Happiness is, by nature, a subjective quality with a definition like a moving target. There is scant evidence — qualitative or quantitative — to lend convincing support to those life variables most critical in determining individual happiness, which is likely why past researchers committed to the scientific method rarely tried to tackle the subject.
Nevertheless, this situation may be changing. Take, for example, the World Database of Happiness in Rotterdam, self-described as a “continuous register of scientific research on subjective appreciation of life.” Also, take the positive psychologists, a movement whose “members” perform scientific research into the nature of happiness and who published Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, an 800-page behemoth that outlines all the characteristics, behaviours and conditions that lead to happiness.
While we’re not entirely convinced of this marriage between science and subjectivity, we can still offer up a top 10 of things that determine human happiness, as supported by this growing body of research.
No.10 – Having a short memory
Are you one to hold grudges? Do you need the jaws of life to pry forgiveness out of you? Well, don’t expect these attributes to contribute to your happiness or to your overall health for that matter. This ability to forgive and forget, to go with the flow, is frequently cited by researchers of centenarians as being a key factor in their ability to live to see their 100th birthday.
No.9 – Exacting fairness
According to a recently published study in the prestigious journal Nature, people derive more happiness from scenarios and situations that result in a perceived fairness for everyone involved, even when this fairness goes against self-interest or comes at some personal cost. In short, researchers at Rutgers found that the reward centres in the brain light up in situations in which people are treated equally.
No.8 – Having lots of friendships
Extroverts are happier than introverts and they live longer lives, in part because they can spend time in the company of friends and family or they can spend time alone, according to happiness researcher Ed Diener. Like letting go of grudges and going with the flow, being extroverted and having a wide social circle is a major factor in whether someone considers themselves happy or not, as well as an often-cited reason to explain how some people live to be 100 or older. At any rate, it’s a reason to justify spending a little time at work on social networking sites.
No.7 – Being spiritual
The results of a collaborative, multinational study that involved over 166,000 people showed a clear correlation between a person’s “strength of religious affiliation and frequency of attendance at worship services” and their self-reported levels of happiness and satisfaction with their lives. How is this correlation explained? Researchers postulate that this increased involvement in a spiritual circle means more friends, a wider support network and a higher degree of hopefulness.
No.6 – Thinking ahead
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that happiness is derived from the ability to accurately project what will in the future make us happy — not those things that actually do. He notes that we are the only species that truly considers the future, and this ability to think ahead and to imagine the future is “the defining aspect of our humanity.”
According to Gilbert, studies support the idea that we enjoy thinking into the future because more often than not, it’s something of a daydream, and in daydreams, we are at our most successful. Furthermore, because imagining the future and what actually happens in that future are often at odds, many people derive far more happiness from the anticipation of a future event than the actual event.
No.5 – Developing a skill
According to psychology professor Dr Timothy A. Pychyl, the route to happiness is simple enough, “Live it, don’t buy it.” This is especially relevant in the modern world, where instant gratification can be purchased — but only to a point, before it hits a wall.
He quotes a professional base jumper, who says, “You’ve got to have the passion for doing your time. If you haven’t done the time, you just can’t get there.” He goes on to argue that only by paying one’s dues through time, effort, devotion, and experience can we, “develop the rich experiences that make life meaningful.”
No.4 – Having personal control over one’s life
Where might you find unhappy people with low morale? Those places where people no longer feel in personal control of their lives, whether it’s a nursing home or a prison, because control equates to happiness. In his book Satisfaction, Emory University psychiatrist Gregory Berns makes the point by distinguishing between pleasure and satisfaction, “While you might find pleasure by happenstance, satisfaction can arise only by the conscious decision to do something. And this makes all the difference in the world because it is only your own actions for which you may take responsibility and credit.”
No.3 – Defining success
There’s a saying that no matter how talented or successful you think you are, there’s always someone who’s got a leg up on you. People who compare themselves against those people will always come out the loser, even when the comparison is neither appropriate nor consequential. A skilled dentist with a thriving practice can’t reasonably compare his level of success to Robert De Niro and expect to feel good. If he made comparisons within his own peer group or against his own expectations, however, he’ll not only come out more favourably, but he’ll be happier too.
As Gallup psychologist, Shane Lopez explained to Psychology Today writer Abby Ellin, “Self-referential people see themselves as the marker. They care about their own performance, not how they measure up compared to that guy over there…. The only competitor is the self.”
No.2 – Genes vs. Environment
According to “The Science of Lasting Happiness,” an article by Marina Krakovsky published by Scientific American in 2007, “studies of twins and adoptees have shown that about 50% of each person’s happiness is determined from birth”, what’s loosely termed as a “genetic set point.” The weight of this variable on determining our happiness is supported by hedonic adaptation; according to this theory, even if we win the lottery, within a year or so of coming into this kind of material good fortune, we adapt to it and revert back to whatever level of happiness we were at before. However, there’s a crucial caveat to the genetic thesis for happiness; the environment in which you develop as a young person is a far more reliable predictor of the types of beliefs and behaviours you will come to hold about yourself and the world.
No.1 – Liking yourself
Liking oneself is arguably the principal characteristic of ‘happy’ people. It’s been revealed in study after study after study: happy people like themselves. They think they’re good people. They have a healthy self-esteem, meaning they think in a balanced and reasonable manner (i.e. healthily) about their own skills, knowledge and weaknesses. These people consider themselves to have ethical standards and to have fewer prejudices than others.