By Meg Walker
Human beings want to be happy. It is for the sake of happiness that we do everything else we do, Aristotle said. But happiness seems to come easier to some than others.
The answer to that may be partly genetic. Fifty percent of happiness is determined by genes, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, who has spent decades running controlled experiments in which participants practice strategies to enhance well-being.
Her theory about how much genes influence happiness comes in part from studies that show identical twins raised apart are closer in happiness levels than fraternal twins who were raised together. Fraternal twins share only half their genes, as opposed to identical twins who share 100 percent of their genetic material.
Does that mean that only those who are hard-wired for happiness will achieve that "ultimate supreme good," as Aristotle called it?
Not necessarily. Lyubomirsky argues that while 50 percent of happiness has a genetic component, 10 percent depends on your life circumstances and, most significantly, 40 percent is under your control. In her book, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin Press), Lyubomirsky stresses that developing strategies to harness that 40 percent can make a significant difference in both your day-to-day life and in your long-term feeling of fulfillment and contentment.
Other experts agree.
"Only some of our fortune is in our hands, but a lot of our happiness is in our hands,'' said Ronald Siegel, PsyD, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems (Guilford Press), a book on how to find happiness when faced with difficulties such as anxiety or depression. "Happiness is like anything else in the sense that you have to make a deliberate effort to cultivate it."
Over the last several years, research in the field of positive psychology, or the scientific study of happiness, has identified ways that help people reach a happier state. Siegel summarized various studies in positive psychology and, based on those findings, outlined broad steps for sustaining personal happiness in a report titled "Positive Psychology: Harnessing the Power of Happiness, Personal Strength and Mindfulness" (Harvard Health Publications).
In his report, Siegel argues that the key to increasing sustainable happiness is not money, fame, youth or material gain. Numerous studies have found that material objects don't lead to happiness over the long term. For example, Siegel cites a 2006 study by Richard Easterlin in the Journal of Economic Psychology, in which being young failed to contribute to happiness, and adults grew steadily happier as they moved into and through middle age.
The desire for material gain or change in wealth and status based on circumstances is subject to what Siegel and positive psychologists call the "hedonic treadmill."
"We become accustomed to one level of gratification and then we look for more,'' he said.
As an example, Siegel writes in his report that studies have documented how quickly people adapt to both negative and positive circumstances. Lottery winners, Siegel wrote, are no happier once some time has passed after winning than a control group of people who didn't win.
Rather, sustainable happiness is cultivated through small choices over a lifetime, Siegel believes.
"For some, happiness is an accident of genetics and upbringing, but if you haven't developed [strategies for fostering your own happiness], a little bit of work on that dimension will have a significant impact," he said.
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