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The Key to Happiness

Self indulgence does not make you happier.

Some of us are a lot more optimistic than others. There is no sugar-coating the fact that some people have happy genes and others do not. Geneticists estimate that genes are responsible for about 50 percent of the differences in how happy people say they are.

Genes make happiness fairly stable across the lifespan. A happy child often grows into a happy adult.

Still, happy genes have their limits. People can be, and are, crushed by traumatic experiences such as serving on the front lines in a war, or being the victim of violent crimes. Post-traumatic stress has many of the features of clinical depression, including intrusive unpleasant thoughts, agitation, and loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed.

Everyone experiences some trauma in their lives, of course, but it does not rise to the severity of being involved in battle, or getting violently raped, to cite two common causes of post-traumatic stress.

Apart from such extreme events, what happens in our lives can be surprisingly unimportant to how happy we are. People often wish aloud that they could win the lottery and quit their jobs. Would that make them happy? Not surprisingly, lottery winners experience a bump up in their level of happiness. Yet it is temporary and evaporates during the first year or two. Over time, we also recover from bad news like the loss of a job.

The notion that we tend to bounce up from setbacks and down from exceptionally good news is called the set point theory of happiness. The idea is that we remain about the same level of happiness regardless of what happens to us in much the same way that a room stays at the same temperature thanks to the thermostat setting.

Is there something that can happen to us that makes us generally happier over a long period of our lives? Here is where evolutionary psychology comes in.

If humans are designed by natural selection to mate and raise children, then partnered people with children would be happier than childless singles. That is exactly what researchers find.

People living with partners are happier than singles. It is hard to know what direction the causal arrow runs in here. Do romantic partnerships make people happier, or are happy people just more likely to attract a partner?

There is less ambiguity about the happiness-producing effect of having children. Happy people are probably not more fertile than miserable ones. Moreover, having children makes people happier only when the children are fairly young. Parents in their fifties and sixties are not happier than non parents, probably because the kids have already moved out and are no longer such a focus of attention.

So genes, romantic partnerships, and family are the main keys to happiness. Genes are the hand we are dealt and are of limited interest when it comes to increasing happiness. So why are marriage and family so important? It seems that they keep us socially involved and lend a sense of purpose to our lives.

Yet many people lead happy lives without being married or having children. Most are deeply involved in their jobs, careers, creative endeavors, or hobbies. Feeling engaged and productive is the real key to happiness. We feel good when we are contributing to others.

Giving really is more pleasurable than receiving. Let's hope that folk give generously this crucial holiday season not only strengthening the national economy but boosting national happiness.

More from Nigel Barber Ph.D.
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