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October 5th, 2010
10:05 AM ET

Priorities may drive happiness

Most of us have thought, 'If only I could win the lottery, then I'd be happy forever.' But according to one of the first studies to look at long-term happiness, major life events, like a sudden cash windfall, are not what make us happy, rather, it's the priorities we set in life.

"The main thing that's surprising about these results is that it challenges this whole field," said lead author Melbourne University sociologist Bruce Headey. "This study goes against the prevailing wisdom that happiness is fixed." The study was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previous studies suggest that happiness is predetermined by genetics and early upbringing, and that we eventually revert back to the same level of happiness regardless of changes in our lives. Looking at data from about 60,000 Germans for up to 25 years, however, Headey found that the more people decided to prioritize goals such as good relationships and good health, the happier they were, regardless of major life events.

How do you change so-called life goals? According to Heady, one way may involve concentrating on helping others, or making family, rather than material possessions, a priority. People who prioritized having a good marriage, a good relationship with their children, and being involved in social and political activities reported higher levels of life satisfaction over time. On the other hand, researchers found those who focused primarily on being able to buy what they wanted or being successful in their careers reported less happiness.

"It looks like the less involved people were in their relationships, the less happy they got," Heady said.

Picking an emotionally compatible spouse may be another key factor to happiness. Headey found that people with emotionally unstable spouses reported being unhappy, while those with emotionally stable spouses were happier. Women with partners who placed a lower priority on family goals also were less satisfied with life, even when compared with single women.

Heady also found that people who were physically healthy were more satisfied with life; underweight men and obese women were significantly less happy.

Researchers analyzed data from the German Socio-Economic Panel. The survey is the longest of its kind, tracking the life satisfaction of 60,000 Germans, some as far back as 1984. Only participants aged 25 to 64 that had been followed annually for at least a decade were included in the analysis.

While the study is the most extensive of its kind, because it relies on survey data, it cannot come to any concrete conclusions. It could simply be that naturally happier people make these life choices, or increases in Germany's overall standard of living brought about these changes, said psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener, who was not involved in the study. Also, the survey only asked participants about their overall satisfaction with life once a year and did not look at overall day-to-day emotional happiness.

"While on its own it's not convincing enough, when you couple this with a growing body of evidence, it seems like set-point theory is not adequate to explain human happiness," said Biswas-Diener. "It looks like with effort you can move your happiness level up or down depending on your choices."

Headey concedes much more work must be completed. Nevertheless, he recommends people stop to think about their priorities.

"I think people should definitely reconsider whether their life goals are actually making them happier," said Heady.


soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Dunn

    It doesn't take a study to prove this. Most people just aren't able to take a step back and see it for themselves.

    October 5, 2010 at 12:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. RLJ

    I feel it's a combination – your "set point" would determine your base level of happiness around which it could go up or down depending on your priorities and circumstances.

    October 5, 2010 at 14:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. IKW

    We pay people to research and inform us that happiness is a choice, not a result. I have been saying that for years, where is my big money grant? I tell ya what, keep it...I'm already happy! 😉

    IKW

    October 5, 2010 at 14:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Valeriy

      How much did you personally pay? You don't sound happy.

      October 6, 2010 at 12:06 | Report abuse |
  4. Wyatt

    Money can't buy happiness – but it do a lot to hold back unhappiness.

    October 5, 2010 at 15:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Blatantlyobvious

    It's true, now I'd like to see an article that explains how I can re-arrange my priorities.

    October 5, 2010 at 16:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Joey

    I've been saying this to people for years based off my own observations of my priorities verses theirs (for example, I wanted to finish college, and have strong relationships with a close group of friends as my main goals) Those who always had their goal as having money or a high profile job never seemed to be as happy as I was with my more humble goals.

    October 5, 2010 at 17:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. figureitout

    Joey, do you really need an article to tell you what priorites should come first?

    October 5, 2010 at 19:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Denizen Kate

    I find it facinating that so many in our society seem to EXPECT to be happy, like it's a right. Unless you have some bad times, you can't appreciate the good times. I have a PHD from the School of Hard Knocks, but lately I'm experiencing a lot of good things. While I'm not "happy" all the time, I am mostly content, and that's good enough. Here's something that gives me perspective: when I feel down and I'm having a bad day, all I need is to hear a siren. Even if it's just a traffic cop going after a speeder, that siren indicates that someone else's day is worse than mine.

    October 5, 2010 at 19:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • K

      It has been 30 years since I had anything truly good happen in my life. I worked my butt off for promotions, then didn't get them - promising me the job was just a ploy to get me to work till midnight every night for a month. I have met a bunch of people willing to marry me for my money but no one worth getting into a relationship with; they're quite clear that their goal in getting married is finding some sucker to pay the bills so they can quit their job. "Friends" who were happy to spend 6 hours a day on the phone with me when THEY were the one with the problems didn't have 5 minutes when it was ME who needed to talk; they never returned calls when they heard through the grapevine that I was having problems and I finally gave up trying to connect because I couldn't stand the rejection of unanswered calls. I lost my health, my good job, and everything else that I could be thankful for. I try to be as content as possible with the absolutely nothing that I have left, but it's tough to keep the smile on my face when told that I should be thankful for all those things I don't have and probably never will (good marriage, children, reliable friends, social life, etc.) - all lists like this one do is remind me of what I DON'T have. My priority always was to have a good marriage, but you cannot have a good marriage when all you meet is golddiggers.

      October 6, 2010 at 11:59 | Report abuse |
  9. Elle

    A year ago, i woule have snickered at this report. but despite losing my best friend in june, having the meanest coworkers on the planet (they make fun of my looks my clothes &the fact that domestic violence forced me into a homeless shelter), i am what you could term happy. it's work, but i am focused on helping others, improving my relationships w family and friends, and improving my health. i'd have settled for contentment, so to feel happy was a revelation- and a surprise-one i've no intention of returning!

    October 6, 2010 at 01:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. G

    Thank you CNN. Give a promotion to Mr Obvious.

    October 6, 2010 at 01:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. illya

    Right on

    October 6, 2010 at 02:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. katherine

    I call them $5K goals – they cost enough that I have to work for them, but when I get there, my family hasn't suffered, and I feel great!

    October 6, 2010 at 07:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. sally sue

    Money doesn't buy happiness but it's like a half off coupon.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. K

    "People who prioritized having a good marriage, a good relationship with their children, and being involved in social and political activities reported higher levels of life satisfaction over time." And then there are those of us who found out our spouse married us for our money (and left after spending my life's savings), have no children, and have no time for social/political activities because we're juggling three jobs and the needs of elderly parents. I do not have ONE THING on their list that I could be thankful for, not even my health.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • CFS Facts

      Agreed. There are over 1,000,000 Americans who have a cryptic neuroimmune disease, CFS, that robs them of everything. Over 3/4 of their marriages break up because of the chronic illness. They're too sick to work but deemed "not disabled enough" to receive Disability benefits. Friends and family abandon you because you're too debilitated to go out with them, and they "don't have time" to come over and sit quietly talking while you lie on the couch too weak to sit up. Doctors verbally abuse you because their egos can't take a patient who doesn't improve. For the women, pregnancy is ill-advised because it might permanently damage their health, which means they have no children to bring joy to their days. Life for these people is an endless round of pain and verbal abuse. The leading cause of death is suicide because doctors can't help and you just get tired of spending your life alone and in constant pain and endlessly waiting for someone to find a treatment or a cure, and what passes for sympathy is "it can't be THAT bad" from people who have no idea that they haven't been told the whole story because they keep cutting the patient off after just the first symptom or two. Visit CFS Facts online at our website, on Facebook, on Blogspot to learn the truth about just how bad it can be. It's a neuro-immune disease that affects every bodily function from thinking to digestion, even the ability to sit up without passing out. Money might not buy happiness, but it would buy the things these patients need, like caregivers and research.

      October 6, 2010 at 11:42 | Report abuse |
  15. Elle

    K, you keep expecting things and others to make you happy? its not your jobs job to make you happy nor is it your friends job to make you happy. you need to treat yourself better than you do the boss. happiness has to fought for! not fought over! dont just keep the faith, fight for it! you are already wonderful! believe this always!!

    October 6, 2010 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Vivian

    My ex Husband left me and my two kids and also how i needed to get a job in a very big company.He only said to me that i have come to the right place were i will be getting my heart desire without any side effect.He told me what i need to do,After it was been done,24 hours later,My Ex Husband called me on the phone and was saying sorry for living me and the kids before now and one week after my Husband called me to be pleading for forgiveness,I was called for interview in a very big company here in IRELAND were i needed to work as the managing director..I am so happy and overwhelmed that i have to tell this to the entire world to contact Robinson Buckler on his personal email address and get all your problem solve..No problem is too big for him to solve..He also cure herpes, Contact him direct on: Robinsonbucler @gmail. com…

    December 9, 2020 at 15:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Vivian

    My ex Husband left me and my two kids and also how i needed to get a job in a very big company.He only said to me that i have come to the right place were i will be getting my heart desire without any side effect.He told me what i need to do,After it was been done,24 hours later,My Ex Husband called me on the phone and was saying sorry for living me and the kids before now and one week after my Husband called me to be pleading for forgiveness,I was called for interview in a very big company here in IRELAND were i needed to work as the managing director..I am so happy and overwhelmed that i have to tell this to the entire world to contact Robinson Buckler on his personal email address and get all your problem solve..No problem is too big for him to solve..He also cure herpes, Contact him direct on: Robinsonbucler @gmail. com…,.

    December 9, 2020 at 15:33 | Report abuse | Reply
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