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