Can people be intentionally happier?

Intentional Happiness

“Although bringing about inner change is difficult, it is absolutely worthwhile to try”  
– His Holiness the Dalai Lama


Can happiness change over time? In short, yes. And yes, you can intentionally make an impact on your happiness.

In one study, 24% of people experienced a change in their life satisfaction significantly over 17 years and 9% changed by two standard deviations or more (Fujita and Diener, 2005). In another study, a quarter of people substantially changed their well-being over time (Fujita & Diener, 2005).

Which begs the question, if some people experience a change in their happiness and others don’t, what’s the difference? What are those changers doing? And is changing our happiness something we can all do? To answer that, we must first start with what affects our happiness.


What affects our happiness?

Are you just “born that way?” It turns out, yes, genetics plays a role, but not as much as you might think. 

Genetics is responsible for your baseline and provides some stability, but in the end, only accounts for half of the equation – or less. Stability of happiness (how people scored themselves over time) was highly heritable – 80% was accounted for by genetics (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996; Nes, Røysamb, Tambs, Harris, & Reichborn-Kjennerud, 2006). However, the amount of happiness you experience is only about 40-50% heritable. (e.g., Bartels & Boomsma, 2009; Røysamb, Tambs, Reichborn-Kjennerud, Neale, & Harris, 2003; Stubbe, Posthuma, Boomsma, & de Geus, 2005).

So what makes up the remaining? And how flexible is it? It’s a combination of things – namely life circumstances and intentional action. Let’s first look at life circumstances.


How do our life circumstances impact our long-term happiness? 

What if you’re born poor or rich? What if you win the lottery or lose your job? How does circumstance impact your happiness over time? 

The short answer is it depends. The effect of life circumstances likely varies across people and situations (Howell & Howell, 2008), but (a) it certainly is not inevitable that big changes in circumstance lead to big impacts to your happiness, and (b) regardless, it doesn’t account for a very large portion of your happiness. 

Life circumstances that impact your happiness could include getting married, getting divorced, moving to a new city… all sorts of things. But perhaps surprisingly, our life circumstances represent only about 10-15% of individual differences in happiness (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). That’s right, just 10-15%! 

That said, adaptation (returning to your baseline happiness after a change in circumstance) is complicated. It should not be viewed as an inevitable process as there’s evidence on both sides. In fact where studies found adaptation, the rates and trajectories of adaptation varied across people. In other words, when good or bad things happen to you, it might take you longer than others to snap back.

It also varies by circumstance. People do not adapt as quickly or at all to negative events such as:

  • Widowhood (Lucas et al., 2003; Yap et al., 2012)
  • Divorce (Lucas, 2005)
  • Disability (Lucas, 2007)
  • Unemployment (Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, & Diener, 2004; Yap et al., 2012; but see Anusic et al., 2014 for normative age-related changes comparison).

Thus, adaptation to positive and negative events is asymmetrical – on average, people are quicker to adapt to positive than negative events. Good news though! Adaptation to positive events can be forestalled if you actively focus on appreciating the positive events or experiences. In other words, if you want to drag out that good feeling, you can! Just focus on appreciating it.

For example, in relationships, you should actively appreciate your partners and put effort into doing new and exciting things with them, just as you would have in the beginning of the relationship. These activities may slow adaptation.


Intentional Practice of Happy-Increasing Activities

Okay so 50% of your happiness is genetic. Another 10% is driven by your circumstance. So how about the remaining 40%? It’s decided by the effortful practice of intentional happiness-increasing activities.

In other words, if you engage in activities intended to alter your level of happiness, it will work, it will account for a huge amount of your happiness, and it can be sustained over time. But the benefits don’t stop there…


Other Positive Benefits of Intentionally Pursuing Happiness

In short, being happy also improves other areas of your life. The broaden-and-build theory states that positive emotions promote many desirable outcomes beyond simply feeling good (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001, 2013).

For one, positive emotions signal to you that you’re safe to explore and expand your horizons. You’re free to be curious, meet new people, learn new things, and generally create an upward spiral. You can imagine what may come next.

In fact, findings overwhelmingly support that happiness is not only related to success cross-sectionally, but also precedes it! (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005; De Neve, Diener, Tay, & Xuereb, 2013). In other words, the happier you are, the more successful you’ll be. Happy people perform better at work, are physically healthier, have better relationships with others, and are more likely to engage in community service.


All that being said, pursuing happiness CAN have negative consequences. Here’s what to watch out for.

In short, don’t value happiness, pursue it. Valuing it, and measuring yourself against some unrealistic or maybe even pathological value of happiness may make you less happy.

If you find yourself identifying with statements like “If I don’t feel happy, maybe there is something wrong with me,” or “I am concerned about my happiness even when I feel happy.” demonstrate a worry about being unhappy that undermines your happiness. Simply put, an excessive focus on happiness or fear of unhappiness is related to lower well-being (Luhmann, Necka, Schönbrodt, and Hawkley, 2016).

In contrast, prioritizing positivity is related to higher positive emotions, lower depression, and greater resources like self-compassion and ego-resilience (Catalino et al., 2014).


Conclusion: How do you pursue happiness… in ways that are authentic to you?

Recent studies on happiness have overturned conventional wisdom. We now know that the best route to a sustained change in your happiness is through intentional and effortful activities, NOT changing your life circumstances (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade, 2005).

And how exactly can you pursue happiness “through intentional and effortful activities?” Generally speaking, with something called Positive Psychological Interventions (PPIs). PPIs can be self-guided, through a coach, a therapist, or a social or support group. 

The Bodhi program is FULL of forms of PPI, and in fact introduces you to a new one each month. But in general, PPIs include things like:

  • Being prosocial, such as by performing acts of kindness (Krueger, Hicks, & McGue, 2001)
  • Being optimistic, such as by visualizing one’s best possible self (Lucas, Diener, & Suh, 1996)
  • Practicing gratitude, such as by writing a gratitude letter or counting one’s blessings (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002)

There are a lot of forms of PPI, but the key point is to find the one that works for you and practice it daily. That’s the secret to making lasting change.

Finally, bringing sustained changes in your happiness requires that you turn the PPI into a habit. In other words, you need to continue the practice over a long period. To do this, the PPI must be authentic to YOU. This is what’s known as “person-activity fit.” The intensity of the practice, the timing, and the activity itself should all feel “right,” or else you won’t be motivated and you won’t continue. So we recommend trying a whole bunch of different activities and finding ones that are right for you. 

So stop buying lottery tickets and get out there and start boosting your happiness!



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