In a comment regarding my post on Why Don't Researchers Study Health, Dr. Karen Shue spoke about the happiness 'set point', or subjective evaluation of well-being, that research seems to show that we have. I've heard a little about this before, and decided to look into it a little more. I'll be talking about this all week (today, Wednesday, and Friday). Today's post will be about the concept of the happiness set point itself.
My first stop was a 2003 article by Jon Gertner titled The Futile Pursuit of Happiness. This article detailed research by Daniel Gilbert of the department of psychology at Harvard, Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia, George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon University, and Daniel Kahneman of Princeton. These four men have been studying how well we can predict the emotional impact of events in our lives. Their research shows that what happens in our lives, both good and bad, generally has less impact on our emotional state, for a shorter period of time, than most people think it will. This difference between expectation and what actually occurs they call impact bias.
In essence, this group of researchers found that we have a baseline emotional state that we rise above or descend below depending on how we react to the events of our lives. The extent of the deviation is usually smaller than we hope, or fear, it will be.
My next stop was an article in the UMNews - In search of happiness. This article spoke about research by the University of Minnesota's David Lykken and Auke Tellegen with twins that showed that our normal emotional state, our happiness level, is determined at least in part by genetics. The correlation was very strong with identical twins, in the range of 50%-80%, but for fraternal twins there was little correlation. Dr. Lykken later looked at this and optimistically decided that meant our habitual mood level is genetically influenced, but not genetically determined.
In The Heritability of Happiness Dr. Lykken relates some of these conclusions, as well as iterating the lack of correlation of happiness with socioeconomic status, sex, education level, or race.
One conclusion that I draw from this is that looking for happiness outside is a mistake. (Like that's a surprise coming from me). But looking outside for happiness is a natural mistake in our culture. Advertising promotes the positive emotional experience of owning or using every product ever created. Literature and movies all portray our happiness in terms of what happens to us. From infancy who grow up with stories that end in happily ever after following the marriage to the princess or the defeat of the dragon.
A second conclusion I draw from this research is that our sense of subjective well-being can be changed. We can improve our happiness quotient. How we can do this will be the subject of the second part of this series.