked to list the material possessions they thought important to “the good life.” The researchers found that the more of these goods people already had, the longer their list was. The good life remained always just out of reach.

3. Intelligence
Only a few surveys have examined whether smart people are happier, but they indicate intelligence has no effect. That seems surprising at first, since brighter people often earn more, and the rich tend to be happier.

Some researchers speculate that brighter people could have higher expectations and thus be dissatisfied with anything less than the highest achievements. “Or maybe scoring high on an IQ test — which means you know a lot of vocabulary and can rotate things in your mind — doesn’t have a lot to do with your ability to get along well with people,” says Ed Diener, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He speculates that “social intelligence” could be the real key to happiness.

4. Genetics
Are some people born happy or unhappy? David Lykken, a behavioral geneticist and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, believes our feeling of well-being at any moment is determined half by what is going on in our lives at that time and half by a “set point” of happiness, which is up to 90 percent genetically determined and to which we eventually return after dramatic events. “While our happiness set point is largely determined by our genes,” says Lykken, “whether we bounce along above it or slump along under it depends on our — or our parents’ — good sense and good training.”

Lykken found that genetic variation accounted for between 44 and 55 percent of the difference in happiness levels. Neither income, marital status, religion nor education accounted for any more than about 3 percent.

But whether you trudge through life on the low side of your set point or skip along on the high side is up to you. Many studies have shown that extroverts tend to be happier than most people, and a lot happier than introverts. And research has found that putting people in a good mood makes them more sociable. Michael Cunningham at the University of Louisville in Kentucky showed that people were more talkative and open with others after watching a happy film than after watching a sad one. Theoretically, even someone with a low set point can boost his or her outlook.