The Science of Happiness, Part 1: Everyone Has A Happiness "Set Point"

Picture of a Gauge with a needle about 2/3 of the way over
What is your happiness set point?

Are you a happy person? Is there such a thing as a happy person? Is happiness something that can be scientifically studied? Only you know the answer to the first question above, but the answer to the other questions is “yes”. This post is the first in a short series on the science of happiness.

Your set point — Two books that talk about the set point of happiness are: The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Stumbling On Happiness by Dan Gilbert. Each individual has a tendency to have, and stay at, a certain level of happiness. Some people are naturally more happy than others. There is a “set point” for your own personal happiness, and that set point is 50% determined by genetics. In other words you are born with a tendency to be very happy, somewhat happy, or not very happy. The events in your life can affect your happiness, but not very much, and not for very long. Whether you win the lottery, or lose your job, you will tend to “bounce back” or not, to your natural level of happiness.

How to determine your set point — Chances are you already know approximately where your happiness set point is, but if  you are interested in finding out more exactly, you can take a questionnaire and score yourself in The How of Happiness book. BUT, I have to say that that is the only part of the book that I recommend. I purchased the How Of Happiness book because it promised to handle the science of happiness. However, only a small portion of the book relates to the science. The rest is a collection of what I consider tired advice on how to be happy (spend time with loved ones, be grateful for what you have, etc). Luckily for us there are other books that are research based and have real insights about happiness. I’ll be covering these other books as I write the rest of this series on The Science of Happiness.

Can you change your set point? — By definition, a set point is something that is hard to change. So the bad news is that you really can’t change your set point for happiness. BUT having said that, you should realize that only about 50% of your happiness is determined by that set point. This means that even though you can’t change your set point for happiness, you CAN change how happy you are, (to a limit). In the rest of the posts in this series we’ll explore the research on happiness factors, and what you can do to be happier regardless of where your set point is. Here’s a sneak previews– being grateful for what you have won’t necessarily do it (and may actually lower your happiness!).


What do you think? Do you know your own happiness set point?



The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Penguin, 2008

Stumbling On Happiness by Dan Gilbert, Vintage, 2007

The Science of Happiness, Part 2: Do You Live In A Happy Country?
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12 Replies to “The Science of Happiness, Part 1: Everyone Has A Happiness "Set Point"”

  1. I find that hard to believe and quite sad, Susan. How does that theory compare to those who believe in a growth mindset like Shawn Achor (author of The Happiness Advantage) and David Rock (author of Your Brain at Work)? In a nutshell, these guys proposed ways for your analytical brain to trick your emotional brain in the short-term into long-term, happiness-promoting behaviors (e.g., re-framing situations analytically in the split second before your emotions kick in). I liked their philosophy and, and it seems to fly in the face of the set point you discussed. What do you make of the contradiction?

    1. Can I say that I wasn’t happy to find out about the set point of happiness? It’s not an optimistic view I know, but you know me, I’m all about the science. The set point theory has a lot of scientific evidence behind it, so I can’t ignore it. BUT, in future posts upcoming in this series I will be talking about the things that are correlated with happiness, as well as the actions one can take to bolster happiness. 50% of your happiness comes from the set point, but that leaves 50% that doesn’t. (Kind of like a glass half empty, or glass half full analogy).

  2. Three years ago I was suffering badly with agoraphobia and other issue which left me very down. Now, after spending a lot of time with a great therapist I’m in a place where nothing seems to get me down.

    I’m not going to say what’s a fixed point and what isn’t in my psyche, but my experience and things I’ve read (On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers contains a great essay on what is happiness).

    I won’t say anything now, because you may be covering the same ground, but I’ll be looking forward eagerly to your posts.

  3. Interesting concepts. I am able to create instant happiness and excitement whenever I am engaged in work or contemplate future success. Overall, I am constantly striving for achievements and I would say I am infrequently unhappy.
    I should note that I am daily frustrated and it would be interesting if that were genetically influenced. I always assumed it would be more nurture over nature in most things like personality and happiness.
    I look forward to your next post!

  4. Pingback: The Science of Happiness, Post 2: Do You Live In A Happy Country? | What Makes Them Click
  5. I think that our happiness set point is subject to change, but we have to WANT TO CHANGE. That is the key. If we are getting enough attention from others or avoiding responsibilities by choosing unhappiness (and self-medicating or using mood-altering pharmaceuticals) then we have no real motivation for change. It’s just like our body weight set point. That can definitely be changed, but only if we do what it takes to change it. Change is, as usual, painful.

  6. Mia — The research on set points like this, for happiness and weight, shows that if you work to change your level (of happiness, your weight), you can effect some change, but sheer determination or hard work alone may not be enough to see a dramatic change. In both cases, though the research is also clear that even small changes can be significant and important.

  7. What do you make of Ask and it is Given by Esther and Jerry Hicks. They make it sound that happiness plus other qualities are achievable where as your article makes it sound that we shouldn’t expect much. I just began reading the book because I do want to something about the way I feel and accept that I must take responsibility for this. I know it will work.

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