Studies have yielded surprising insights into why some people are happier than others. Landmark twins research from the University of Minnesota found that roughly 50 percent of the difference in happiness from one individual to another is genetically determined. We don’t inherit particular traits that make us more or less optimistic; rather, our DNA is responsible for what researchers refer to as a ￼￼“happiness set point.” “You can win the lottery and it might temporarily raise your happiness… and a death in the family brings you down, but you drift back,” says Kevin Haroian, director of the Minnesota Center for Twin & Family Research. “You’re always going through hills and valleys in life, but your overall general attitude is your happiness set point.”
An additional 10 percent of the difference in happiness levels is influenced by life circumstances and environmental factors that can shift daily, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, happiness researcher at the University of California, Riverside. (Think about the boost you get when you’re praised for a job well done or how your mood sours when you’re enduring dreary weather.)
Because happiness is intangible and difficult to measure, these percentages serve as rough guides, rather than hard-and-fast rules, and they’re influenced differently by each person’s perception of happiness. The field of positive psychology (the study of happiness) has found that people who tend to be happier perceive all events more positively than unhappy people, who are more likely to sulk after a boss criticizes their work or find faults in seemingly pleasant situations.
After accounting for our inherited happiness quotient and life circumstances, this leaves only about 40 percent of our individual differences within our personal sphere of influence. We’d do well to focus on that 40 percent, says Sonja Lyubomirsky. “Changing one’s intentional activities may provide a happiness-boosting potential that is at least as large as, and probably much larger than, changing one’s circumstances,” she explained.
Research points to four key areas where intentional change will reap the most benefit to our happiness: family, community, work and faith.
Next: How important is family?