Which Big Life Decisions Lead to Long-Term Happiness?
The life decisions correlated with higher life satisfaction.
Posted February 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
- Major decisions regarding education, career, family, relationships, relocation, and self-development have a significant effect on one's happiness.
- New research shows that most people are (or remain) satisfied with their lives after major decisions, particularly those related to career and finance.
- Decisions that involve taking greater control of your life, the research suggests, also reliably lead to greater life satisfaction, particularly those involving meaning—adopting a new philosophy, for example, or committing to a religion.
The pursuit of happiness is, for many, one of the primary goals in life. It is, after all, right there in the United States Declaration of Independence. How do we make decisions that lead to long-lasting happiness? We first need to define happiness.
Happiness can be thought of in two ways. The first is about how you feel. You’re “happy” if you frequently experience positive feelings and infrequently experience negative feelings.
The second is about how you reflect on your life. You’re “happy” if you are satisfied with how your life is going and what you have done with your time on Earth. It’s this life satisfaction type of happiness that we’re concerned with here.
Life satisfaction is partly determined by your genetics and partly determined by your situation. And your situation is, to a large extent, determined by the decisions you make. Some decisions, of course, are much more important than others. These are the big life decisions.
The question we’ll cover in this article is how current life satisfaction is related to big life decisions. In other words, what kinds of decisions have been made by those who have a high level of life satisfaction?
Life’s Biggest Decisions
I have spent my career studying decisions. A couple of years ago, I began to ask people to tell me about their biggest life decisions. In this blog, I share what I have learned.
As I described in the first article in this series, in general, big decisions can be placed into one of the following categories: Career, Education, Family, Finances, Relationships, Relocation, Self-Destruction, Self-Development, and Other. Each of these has a number of sub-categories. Some decisions are more likely during certain periods of life, which I have described in the second article in this series.
In addition to asking about their biggest decisions, I have asked people to tell me about their current degree of life satisfaction. One way that researchers investigate this is by asking people the degree to which they agree with the following statements:
- In most ways, my life is close to my ideal.
- The conditions of my life are excellent.
- I am satisfied with my life.
- So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
- If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.
How satisfied with life are you? For each of the five statements above, score 1 if you “strongly disagree” up to 5 if you “strongly agree” with it. Then, take the average. A higher score means that you are more satisfied with your life.
What Types of Big Decisions Lead to High Life Satisfaction?
The figure below shows average life satisfaction broken down by whether or not the respondent had mentioned making different kinds of big life decisions. Any difference in the length of the bar indicates some difference in life satisfaction between those who did (in blue) and those who did not (in red) make this kind of big decision.
The first thing that jumps out is that all of the bars exceed the mid-point of the scale. In fact, the average score is about 3.5 out of 5 on the five life satisfaction questions mentioned above. Most people are fairly happy with their life.
The self-destruction big decision category is the most unique of the nine. Unambiguously, those reporting having made big self-destruction decisions have significantly lower life satisfaction. This result is no surprise given these kinds of decisions including committing a crime, beginning an addiction, and engaging in self-harm.
The other two categories that stand out as revealing differences are for career and finance decisions. On average, those who made these kinds of big decisions had higher life satisfaction. It turns out, once you dig deeper into the data, that the differences we see for career and finance decisions are strongest for males.
Which Specific Big Decisions Lead to High Life Satisfaction?
The 9 categories displayed in Figure 1 are fairly broad. It’s more interesting—but also messier—to break this data down into their 58 subcategories. A figure including all of these subcategories of decisions would be overwhelming, so the next figure focuses on the decisions that have the largest differential in life satisfaction between those who have and have not made such a decision before.
As you can see in the bottom half of Figure 2, those who have made any of the self-destructive decisions report lower levels of life satisfaction compared to those not making these decisions. Engaging in sexual activity and accepting/changing sexuality round out what we might call the “bottom” five decisions.
At the top half of Figure 2, we find the big life decisions that are associated with much higher life satisfaction for those who have made the decision compared to those who have not. These decisions involve self-development and beginning something new, which is often paired with leaving something—often unpleasant—behind.
Naturally, the results change if you drill down on particular groups. For example, males report happier life satisfaction after having made a decision to move to a new country as well as buying a home. Most younger people have yet to retire and so we see other decisions such as selling a home near the top of their list.
It should also be mentioned that these results are correlational and the adage that “correlation does not equal causation” is relevant. Are those who decide to pursue a philosophy/ideology happier because of that decision or is it that those who are happier in the first place are more likely to pursue a philosophy/ideology? It’s hard to tell with a single survey. All that we can say is that those who end up deciding to pursue a philosophy/ideology also tend to end up happier.
There are a few important take-homes from this analysis. First, there are many paths to happiness. Most people are fairly satisfied with their life regardless of the composition of the big decisions they have made. This is a good thing. It means that, despite the seeming monumental importance of big life decisions such as moving across the country or getting married, you’ll probably end up relatively happy.
Second, there are some big life decisions that will reliably decrease your life satisfaction. These self-destructive decisions include engaging in crime and drugs. Even though these poor decisions are often made early in life, they put one on a treacherous path for decades to come.
Finally, there are some big life decisions that will reliably increase your life satisfaction. A common theme among them is that they involve taking control of your life and pouring yourself into a pursuit or project. The most powerful of these are deciding to follow a particular way of life, be it a philosophy or religion. It’s these kinds of decisions that bring greater meaning and, upon reflection, deeper satisfaction with how we have spent our limited time on Earth.
The next post in this series is “How Good Are You at Predicting Your Big Life Decisions?” In the meantime, if you'd like to see how your own big decisions compare to others, complete the survey yourself here and also check out the data.
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