What Science Tells Us About Happiness

Science-based content to help you achieve your goals

Can a topic such as happiness be defined in scientific terms? Real happiness is far beyond the reach of current scientific discoveries, but there are little things science has to say about happiness already. For instance, we know that it is possible to increase our happiness — and we know that there are things that make us happier than others.

A paper from 2009 [1] found out that happiness has indeed genetic roots, yet is definitely not entirely defined by genetics. Obese people tend to be unhappier and changes in BMI resulted in greater reported happiness and well-being. Another study [2] found out that long-term happiness can indeed be increased. Moreover, the study suggests that, next to genetics, there are two relevant factors that determine happiness: circumstantial factors and intentional activities. The study suggests that 50% of our happiness is defined by our genetics, while 40% rely on intentional activity and only 10% on circumstances. The claim that one is unfortunate in live, victim of its circumstances, seems hence to be much more subjective than an actual truth [3] [4] [5].

Yet, a question that remains is still: Can happiness be bought? Science says: Yes. Especially if you buy experiences, not products [6]. Scientific studies clearly back that spending money on life events and activities is much smarter invested — in terms of increasing happiness — than money spent on material things [7] [8]. Furthermore, extraordinary experiences tend to increase happiness more than ordinary experiences. This tends to reverse with age however. The older people get, the more pleasure they derive from ordinary experiences [9]. The study suggests that this is because of self-identification. Younger people greatly define themselves by the list of extraordinary events they’ve been experiencing, while older people strongly define themselves by looking at what they’ve done regularly and repetitively.

Another interesting study [10] demonstrated that happiness doesn’t only make you smile, but that smiling also makes you happy. During the study, research subject had to hold a pencil in their mouth while watching a cartoon. Those that held the pencil in their mouth had to form mimics close to those of smiling. They rated the cartoon much funnier as the control group which was not forced to hold the pencil in their mouths. This finding has quite heavy implications, especially since happiness helps with problem solving [11]. Humor is moreover connected to creativity and intelligence [12].

Lastly, Epicurus has found already that our happiness is relative, that is it adapts to certain circumstances. Eating chocolate when you’re not used to eating sweets is making you much happier than eating it every day. In fact, if you eat chocolate every day, at one point eating it won’t make you happy at all. Research calls this hedonistic habituation. However, intentional changes, such as changing your career or joining a club are not prone to hedonistic habituation. Hence, choose intentional changes over circumstantial ones.

Actionsteps

  1. Invest in experiences: Invest in experiences, not in products. For me, the realization that experiences matter more than possessions. Spending money on holidays, wellness and one-day experiences, such as parachuting and hot air ballooning, is much smarter than spending it on laptops, art or real estate. Whenever there’s some financial surplus, think twice and invest smartly.
  2. Smile: Smiling makes you happy, even in very difficult situations. After difficult situations, in front of tests or during emotional challenges, take a step back and smile for half a minute. You’ll be amazed by how much this helps.
  3. Choose intentional changes over circumstantial ones: Intentional changes do affect happiness strongly. Whether you’d like to change your career, your dressing style or your daily habits. If you’re intentional about your changes, happiness is guaranteed.

[1] Blum, K et. al.(2009). Genes and Happiness. Gene Therapy and Molecular Biology, 13(1), 91–129. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286644185_Genes_and_Happiness

[2] Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111–131. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232480861_Pursuing_Happiness_The_Architecture_of_Sustainable_Change

[3] Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Wong, M. M. (1991). The situational and personal correlates of happiness: A cross-national comparison. In F. Strack, M. Argyle, & N. Schwarz (Eds.). Subjective well-being: An interdisciplinary perspective (pp. 193–212). Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press.

[4] Costa, P. T., McCrae, R. R., & Zonderman, A. B. (1987). Environmental and dispositional influences on well-being: Longitudinal follow-up of an American national sample. British Journal of Psychology, 78(3), 299–306. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/19540721_Environmental_and_dispositional_Influences_on_well-being-Longitudinal_follow-up_of_an_American_national_sample

[5] Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2004). Achieving sustainable gains in happiness: Change your actions, not your circumstances. Manuscript submitted for publication.

[6] Howell, R. & Guevarra, D. (2013). Buying happiness: Differential consumption experiences for material and experiential purchases. Advances in psychology research, 98, 57–69. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264043841_Buying_happiness_Differential_consumption_experiences_for_material_and_experiential_purchases

[7] Addis, M., & Holbrook, M. B. (2001). On the conceptual link between mass customisation and experiential consumption: an explosion of subjectivity. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 1(1), 50–66. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229545865_On_the_conceptual_link_between_mass_customisation_and_experiential_consumption_An_explosion_of_subjectivity

[8] Howell, R. T., Pchelin, P., & Iyer, R. (2012). The preference for experiences over possessions: Measurement and construct validation of the Experiential Buying Tendency Scale. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(1), 57–71. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2011.626791

[9] Mogilner, Cassie & Bhattacharjee, Amit. (2014). Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences. Journal of Consumer Research, 41, 1–17. 10.1086/674724.

[10] Soussignan, Robert. (2002). Duchenne Smile, Emotional Experience, and Autonomic Reactivity. A Test of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis. Emotion, 2(1), 52–74. 10.1037//1528–3542.2.1.52.

[11] Isen, A. M., Daubman, K. A., & Nowicki, G. P. (1987). Positive Affect Facilitates Creative Problem Solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(6), 1122–1131. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.52.6.1122

[12] Hauck, W., & Thomas, J. (1972). The Relationship of Humor to Intelligence, Creativity, and Intentional and Incidental Learning. The Journal of Experimental Education, 40(4), 52–55. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20157303

[13] Wiseman, R. (2009). 59 seconds: Think a little, change a lot. New York, NY, US: Knopf/Random House.