{ The Happiness Equation } A Look Into Some of the Factors That Affect Our Experience of Happiness …*

Last week I wrote about the evolutionary function of positive emotions, now I’d like to turn our attention to some of the intrinsic factors that affect our enduring levels of happiness. In Authentic Happiness, Seligman proposes the following “happiness equation”:

H = S + C + V

Where H is your enduring level of happiness, S is your set range, C is the circumstances of your life, and V represents factors under your voluntary control. (45)

Today I will focus on the factors outside of our voluntary control (S) that determine our set range of happiness. (Don’t worry, we’ll soon get to the many things under your voluntary control that you can do to enhance and amplify your happiness.)


Seligman differentiates enduring levels of happiness from momentary happiness. This is important because the ways in which you increase the one are not the same as the ways in which you increase the other and the goal, of course, is to amplify our enduring happiness:

Momentary happiness can easily be increased by any number of uplifts, such as chocolate, a comedy film, a back rub, a compliment, flowers, or a new blouse. […] No one is more expert on this topic than you are. The challenge is to raise your enduring level of happiness, and merely increasing the number of bursts of momentary positive feelings will not accomplish this. (45)

Seligman identifies three key variables that keep each individual’s levels of enduring happiness within a relatively set range over the course of one’s life: the high heritability of personality traits, a baseline level of happiness (also likely genetically inherited) and our inevitable adaptation to the good things we have in life which leads us to take them for granted and reap less positive emotions from them over time.

{ THE STEERSMAN } We each have a personal set range for our level of positive (and negative) emotion which may represent the inherited aspect of overall happiness.

According to various studies on the psychology of identical twins and that of adopted children, it appears that roughly 50 percent of almost every personality trait turns out to be attributable to genetic inheritance:

The psychology of identical twins turns out to be much more similar than that of fraternal twins, and the psychology of adopted children turns out to be much more similar to their biological parents than to their adoptive parents. All of these studies—and they now number in the hundreds—converge on a single point: roughly 50 percent of almost every personality trait turns out to be attributable to genetic inheritance. (47)

Don’t despair just yet, as Seligman points out, “high heritability does not determine how unchangeable a trait is.”

Some highly heritable traits (like sexual orientation and body weight) don’t change much at all, while other highly heritable traits (like pessimism and fearfulness) are very changeable. ( 47) 

{ THE HAPPINESS THERMOSTAT } We each have a personal set range for our level of positive (and negative) emotion, and this range may represent the inherited aspect of overall happiness. 

A systematic study of 22 people who won major lotteries found that they reverted to their baseline level of happiness over time, winding up no happier than 22 matched controls. The good news, however, is that after misfortune strikes, the thermostat will strive to pull us out of our misery eventually. In fact, depression is almost always episodic, with recovery occurring within a few months of onset. Even individuals who have become paraplegic as a result of spinal cord accidents quickly begin to adapt to their greatly limited capacities, and within eight weeks they report more net positive emotion than negative emotion. Within a few years, they wind up only slightly less happy on average than individuals who are not paralyzed. Of people with extreme quadriplegia, 84 percent consider their life to be average or above average. These findings fit the idea that we each have a personal set range for our level of positive (and negative) emotion, and this range may represent the inherited aspect of overall happiness. (48)

{ THE HEDONIC TREADMILL } Causes you to to rapidly & inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted

Another barrier to raising your level of happiness is the “hedonic treadmill,” which causes you to rapidly and inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted. As you accumulate more material possessions and accomplishments, your expectations rise. The deeds and things you worked so hard for no longer make you happy; you need to get something even better to boost your level of happiness into the upper reaches of its set range. But once you get the next possession or achievement, you adapt to it as well, and so on. There is, unfortunately, a good deal of evidence for such a treadmill. (49)

  • In less than three months, major events (such as being fired or promoted) lose their impact on happiness level.
  • Wealth, which surely brings more possessions in its wake, has a surprisingly low correlation with happiness level. Rich people are, on average, only slightly happier than poor people.
  • Real income has risen dramatically in the prosperous nations over the last century, but the level of life satisfaction has been entirely flat in the United States and most other wealthy nations.
  • Recent changes in an individual’s pay predict job satisfaction, but average levels of pay do not.
  • Physical attractiveness (which, like wealth, brings about any number of advantages) does not have much effect at all on happiness.
  • Objective physical health, perhaps the most valuable of all resources, is barely correlated with happiness. 
  • There are limits on adaptation, however. There are some bad events that we never get used to, or adapt to only very slowly. The death of a child or a spouse in a car crash is one example. (49)

Here’s a wonderful TED talk from Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Dan Gilbert on the Surprising Science of Happiness, where he looks into some of the very factors, notably the impact bias, at work behind our hedonic treadmill and happiness thermostat.

In conclusion, the S variables (your genetic steersman, your set range and the hedonic treadmill) tend to keep your level of enduring happiness generally stable across your life span.

Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

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