Happiness: Skill or circumstance?

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

Happiness is a big word. What does happiness mean to you? Would you describe it as a feeling? Or as the moment you achieve a certain goal, such as financial freedom? When was a time you were really happy? And what can you do to increase your happiness?

I am yet to meet a person who is not similarly intrigued and confused by the topic.


Possibly because at the end of the day we all long to be happy. What you hope to achieve in your life, whether big life goals or smaller stepping-stones along the way, is likely a means to achieve happiness. Not surprisingly, psychology researchers from all over the globe have invested a ton of time and effort to shed some light on what happiness is and how to attain it. Based on this science, I have become a firm believer that happiness is a skill that can be learnt.


But what determines how happy people are?


According to one of the leading happiness researchers, Professor Martin Seligman, the answer to this question can be expressed as a function: H= S + C + V.


Not surprisingly, H stands for the enduring level of happiness, how good their life is overall, i.e. beyond their momentary affect. S represents their set-point. This is a relatively fixed point, personal ‘average’ or baseline, which depends on their genetic material. Yes, a proportion of our happiness is believed to be innate, without us having much control over it. For example, certain personality characteristics (e.g. high extraversion and low neuroticism) have been associated with higher levels of happiness than others. While we don’t yet have sufficient evidence to say how much of happiness is determined by genes, Professor Sonja Lyubormirky’s research shows that about 50% of the variance of happiness in her study samples could be explained by this genetic component. While that does not mean that genes determine 50% of happiness in individuals, it shows that they are certainly a key factor in the happiness equation. If we’re feeling happier than usual, we are temporarily above our set-point. If we’re feeling upset, sad, or angry, we float below our set-point. But eventually, we bounce back to it.


C stands for personal life circumstances. These are things such as our wealth, marriage, having kids, experiencing professional fulfilment and so forth. Contrary to popular belief, it is estimated that only a small fraction of our happiness is determined by our life circumstances. This is interesting, because this is exactly the part where we go wrong in our ambitions and plans to reach happiness. For example, while we often think that finding true love and getting married will make us happy, or winning the lottery, being able to stay in fancy hotels or losing weight, a wealth of studies shows that these events, when realised, only lead to brief spikes in happiness before eventually bouncing back to our set-point.


Finally, V represents voluntary control. In the study by Lyubormirsky mentioned above, 40% of the happiness variance across a group of people was explained by their own behaviour and habits. This finding has been surprising for many – and instilled hope. Because it suggests that a fair amount of our happiness lays in our own hands.

It is determined by the way we view the world, how we attribute our successes, how much we exercise, how we connect to others etc.


In fact, it turns out the list of things you can do that have been scientifically proven to increase happiness is a rather long one! The key is to identify the things we can control in the first place – even if they are not so obvious sometimes.


For example, someone might not be able to change an accident that occurred and left them with a scar. But they can control how they reflect about it, such as how much they dwell on the past, regret the events that led to the accident, blame, or focus on future opportunities and gratitude for the things that have been going well in their life.


What aspects of your happiness do you think you can positively influence?


Maike x

PS: Just to be clear - the equation H= S + C + V is not to be confused with an actual mathematical function. Rather, its purpose is to illustrate, in a simplified way, the different components that determine happiness.


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