Is it possible to sustain happiness?
Can we become happier?
When we persuade ourselves that happiness is important, the next question is: “Can we become happier? And if we can, is it possible to sustain it?”
Up to now, there has been quite a bit of pessimism in the scientific world about whether we can sustain happiness, whether it's even possible to become happier.
Let’s see what are the main reasons that might lead researches to believe that it's not possible for us to sustain a higher level of happiness. Accordingly to Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at University of California Riverside, there are three reasons to be pessimistic.
There's growing literature affirming that we are all born with a determined "set point" for happiness, we now know that nearly 50%, a large portion, of happiness is genetically determined.
These findings come from work in the field of behaviour genetics, that shows also that identical twins are much more similar in their happiness levels, than fraternal twins are. This also suggests that happiness is heritable, it is passed down through our families.
Some might conclude that it is futile or not very worthwhile to try to change our happiness levels because of genetics, yet always remember that nearly 40% of our happiness levels are totally under our control, under our power to change.
A second reason to be pessimistic is that happiness has been shown to be a trait intrinsically related to our personality.
Happiness is especially highly related to two core aspects of personality which are extroversion, the capability to be a sociable extroverted person, and neuroticism, the feature of being a neurotic and emotionally unstable person.
We now know that personality does not change much over time. Or better said, it might change, but it is very hard to change it and it requires huge and consistent efforts and self-discipline. For those of us who have tried to change our spouses, friends, family members, we know how hard it is.
We might wonder: if happiness is part of our personality, how can we really change it? Studies have shown that happiness is quite stable across people’s lives, so, people who are unhappy when they are younger tend to be unhappy as they are older.
The final reason to be pessimistic is a phenomenon called "hedonic adaptation”, which is essentially a fancy word to say “getting used to things”.
Human beings are remarkably adept at getting used to any positive changes in their lives, we actually get quickly used to the changes in our lives. This means that no matter what positive, thrilling, wonderful events happen to us, we won't be happier because we’ll soon get used to it and we’d just want more, until we’d go back down to our baseline.
Imagine to move into a beautiful new house, to buy a new car, to get a new job and at first all it’s really thrilling, it gives us a happiness boost, but over time we get used to that, and no matter what kinds of ups or downs in life we have, we tend to go back to our baseline.
There’s a famous study that was done in Germany following 25,000 people before they got married, when they got married, and after they got married, and looking at their happiness over time. What it showed is that people got a boost in happiness when they got married, actually the highest level was in the year before the wedding, maybe related to the thrilling expectation, the engagement and honeymoon period.
How long do you think it took for people on average to get back to their baseline, after getting married? Give it a try and write it down.....
... Well, believe it or not, it took ... TWO years!
That's an average, this means that some people actually got less happy after marriage than they were before, and some others made it longer.
We might want to look closer to those people who got happier when they got married, and stayed happier for years and years, above their baseline.
They might have found the secret recipe for the famous “happily ever after” !
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