What is the key to happiness?

Self-help books have long been among the most popular genres in the United States and around the world. Following major research in the world of positive psychology, recently the topic of ‘happiness’ has really come into focus. In a country where “the pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable human right. that is sort of ironic.

Why do we need so many books about happiness? If even one book was effective, we shouldn’t really need to consume so much of this content. Personally, I’ve easily read 15 books on this topic this year alone.

The problem is, it’s hard to find happiness.

Rather than finding happiness through, a powerful argument can be made that seeking happiness may actually the wrong approach. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a American novelist and author of more than 14 books on in the pre-Civil War area, wrote:

“Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

Fortunately, modern science supports the idea that we can in fact be happier. Below we have laid out the science-based facts on ‘happiness’, including what it means and how you can leverage the understanding of what causes and detracts from it to become happier.

1. Happiness set point

Set point is the psychological idea that there is a genetically predetermined level for various aspects of our physical and emotional lives. You have weight set points that determines your weight, extraversion set points that determine how outgoing you are, and, apparently, a happiness set point. According to studies about 50% of our haIt seems like every new book written about happiness hits the NYTimes bestseller listppiness is hereditary. This may be upsetting to some people, but it can actually be quite motivating. A full 40% of our happiness can be influenced by actions you take every day. So don’t despair. (1)

2. Hedonic adaptation

One of the reasons we have a set point is because of hedonic adaptation - the theory that when something is pleasurable you see a sudden boost of happiness, but over time you return to your former levels of happiness. It’s shocking how short lived these happiness boosts are.

The craziest example is lottery winners. In famous study on hedonic adaptation, researches tracked the happiness of lottery winners over time. What they found is that after winning the lottery people were, of course, incredibly happy. And you’d expect this to be a change that lasted a lifetime. However, when they followed up with those winners a year later, they found that  the winners were no more happy than they were before they won the lottery. Their happiness returned to the same level, despite winning millions and millions of dollars.

Sounds crazy. You would definitely be happier after winning millions of dollars, right? Chances are you’re just like the people in the study. Hedonic adaptation is a powerful phenomenon. (2)

3. Pursuing happiness as an external reward

Ok, this is kind of screwy. There is some good evidence that explicitly pursuing the goal of happiness may actually make us less happy.

If you reread that sentence you may be wondering why we would ever even write about how to be happier. But don’t give up yet. There are ways to pursue happiness and actually increase your happiness instead of decreasing it.

What the research says is that when you actively pursue happiness as a goal, you will likely evaluate your experiences based on how happy they make you feel. The problem is that when you experience something that should make you happy, and you don’t feel all that happy (which will happen all the time), you will be disappointed. And this disappointed feeling will make you less happy than if you had never even thought about happiness in the first place. (3)


We feel you. This may make you throw your hands up in the air and resign to a life of I’m-just-never-going-to-be-all-that-happy. But do not despair.

We’ll guide you through how to improve your happiness in a healthier way in the next section, but for now accept the fact that if you use the broad definition of happiness discussed earlier, have reasonable expectations for how much happier you can actually be, and acknowledge that sometimes you will feel bad even when you are supposed to feel good, you can still pursue happiness as a goal in a beneficial way.

4. Confusing pleasure for happiness

Sometimes if we set a goal to be happier we look to fill our day with as much fun as possible. We look to squeeze pleasure and good feelings out of every moment. As discussed earlier, this works in the very short term, but definitely not in the long term. This approach is kind of like trying to take cocaine 24/7 to feel good all the time. It’s empty happiness, and you know it won’t last.

Mistaking pleasure for happiness causes you to seek out activities that make the moment more exciting but do nothing for the long term. Pleasure is certainly a part of happiness, but only a part. And we often have to forego short term pleasure for long term happiness and fulfillment. There’s a balance to strike.

5. The novelty adaption

Similar to hedonic adaptation, when using a happiness technique, our bodies can become accustomed to the act. Over time, it becomes more of a chore than an exercise in happiness. Studies have shown that if we repeat the same physical exercise routine, such as running 5 miles on the treadmill, our body adapts to the routine and the benefit of the exercise actually drops off over time. However, if you vary your routines, mixing in different types of cardio, intervals, and weight training, your body never adapts and you continues to see benefits. [This is common advice but I actually can’t find any study that proves this, need to do more research here]

The same is true with our mental happiness exercises. When we engage in a happiness exercise, we need to make sure that we vary how we do those practices, and what we focus on.

We need to change what we are doing to be happy, the number of times per week or month we practice, the times of day we practice, and more.

This may seem daunting. It may seem like a lot to not only have to start a new happiness habit and then have to vary it, but we’ve got some helpful solutions for you in the next section.

6. Pursuing the wrong happiness increasing activities

It seems like a lot of people are giving millennials for thinking they are unique and special snowflakes. But screw ‘em, you are a unique and special snowflake. Your DNA is one of a kind. What motivates you is unique. What you desire is your own. One of the main reasons people fall short in their efforts to be happier is that they try things out that don’t match their personality, lifestyle or motivations.

If you want to be happier, you need to first look at the options available to you, and then try the ones that match who you are. One of the most powerful ways to increase happiness is to practice gratitude. If that sounds like a fun and useful activity, go for it. But for some people the idea of saying what they're grateful for sounds cheesy, forced and lame. If you have this kind of attitude, you may have better success with something like mindfulness or journaling.

Now that you know the barriers to happiness, what can you actually do to be happier?

(1) http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/Lyubomirsky-PursingHappiness.pdf

(2) http://pages.ucsd.edu/~nchristenfeld/Happiness_Readings_files/Class%203%20-%20Brickman%201978.pdf

(3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3160511/