Many would agree that happiness is difficult to define and challenging to measure—partly due to its subjective nature. Is it possible to get a scientific handle on such a slippery concept? In happiness surveys, over 80% of people rate their overall life satisfaction as “pretty to very happy,” and comparably 80% also rate their current mood as positive (for example, positive 6–7 on a 10 point scale, where 5 is neutral). A lucky few may even live consistently around a point of 8—although excessively higher scores may actually impede attainment of life success, as measured by wealth, education, or political participation.
The New Study On Happiness
A new study study found that in a world where happiness is in short supply, your happiness might be more in your control than you think. The survey from Tracking Happiness sought to answer the question, “Can we control our own happiness?” with 1,154 respondents providing answers to such questions as, “Is happiness something that you can control?” and “If you look back at the last year of your life, how would you rate your happiness on a scale from 1 to 10?” The study consisted of 665 males, 482 females, 1 gender-fluid, and 6 non-identified between ages 15 and 60-plus. Key findings include:
- 89% of the respondents believe happiness is something you can control
- Of those who answered yes, 32% are happier on average
- The average happiness rating of those who think happiness is controllable is 7.39.
- The average happiness rating of people who think happiness is out of their control is 5.61.
- Respondents with low happiness ratings are 5 times more likely to feel like happiness is out of their control compared to people with high happiness ratings.
Feeling in control of happiness correlated to actually feeling happier. But what makes people feel in control of their happiness? Is there something we can learn from our ability to control our happiness?
The Happiness U-Curve
The study found that control over our happiness changes as we age, and no differences in gender were noted. Namely, the amount of control we have over our happiness decreases in our mid-life and increases as we grow older again. This finding corresponds with the well-researched U-curve in happiness (e.g., Professor David Blanchflower at Dartmouth College). In general, this curve indicates that happiness generally decreases from age 18 and reaches peak unhappiness at approximately age 47. From there, the happiness levels gradually increase again. Respondents in the current study indicated that they feel less in control of their happiness when they are between 30 and 60 years old. Control over happiness increases at an older age again. Since control over happiness is linked to higher happiness levels, this result matches the U-curve of happiness that is observed around the world. The common interpretation on the perplexing happiness U-curve is that as we age our focus turns away from social competition and toward social connection, and life becomes more precious, fragile and fleeting.
Happiness Control, Education And Employment
The survey found that education and employment status influence the amount of control we have over our happiness. High school graduates—compared to a bachelor’s or master’s graduate—generally have a harder time controlling happiness. And employed people (full-time and part-time) feel most in control of their happiness on average. The findings show that between finishing college and finding a job, feelings of control over happiness increased from 75% to 90%.
So it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, you can control your happiness given certain factors. Perhaps the most influencial factor is that if you believe you can take certain actions to control your happiness, you will be happier. Even though there is a happiness dip at midlife, if you have a good education and are employed, these factors contribute to your happiness level. The happiest people learn over time how to implement strategies that give them an upper hand at being happy which inoculates them against the curve balls that life throws their way. Focusing on the aspects of our lives that we can control versus focusing on what we can’t control makes a big difference in our pursuit of happiness.
Kesebir P, Diener E. (2008). In Pursuit of Happiness: Empirical Answers to Philosophical Questions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 117–25.
Oishi S, et al. (2007). The Optimal Level of Well-Being: Can We Be Too Happy? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 346–60.
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