October 5th, 2010
10:05 AM ET
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.
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