is The pursuit of happiness all it's made up to be?
Reading time: 4 mins
How many times have we been told that the secret to happiness in life is to find something you are passionate about and make that your life’s work? Implicit are the twin assumptions that attaining happiness is the primary purpose of life and that the best way to get there is to follow your passion. How useful are these accepted wisdoms in actually helping us to flourish and live well?
A Question of Happiness
In today’s world, it seems as though everyone is searching for happiness. We’re looking for it when we struggle to achieve that elusive work/life balance, just as we look for it in trying to establish a regular gym or yoga habit. At root, all of us are trying to answer that essential question — how exactly do we get to the good life?
For those who believe that the pursuit of happiness is the right measure then inevitably the nature versus nurture debate, one of the oldest philosophical issues within psychology raises its head. So what exactly does this entail?
Nature refers to all of the genes and hereditary factors that influence who we are—from our physical appearance to our personality characteristics.
Nurture refers to all the environmental variables that impact who we are, including our early childhood experiences, how we were raised, our social relationships, and our surrounding culture.
It’s a deep topic of debate that traces its roots as far back to the philosophers Plato and Descartes when they suggested that certain things are inborn, or that they occur naturally regardless of environmental influences. Other well-known thinkers such as John Locke believed in what is known as tabula rasa, which suggests that the mind begins as a blank slate. According to this notion, everything that we are and all of our knowledge is determined by our experience whilst empiricists take the position that all or most behaviors and characteristics result from learning. But what does the latest scientific research tell us about how much of our general state of happiness is inherited genetically or conditioned by our environment?
Relatively few behaviour based genetic studies have ventured into the positive mental health field, and most studies are based on simple, self-report measures of positive indicators such as satisfaction with life and subjective wellbeing (SWB). That being said there are a limited number of studies and the findings are generally consistent and based on thousands of twins from different countries, of which the majority are reared together, but some also reared apart. The results indicate that genetic influences are important for happiness and well-being, accounting for somewhere between 35-50% of heritable levels and as much as 80% of long-term ones(Lykken & Tellegen, 1996; Nes, Røysamb, Tambs, Harris, & Reichborn-Kjennerud, 2006). This suggests that our readiness to perceive and interpret the world more or less positively, is both stable across time and strongly influenced by genes. However, there are also numerous confirmed findings of environmental effects on happiness and well-being through different studies (Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, & Schwartz, 2004). When combined with findings from research on related states of mind (e.g. anxiety, depression, personality), the results collectively suggest that environmental influences are important, but also do not exert long lasting redirection or enduring changes unless exposure is continuous (e.g. Nes, Røysamb, Reichborn-Kjennerud, Harris, & Tambs, 2007; Rijsdijk et al., 2003; McGue et al., 1993; Diener, Sandvik, Pavot, & Fujita, 1992; Merikangas, Zhang, Avenevoli, Acharyya, Neuenschwander, & Angst, 2005).
So the consensus view at the present moment is that our happiness is a result of both innate genetic factors and the environment we exist in with a ratio somewhere around 40:60. Whilst this seems clear it’s important to realise that even genetic pre-disposition does not imply pre-determination and thus avoids leading us into a trap of determinism. This aligns with the laws of evolution where constant adaptation to ones environment is the defining characteristic of life itself. Rather, we should consider that genetic influences contribute to probabilistic propensities. That is increased likelihood but not guaranteed outcomes. This is good news for both policy makers and individuals alike whose aspiration should be to create environmental conditions that optimise well-being opportunities for all.
Happiness set point?
The theory of the hedonic treadmill states that regardless of what happens to people, their levels of happiness will eventually return to their baselines. Take this theory with a classic example: say you get married, move into a new house, get a promotion, lose a job, suffer an accident, etc., over time, you’re likely to return to your set point of happiness. I’ve certainly noticed this effect in my own life; for example the hedonic adaptation I experienced whilst spending 2 months living in the beautiful mountains of southern spain during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 or even whilst operating in a chaotic warzone – the set point returns eventually.
Along with Brickman and Campbell’s original research (1971), a notable piece of research on the hedonic treadmill studied two sets of people: One was a group of people who won large lottery prizes, and the other was a group of accident victims who were now paralyzed (including quadriplegic and paraplegic people). The research revealed that, in the long term, neither group appeared to be happier than the other. (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978). Of course, the lottery winners and paralysis victims experienced initial reactions of happiness and sadness, respectively.
The effects didn’t turn out to be long-lasting, and people in both groups shortly reverted to their previous levels of happiness. In the original theory of the hedonic treadmill, Brickman and Campbell proposed that people immediately react to good and bad events but in a short time return to neutrality (1971). So if happiness as an end in itself is the goal of life then perhaps under this interpretation we have placed ourselves into same trap as the greek god's placed sisyphus; forever rolling a rock up a hill in the depths of hades only for it to roll back down again when he reached the top.
Is Happiness the right measure?
“You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something,” says Harold S. Kushner.
We have been geared up to believe that the pursuit of happiness is a primary goal of life and we live in a society that provides affirmative toll gates on the road to achieving it. If we can just build the right career, be seen at the right places, have the right friends, marry the right person and earn a certain big ticket amount of money then we will be on the path towards achieving happiness. Yet as an increasing number of the younger generation turn their backs on the win at all costs race that this construct entails in so doing they reveal cracks in the system. For many years after I left military service I struggled to put my finger on the underlying sense of dissatisfaction I felt with the trappings of a ‘successful’ life. I had performed a life transformation, attended the best business schools, developed an international network of over achieving winners, I had found a way to grow my income by a factor of 7-10 times what it used to be in the military. I should have been well on my way to being happy and yet I still felt rather empty inside. Studies repeatedly reveal that whilst money does make a positive difference to your overall sense of wellbeing the benefits tend to top out between $60,000-$80,000 a year depending on where you live. Once you can afford a house, a car, to go out, have nice dinners, and gather some savings so you can afford medical bills or to travel then the tangible perception of happiness starts to fade. Beyond that, additional wealth essentially provides you with more options and crucially more time in which to pursue those options but they are not a yardstick of internal well being.
Ironically, recent research shows that focusing on happiness in life is actually self-defeating. Psychologist Iris Mauss at the University of California, Berkley found that the pursuit of happiness might just leave you worse off. So wanting to be happy can make you less happy and if you explicitly and purposely focus on happiness, that appears to have a self-defeating quality.
Her two research studies, which focused on women because social scientists have found that men have higher rates of concealing emotions, consistently found that the more you focus on attaining happiness, the worse your outcomes will be.
Purpose and Meaning
In “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters” Emily Esfahani Smith reviewed hundreds of empirical papers from the growing body of research on meaningfulness and found that the defining features of a meaningful life are connecting and contributing to something beyond the self.
Meaningful activities generate positive emotions and deepen social connections, both of which increase our satisfaction with life. Pursuing meaning makes you feel good about yourself, because you are pursuing something bigger than yourself. Something that makes you come alive. When you understand how you contribute value, you will attach meaning to even the smallest thing you do and “connect the dots between your efforts and a larger purpose.” The most motivating choices are ones that align with your “why” and your purpose. Why you pursue something is as equally important as what you pursue. Your pursuit should be meaningful to you. Purpose eases the pain of the long hours and gives you the fortitude to fail. In a previous article we have considered the valuable lessons contained in Viktor Frankls epic “Man’s Search for Meaning”, in it he suggests three ways for finding meaning in our lives:
By creating a work or doing a deed
By experiencing something or encountering someone
By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering
Pursuing your “why” changes everything. You won’t discover your life’s work by wondering or worrying about it. And it doesn’t come fully formed. You’ll discover it by taking action, everyday.