Can You Choose to Be Happy?
Some people believe you’re either happy or you aren’t. You don’t just wake up and say, “Today I’m going to be happy.”
Others believe that it’s the perspective you take. Being happy is a choice. A philosophy that many self-help gurus get behind and promote.
So which side is it right?
The truth is neither side is right. At least not 100%. And to find out why let’s take a look at what research in happiness has found.
3 Factors That Determine Happiness
We all know what it feels like to be happy. But just because we’re familiar with the concept of happiness doesn’t mean finding it is easy.
Can you choose to be happy?
It’s more complex than a simple “yes” or “no.” Psychology has found that happiness is a combination of choices, but also factors that are outside of your control. To say it’s 100% choice can be not only simplistic, but harmful to mental well-being.
But let’s look at some of the research.
Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky has done a great deal of work studying what makes people happy. One of the questions that she and her colleagues have asked is what separates happy people from those that are sad.
So what factors separate happy people from less happy ones?
They’ve found there are 3 areas that can explain why some people are happy and others are not.
- Our Genes
- Life Circumstances
- Intentional Actions
As you can see the first two areas – our genetics and circumstances are largely out of our control. We can’t consciously control what genes we get, or if something terrible happens to a family member.
The last area – what Sonja calls our intentional actions – are something we do have control over. Our thoughts, behavior, and decisions. How we react to situations, our goals, and our attitudes.
In short, our choices about how and what we do play a part in our happiness.
How Much Do Our Choices Affect Our Happiness?
So the question isn’t really about if we can choose happiness or not. Instead, the question becomes “How much do our choices affect our happiness?
Sonja sums up her research in this simple chart from The How of Happiness:
As you can see, genetics explains 50% of the difference of happiness levels. We inherent a kind of baseline happiness from our biological parents. Something researchers call a happiness “set-point”.
Where does this number come from? The How of Happiness:
This discovery comes from the growing research done with identical and fraternal twins that suggests that each of us is born with a particular happiness set point that originates from our biological mother or father…
What about good looks, bigger houses, faster cars, and great jobs? You might find it surprising that these things account for the smallest part of our pie chart. Sonja and The How of Happiness:
Perhaps the most counterintuitive finding is that as the chart shows, only about 10 percent of the variance in our happiness levels is explained by differences in life circumstances or situations—that is, whether we are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, etc.
Why would things like money and marriage – which you could argue play a big part in our day to day lives, only account for a small part of our happiness?
They attribute this fact to a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation. Or our ability to quickly adapt to situations and stimuli.
At first you might find that new job to be challenging and invigorating. But a few years down the road, you hate listening to Sharon’s non-stop rambling, and your boss’ micro-management style.
40% of Happiness is Choice
The last big section – Intentional Activities – consists of 40% of the differences in happiness.
The people who are happiest don’t sit around and wait for it to happen.
The How of Happiness:
If we observe genuinely happy people, we shall find that they do not just sit around being contented. They make things happen.
And how do these people go about choosing happiness in their day to day lives? Sonya says:
They pursue new understandings, seek new achievements, and control their thoughts and feelings. In sum, our intentional, effortful activities have a powerful effect on how happy we are, over and above the effects of our set points and the circumstances in which we find themselves.
A Closer Look at Happiness
There are also different opinions on how much our genes affect our happiness.
Other studies have found that the percent of happiness that is genetically determined is actually less than 50%. The scientists argue that twin studies don’t accurately account for the complex interaction between the environment and our genes.
Sonja briefly mentions gene expression in The How of Happiness:
In order to express or not to express themselves, genes need a particular environment (e.g., a happy marriage or job layoff) or a particular behavior (e.g., seeking out social support).
This means that no matter what your genetic predisposition, whether or not that predisposition is expressed is in your hands.
So genetics may very well play a smaller role than I’ve presented here.
But let’s circle back to our question, “Can you choose to be happy?” Genes can determine our baseline levels of happiness – a kind of starting point. Circumstances also seem to play a small role, although much less than you’d probably expect.
Completely up to you and your choices. The activities you engage in, how you think, what you pursue, and who you surround yourself with.
You might find yourself on a different point than someone else on the happiness spectrum. But that doesn’t mean you can’t raise or lower that point. So find what makes you genuinely happy, and choose to make it a priority in your life. Every day.