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Subjective well-being

Ed Diener is a psychologist at the University of Illinois. His nickname is the “Indiana Jones of well-being research” because he travels the world and works with exotic groups such as the African Maasai, Greenland Inuit, and Calcutta slum dwellers. To estimate the global level of subjective well-being, Diener aggregated over 900 surveys of 1.1 million people in 45 nations1. On a 10-point scale, where 0 is “very unhappy” and 10 is “very happy,” the average response was 6.75, and the ratings followed a bell-curve distribution. In other words, most people around the world are moderately happy, no matter which country or ethnic group they belong to.

Sources of Happiness
Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, and one of Ed Diener’s colleagues. Her research suggests that happiness is influenced by three major factors2:
  1. Genetic Set Point (50 percent)
  2. Life Circumstances (10 percent)
  3. Intentional Activities (40 percent)
Genetic Set Point refers to personality traits that remain fairly constant over a lifetime, and are strongly influenced by genetics. Life Circumstances consist of factors such as national, geographical, and cultural environments; demographic factors such as age, gender, and ethnicity; personal life events such as childhood trauma and accidents; and life status factors such as marriage, job security, income, and health. For Intentional Activities, there are three main types that influence happiness:
  1. Behavioral activities include actions such as being kind to others.
  2. Cognitive activities involve changing the way you think, such as reframing situations in a more positive light or pausing to count one’s blessings.
  3. Volitional activities include striving for personal goals, and contributing to meaningful causes.
Depending on how you look at it, your happiness glass is either half empty or half full. Fifty percent of your happiness is determined by genetic factors that are largely out of your control. But the other 50 percent consists of Life Circumstances and Intentional Activities where your thoughts and actions can make a big difference. Let’s take a closer look at genetic factors, and then move on to things we can change.

The mind is everything; what you think, you become.

Genetic Set Point
In a review of happiness studies, Daniel Nettle of Newcastle University found that neuroticism and extraversion are the personality traits which have the strongest influence on happiness3. Neuroticism refers to traits such as nervousness, moodiness, and sensitivity to negative stimuli. Neurotic people are always worrying about all of the bad things that could happen. Extraversion refers to traits such as assertiveness, sociability, and talkativeness. The extrovert is the one who’s chatting and laughing at the center of a group. For Genetic Set Point, extraversion is the best predictor of happiness, followed by the personality trait of agreeableness4. In contrast, neuroticism is the main predictor of unhappiness.

Neuroticism 6–28%
Extraversion 2–16%
Other Personality Factors 8–14%

Your personality can actually influence how many good things and bad things happen to you in life. In a study from the University of Illinois, students were given personality tests and then followed for a 4-year period5. To minimize bias, researchers recorded only objective life events such as marriage, divorce, suicide, job promotions, and layoffs. Results showed that extraverted students experienced significantly more positive events, and neurotic students experienced significantly more negative events. Good things happen to happy people.

A positive attitude causes a chain reaction of positive thoughts, events, and outcomes. It is a catalyst and it sparks extraordinary results.
-Wade Boggs

Genetics of Happiness
Studies of twins raised together and apart have shown that genetic factors account for 39–58 percent of personality6,7. The remaining non-genetic factors may be divided into shared and non-shared environmental influences. Shared environments include family relationships and socioeconomic conditions. Non-shared environments include relationships with friends and teachers, and unique life circumstances such as accidents or illness. Researchers have found that personality is influenced more by non-shared environments than shared environments. In other words, your personality doesn’t change much if you grow up rich or poor, or if your parents are aloof or affectionate. But your personality does change according to your relationships. You become like your friends, and they become like you.

Since personality is influenced strongly by genetics, and happiness is influenced strongly by personality, it follows that happiness is strongly influenced by genetics. As expected, this was the finding from a survey of over 2,000 twins in the Minnesota Twin Registry8. Results showed that genetics accounted for 44–52 percent of the variation in happiness. Genetic Set Point means that your happiness glass starts off somewhere between empty and half-full. Let’s learn how to fill it with Life Circumstances and Intentional Activities.

Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you represents determinism; the way you play it is free will.
-Jawaharlal Nehru

Circumstantial Happiness
Researchers estimate that a person’s unique life circumstances account for 8–15 percent of the variance in happiness3,9. The major factors are listed in the table below. In general, married people are happier than singles; high status is better than low status; the rich are happier than the poor; and young and old people are happier than the middle-aged.

Marital status 6%
Social class 4%
Income 3%
Age 1%

Marriage and other social relationships have the largest influence on circumstantial happiness. From an evolutionary perspective, early humans who were more social had a better chance of survival. Group members shared food, provided mates, and helped care for children. Finding food and fighting enemies would have been easier with the co-operation of many individuals. In a survey of college alumni, those who preferred money, success, and prestige over close friendships and marriage were twice as likely to describe themselves as “fairly unhappy” or “very unhappy.”

Another study of 35,000 Americans found that 40 percent of married adults described themselves as very happy, compared to 24 percent of never-married adults10. Married and re-married people are consistently happier than unmarried people. But it’s important to marry the right person. People who divorce, separate, or become widowed, are significantly less happy than those who never married11.

There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.
-George Sand

Keeping up with the Joneses
Social status accounts for 4 percent of circumstantial happiness. It’s human nature to aim for the top of the hierarchy. Researchers from Harvard University asked people whether they would rather: (1) earn $50,000 while those around them earned $25,000, or (2) earn $100,000 while those around them earned $200,00012. Results showed that 50 percent of people preferred to earn $50,000 rather than $100,000, as long as they earned more than their peers. As the old joke goes, a man considers himself wealthy when he earns more than his brother-in-law.

Money and status are relative. You naturally compare yourself to friends and neighbors. From 1958–1987, per capita real income increased 5-fold in Japan13. At the beginning, only a few households owned washing machines, refrigerators, and television sets. By the end, almost everyone owned them. Car ownership soared from 1 percent to 60 percent of households. But everyone became wealthier to the same degree, so there was no change in happiness.

James Hong is the multi-millionaire founder of dating website Hot Or Not. In an interview with the New York Times, he discussed how the rich envy the super-rich14. To escape the envy trap, James sold his Porsche Boxster and traded down to a Toyota Prius. “I don’t want to live the life of a Boxster, because when you get a Boxster you wish you had a 911,” said James, referring to the high-end Porsche 911 sports car. “And you know what people who have 911s wish they had? They wish they had a Ferrari.”

There is no greater sin than desire,
No greater curse than discontent,
No greater misfortune than wanting something for oneself.
Therefore he who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.

-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Hedonic Treadmill
Even if you earn more money than everyone else, money still won’t buy happiness. The reason is a phenomenon known as the “hedonic treadmill15.” It’s the way people rapidly adapt to new circumstances and life events. In a study from the University of Illinois, researchers found that happiness is influenced mainly by events within the past 3 months16. Events in the distant past only have a small effect on day-to-day happiness. It may feel good to buy an Hermès Birkin handbag, but you’ll soon take it for granted. No matter how fast you run on the treadmill, you always seem to end up in the same place.

Economists have observed that the level of happiness stays about the same over a lifetime, even for those who accumulate a lot of money and material goods17. An increase in wealth raises happiness in the short term. But in the long term, new desires and aspirations grow along with the rise in income. This undercuts the increase in happiness. When it comes to money, the biggest gain in happiness occurs when people get out of poverty. More money has little effect when people are already well-off.

There’s a story about an economics professor who asks his class to raise their hands if they want to know a guaranteed way of making a million dollars. Everyone raises their hand. They lean forward in anticipation. “It’s simple,” he says, “all you have to do is work three jobs, eat nothing but bread and water, and save every penny.” The professor asks, “So who’s going to do it?” No one raises their hand.

Money may buy the husk of things, but not the kernel. It brings you food, but not appetite, medicine but not health, acquaintances but not friends, servants but not faithfulness, days of joy but not peace or happiness.
-Henrik Ibsen

Age and Health
Old age brings health problems. But age only accounts for about 1 percent of happiness. Why so little? It’s true that healthy people are happier than unhealthy people. People with disabling conditions report lower life satisfaction than those with no disabilities11. But the hedonic treadmill helps us adapt when we get sick or injured. Studies show that blind people are about as happy as those who can see18. Even paraplegics are about as happy as those who can walk.

Life circumstances influence happiness through relationships, social status, income, and health. Improve these areas of your life by practicing the exercises in the Healthy, Wealthy, and Social sections of this website. Just keep in mind that they only account for about 10 percent of happiness.

Intentional Happiness
Happiness is very much a state of mind—40 percent of your happiness is influenced by what you think and do. In psychiatry, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is based on the theory that your behavior and feelings are the result of your thoughts. By changing the way you think, you feel better even if your circumstances remain the same. For example, there is strong evidence that CBT is just as effective as antidepressants for the treatment of depression19.

The table below lists seven scientifically-proven exercises to improve your happiness. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Visualization Imagine your “best possible self” and work towards it.
Keep a Diary Write down your feelings about emotional events.
Gratitude Reflect on things that make you feel grateful.
Happy Activities Do things that make you happy.
Random Acts of Kindness Perform good deeds without thought of reward.
Forgiveness Resolve grudges and conflicts.
Meditation Clear your mind.

The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.
-William James

In a study from the University of Missouri, a group of students was assigned to visualize their “best possible selves20” (BPS). They imagined themselves in the future, after working hard and accomplishing their life goals. Over the course of 4 weeks, students who performed the BPS exercise experienced a significant increase in positive mood, compared to a group of students who simply paid more attention to their daily lives. What’s your best possible self? How would you feel if you accomplished your life goals? Practice visualizing the future as if it’s already happened.

The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.
-John Milton

Keep a Diary
Writing or talking about positive and negative emotions is a proven way of boosting your immune system, lowering stress, and improving happiness. At Southern Methodist University, students were asked to write about intensely positive emotional events, and then rate their happiness on a 7-point scale21. The average rating was 4.21, compared to a control group who rated themselves as 2.83.
In a similar study from the University of Pennsylvania, participants wrote about three good things that happened to them during the day, and why they happened22. They repeated this exercise every day for a week. The boost in happiness lasted for more than 6 months. Writing improves mood because it takes mental effort to suppress emotional events and keep them bottled up inside23. Venting your emotions reduces the stress on your nervous system and makes you feel better. Writing also helps you to come to terms with why the event happened. This provides closure and lets you move on with life.

If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.
-Marcus Aurelius

At the University of California, Davis, researchers recruited 192 students and split them into three groups24. Every week for 10 weeks, the first group wrote down five events for which they were grateful, the second group wrote down five irritating events, and the third group wrote down five ways in which they felt they were better off than others. Results showed that students who wrote about grateful events experienced significantly more positive emotion than the other two groups. Give thanks for what you have. If you look hard enough, even the darkest cloud has a silver lining.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
-William Shakespeare

Have Fun
Doing things that make you happy leads to a long-term increase in happiness. This was the finding of a semester-long study from the University of Miami25. Researchers assessed the mood of students who had recently started an enjoyable project or activity. Activities included joining a new club or sports team, starting a diet or exercise program, and improving one’s attitude or mental approach to life. Students who engaged in positive activities reported significantly higher happiness at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester. Students who experienced positive life events (but didn’t do anything to make them happen) reported a brief rise in happiness that quickly dropped off with time.

No one on his deathbed says: “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”
-Dan Kennedy

Random Acts of Kindness
In the movie Pay It Forward, Haley Joel Osment plays the role of Trevor McKinney, a schoolboy in Las Vegas. His social studies teacher challenges him to change the world through direct action. On his way home from school, Trevor notices a homeless man named Jerry, and decides to make a difference in his life. Helping Jerry inspires Trevor to “pay it forward.” He does good deeds for three people, who in turn must do good deeds for three other people. By the end of the movie, Trevor’s simple acts of kindness have blossomed into a national social movement.

In an example of life imitating art, researchers at the University of California, Riverside asked students to perform five random acts of kindness each week for 6 weeks26. Actions included donating blood, writing a thank-you note, and dropping coins into a stranger’s expired parking meter. Results showed that participants experienced a significant increase in happiness.
Being kind feels good because it satisfies a basic human need for relating to people. It boosts your self-esteem because you view yourself as a generous person who is confident and in control. Also, doing nice things for others often causes them to do nice things for you. What goes around comes around. It’s good karma.

Act always as if the future of the Universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference.
-Buddhist saying

In a study from Free University, Amsterdam, researchers recruited students for a study on forgiveness27. Participants were asked to write down an incident where they were severely offended. They were interviewed about their level of forgiveness, and assessed for happiness and psychological tension. Results showed that forgivers were happier, and had lower levels of tension, than non-forgivers. As the poet Alexander Pope once said, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.”

We are not punished for our sins, but by them.
-Elbert Hubbard

Split Personality
Do you notice the mental chatter voicing thoughts in your head? It’s a function of your brain’s left hemisphere. Your left brain is the source of your ego. It’s constantly analyzing, judging, and planning. It dwells on the past and frets about the future. In contrast, your right brain lives in the present. It has no worries. There is only the now. Your right brain understands and empathizes. It’s connected with everyone and everything around you.
In 1996, neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor woke up with a splitting headache28. A blood vessel in her left hemisphere had popped. The stroke shut down her left brain. She was unable to speak, read, or write. For the first time, her right brain was completely free from its controlling counterpart. Suddenly, Taylor saw her atoms and molecules blending with the space around her. There was no end and no beginning. Everything was part of the same shimmering field of energy. She said, “I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle. The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria29.” For a few hours, Taylor experienced first-hand the nirvana of the now. It took 9 years for Taylor to recover from her “stroke of insight.” Inspired by her experience, she now spends her time teaching people how to live more peaceful and spiritual lives by getting in touch with their right brains.

For thousands of years, spiritual practitioners have used meditation to liberate their right brains and center themselves in the present. To investigate the effects of spiritual and non-spiritual meditation, researchers at Bowling Green State University recruited three groups of participants to perform a meditation or relaxation technique 20 minutes a day for 2 weeks30. The spiritual group meditated on one of four phrases: “God is peace,” “God is joy,” “God is good,” or “God is love” (participants were allowed to substitute “God” for a term that better described the focus of their spirituality). The secular group meditated on one of four non-spiritual phrases: “I am content,” “I am joyful,” “I am good,” or “I am happy.” The relaxation group practiced not thinking about stressful things.

After 2 weeks of meditation or relaxation practice, researchers assessed the participants’ anxiety, mood, and spiritual health. After practicing their technique for 20 minutes, participants were also asked to place their hand in a 2 degrees Celsius cold-water bath for as long as they could endure it. Results showed that the spiritual meditation group experienced the least anxiety, the most positive mood, and the greatest feelings of spiritual health. They also tolerated pain in the cold-water bath almost twice as long as the other two groups.

In a study from the University of Wisconsin, participants were given an 8-week training course in mindfulness meditation31. This is a technique where you bring your awareness into the present moment, and observe your thoughts, actions, and motivations. At the end of the course, brain scans showed physiological changes associated with positive emotions. As part of the study, participants were given a flu vaccine and tested for their antibody response. Results showed that meditators produced significantly more antibodies than the control group.
Scientists have re-discovered what monks and yogis have known for centuries—meditation is good for your mind and body.

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Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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