The Pleasure Paradox

Happiness is stubborn; hard to find, difficult to augment. Circumstances under our control (employment, education, money) account for only about 10 to 15 percent of our "subjective well-being," the technical term for how good we judge life to be. Happiness is largely due to personality traits and temperament; the torments or glories of fate don't make a huge difference in how we feel. When it comes to subjective well-being, "you don't get a big bang out of the real world," says Alex Michalos of the University of Northern British Columbia.

For example: Youth, beauty and riches may be lots of fun, but they don't make you happy. Once you earn enough to afford the ordinary pleasures of middle-class life, more money does virtually nothing to lift your spirits. Middle-class people usually have more and better free time. They exercise more; they belong to more clubs, take more vacations and have a more active social life, and all of these leisure habits make them happier.

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Some everyday triggers for happiness are predictable: listening to music, being in love and having lots of sex. Finding money, being in a sunny room, watching a funny movie or having a few drinks can also make you feel good, but the effects don't last.

If you're determined to turn that 10-15 percent to your favor, the list below has a few hints, each based on multiple studies: Develop good social skills. Volunteer. Get married; or at least cohabitate. Pursue meaningful goals, and take pleasure in the process; progress with a purpose generates good feelings. Enjoy the little things: Being pleased frequently has more influence on well-being than being intensely happy once in a while.

The Happiness Fact List

  • Beauty

    People like pretty. Good looks help your popularity and, by extension, your career; both boost mood. But pulchritude on its own doesn't do much good.

  • Money

    If you're poor, money does make a difference. But above a threshold of about $40,000 a year, more won't make you happier. Comparisons, though, influence your state of mind: No matter how much or how little you make, doing better than your neighbor will make you feel better.

  • Youth

    Young people are more aware of bad news and negative emotions than are the elderly. Aging seems to bias us toward the positive, despite more fragile health and finances; that may be because we've come closer to reaching our goals.

  • Intelligence

    Smarts have only a weak effect on happiness; being brainy may decrease satisfaction by raising your expectations and making you more aware of your shortcomings.

  • Education

    In the 1950s, book learning brought happiness, but a college education no longer lifts well-being on its own. Education opens the door to a better career, but it also fosters higher expectations that may be disappointed.

  • Religion

    Surprisingly, churchgoers get only a small lift from the Lord. The cause: faith fosters both community ties and social networks, which are both known to make people happier.

  • Narcissism

    High self-esteem protects against psychological suffering, and a little bit of narcissism is good for your mood: People with abundant self-love are less likely to be depressed, lonely or anxious.

  • Sense of Humor

    Not taking things so seriously can bring hope and happiness. People with a hopeful outlook tend to also be good at laughing.

  • Free Time

    Well-spent leisure time can lead to great leaps in happiness: Activities that combine socializing and physical activity and require some moderate skills are the best (think salsa!). Most of us spend a lot of our leisure time watching TV, which can be relaxing; but we'd be happier if we just went bowling. Don't envy your laid-off friends; while the unemployed have more time, most have little active leisure, which is one of the reasons they're so unhappy.

  • Social Skills

    Friendship is one of life's main joys. Due to novelty, spending time with friends lifts your mood more than spending time with family. Being cooperative and knowing how to chat up the opposite sex are also associated with happiness.

  • Volunteering

    In one study, volunteer and charity work generated more joy than anything except dancing. The sense of accomplishment, the social connection and the chance to do something meaningful are what make it so much fun.

The Myth: We think the finer things in life will make us happy.

The Reality: Most of what makes us happy is pretty prosaic.

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