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January 13, 2015

What Makes a Person Happy? What You Need to Know as You Age

Writer and self-help expert Dale Carnegie once said, “It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.”

From a young age, we are taught that “the pursuit of Happiness” is a right we possess by birth and by nature, but how many of us are actually “in pursuit” of true happiness? Do we think happy thoughts, and so, therefore, we are happy? Additionally, how many of us actually understand what happiness really is? 

As time passes and life’s stresses accumulate, happiness can (and often does) dissipate. Over our next few blog articles, we will discuss the idea of happiness, why older adults should make happiness a priority in their lives, and how to take control of your pursuit.  

Today, let’s explore what happiness truly means. 

What Makes a Person Happy?

Imagine you’re chatting with people in town. If you were to ask them what it is they need to be happy, many would say things like money and material possessions. Our culture celebrates the pursuit of more, yet research suggests people who have more money or more possessions are not made happier by these things.

According to Tim Kasser, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Knox College1 , while Americans’ income has grown over the past 50 years—making us nearly twice as wealthy as we were in the 1950s—happiness has remained stagnant. In studies, lottery winners do not report themselves as being much happier than other people, and as nations become wealthier, the well being of their citizens does not increase.

Having income to meet basic needs and live above the poverty level is highly important to happiness. Beyond this, however, more wealth does not translate to greater happiness. “The difference in happiness between a person who earns $5,000 and $50,000 is dramatic,” says Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., author of Stumbling on Happiness.2  “The difference in happiness between a person who earns $50,000 and $50 million is not dramatic.”

And it extends beyond money. In fact, research has shown other extrinsic (or outward) goals like image and status are associated with lower levels of well being and happiness when they are highly valued.

Intrinsic (or inward) goals—those that are inherently satisfying in and of themselves—have a positive effect on happiness. People who are intrinsically oriented have a strong desire for personal growth and desire to help. They also emphasize building and maintaining close personal relationships. Intrinsically oriented people regularly report feeling more satisfaction, vitality, and energy and less anxiety and depression than extrinsically oriented people.

Is Happiness a Choice?

Happiness, according to biochemist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, is a deep sense of flourishing and an optimal state of being. Happiness relates to how we feel, but it is more than just a passing emotion or mood; it is about being able to make the most of the good times and to cope effectively with the inevitable bad times in order to experience the best possible life overall.

According to a 2013 Harris Poll, only one in three Americans say they’re very happy. It’s easy to link factors like economic conditions and stress to declining happiness levels, but is there more to the equation? Psychologists say there is.

In the documentary “Happy,” narrator Marci Shimoff explains the breakdown.3  “By studying identical twins, people with almost exactly the same genetic makeup,” she says, “researchers have discovered that approximately 50 percent of the differences in our happiness levels is determined by our genes.” This is called our genetic set point or set range. No matter if we’re experiencing good or bad times, we always return to roughly our set point.

Our circumstances like income, social status, and age—the things many of us feel we must focus on to achieve happiness—account for 10 percent of the differences in our happiness. The remaining 40 percent of the happiness equation is reserved for intentional behavior, or things a person can do on a regular basis to become happier.

Because of this breakdown, psychologists theorize consciously varying your behavior, attitude, and outlook can greatly affect your happiness.

Ready to start pursuing your happiness? Check out our free eBook, “Be Happy: How to Take Control of Your Happiness as You Get Older.”

Download the Happiness as You Get Older Guide

[1] Kasser, Tim, Ph.D. Happy. Dir: Roko Belic. Wadi Rum Productions, Iris Films, Emotional Content and Shady Acres. 2011. Documentary.

[2] Gilbert, Daniel, Ph.D. Happy. Dir: Roko Belic. Wadi Rum Productions, Iris Films, Emotional Content and Shady Acres. 2011. Documentary.

[3] Happy. Dir. Roko Belic. Prof. Marci Shimoff. Wadi Rum Productions, Iris Films, Emotional Content and Shady Acres. 2011. Documentary.


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