Happiness Set Point: Can You Boost Your Own Happiness?

Happiness Set Point

Whether you find yourself at the highest of highs or lowest of lows, I am sure we can all agree that at one time or another, we’ve wondered, “How can I be happier?” Many of us strive to achieve greater levels of happiness or to reset our happiness set point.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be happier. Happiness is, after all, that one intangible, personal, yet almost universally desired feeling. Even more, it is one of the greatest measures used to value the individual moments in our lives. But, is it even possible to increase our overall levels of happiness?

Regardless of external factors, it seems that some people just have a little extra pep in their steps and tend to lean toward being happy. Other people, on the other hand, more often find themselves feeling down or waiting for the next shoe to drop. This leads us to question: does happiness have a set point? And is there a way we can reset the scales on our own personal happiness?

The Meaning of “Happiness”

As you can imagine, happiness is a relative term, which can take on different meanings, making it difficult to measure. Nevertheless, happiness generally has two components. The first being the experience of emotions such as joy, serenity, and positivity. The second component is dependent on satisfaction with your own life and the sense that your life is good.

But are those two things really all we need to consider when it comes to what it truly means to be happy? What about all the other factors that play a part? As it turns out, these other factors don’t impact our happiness nearly as much as you may think.

The Hedonic Treadmill

Through our life’s journey of up and downs, we typically walk the same path of happiness, almost like walking on a treadmill. When walking on a treadmill, we start at a happiness set point and adjust to the inclines and declines until it levels out again.

This same type of path translates over to our happiness. We are just continuing on the path of our preset treadmill—or our “Hedonic Treadmill.” The Hedonic Treadmill is the idea that “an individual’s level of happiness, after rising or falling in response to positive or negative life events, ultimately tends to move back toward where it was prior to these experiences.” This is often referred to as your own happiness set point.

The 50-40-10 Rule

How is this set point determined? Well, that takes us to one of the most prominent rules of happiness: the 50-40-10 rule. This rule was developed by Sonja Lyubomirksy, a professor of psychology at the University of California, and it states that:

  • 50% of our happiness is determined by genetics
  • 40% by our internal state of mind
  • and 10% by our circumstances.

According to Lyubomirksy, the study of behavior genetics suggests there is a large genetic component to happiness. One study in particular analyzed 1,300 sets of identical and fraternal twins. The study found, “Identical twins reported similar levels of happiness, while fraternal twins exhibited greater variation in their reported sense of well-being.” The researchers concluded that nearly half of happiness can be accounted for by genetic factors. 1

Internal state makes up the next part of the rule, meaning that we have complete control over 40% of our happiness. This 40% is dependent on our actions, thoughts, and attitudes. This is good news for those of us looking to boost our levels of happiness.

The final 10% of happiness is determined by circumstances. Often, we credit the events which fall into this category as having a greater impact on our overall happiness than they actually do. Circumstance includes elements like ethnicity, age, gender, religion, and the geographical region we live in. But surprisingly, it also includes marital status, job security, and income.

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When we experience circumstantial happiness, it is typically linked to short-term happiness. Thanks to our Hedonic Treadmill, the feeling of happiness experienced with a positive change in circumstance, such as a new job, may wear off as we adapt.

50-40-10 rule of happiness

The Road to Happiness?

Now before hopping on the road to happiness, as cliché as it may sound, it is important to note that happiness is a journey, not a destination. In fact, many believe that the modern-day obsession with achieving happiness may lead us to feeling less happy.

You may be familiar with happiness being framed as a goal from hearing or even expressing “I’ll be happy when…” Now more than ever before, many of us find ourselves fixated on that happiness goal. Sadly, the harder we pursue it, the more likely we are to become anxious and lonely. What’s more, we often find ourselves setting expectations to such unrealistic levels that we believe the normal ups and downs of life are a sign that something’s wrong.

However, most times, happiness is not achieved when certain conditions are met. This is what’s so troubling about focusing on short-term pleasure as we believe achieving these goals will bring us closer to happiness. We’re left feeling even worse when we don’t enjoy the expected “happiness” boost.

Taking the Long View

With all this in mind and a better understanding of what makes up our happiness, we loop back to the question, “Can you boost your level of happiness?” Although at first it may seem easy to tip the scales to become happier, it does take some work. Ultimately, most agree the key to boosting your level of happiness is to focus on the long-term.

Long-term happiness involves engaging in behaviors and habits like gratitude, kindness, and mindfulness. These behaviors have the ability to change one’s perspective and attitudes leading to higher levels of lasting happiness.

Studies have additionally found that helping others, giving back, and exercising gratitude leads to more reported happiness. 2,3,4 Beyond just happiness, practicing behaviors such as gratitude can even translate into other health benefits.

Resetting the Happiness Set Point

Although research suggests a substantial portion of our happiness is predetermined through genetics, there is still a large part that we are responsible for if we choose to be.

Happiness is a fundamental part of who we are, so rather than chasing happiness, define what happiness means to you and invest in it, remembering it’s a journey, not a destination. No matter what your current happiness set point may be, participating in your own awareness of happiness, even through the ebbs and flows, can lead to greater happiness in the long term.