Scientifically Explaining Happiness To 20-Somethings


I often picture adults living their lives. I try to place myself in a world undefined by a class schedule, homework, and summer breaks and into a world defined by a new restructuring of everything I’ve ever known. Once the exams run out and the pens run dry and the oversized graduation gowns make us look ten pounds heavier than we really are, the slate life hands us will become mind-numbingly blank. What now?

I’m a person so driven by heightened emotion, constantly thriving off of those feelings in the pit of my stomach, that I deeply fear waking up twenty years from now next to a person who has just become a roommate, in a job that I do not feel passionately about, and in a neighborhood that I do not love. I fear the inevitability that comes with making big decisions and growing up and settling down in all facets of life. I fear, well, an ordinary life. I fear mundaneness, normalcy, routine, regularity. I fear it all. It’s a silly fear, really. Ordinary can’t be that bad, right? It does eventually plague us all.

I realize, of course, that people who end up in the life I call ordinary did not intend for things to end up that way. I realize that to feel happy with life and the decisions that come with it – who you date, what your job is, the state you choose to live in, etc. – you simply make decisions that make you happy. However, studies have shown that people, especially men, are their most depressed at 45 because they’ve made their big life decisions already and fear that they have carried themselves down the wrong road via said decisions (think “Mid-life Crisis”). It seems that the results of big decisions inevitably incite panic, even if they once made you happy.

Well, I don’t want to wait until I’m 45 to find out if the decisions I’ve made throughout my life are going to actually make me happy. But how long does the happiness as a result of decision-making last? Is the fact that I’m making the decisions that’s making me happy and excited about life, or does the happiness and excitement come from the result of the decisions? And how long is it until all my decisions become jumbled together and settle into “ordinary”?

Turns out that it does. I recently went to a presentation at my school about happiness held by Arthur Brooks, a social scientist and the President of The American Enterprise Institute. He’s written a variety of articles for websites like The New York Times and given speeches about happiness across the country. During his presentation, Brooks discussed three main components that determine one’s happiness: genes, life circumstances, and choices. Apparently 48% of your happiness is (pre)-determined by your genes and 40% is determined by life circumstances. The other 12% – a rather tiny amount, I might add – is based on our every day choices. I’m going to dismiss the genetic component as irrelevant here, since it’s something that I absolutely cannot control. And, though I’ll get to it later, I’m skeptical about the real pull of that measly 12%.

It now comes down to that 40% determined by “life circumstances,” which is such a general phrase for “stuff that you may or may not be able to control.” It is isolated one-time events, successes, failures – everything that happens to you throughout your life whether you made the decision that led you to that thing or not. What happens to you as part of your “life circumstances,” though, only affects you temporarily, regardless of if what happened is positive or negative. For example, according to a famous 1978 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, after becoming paralyzed in an accident or winning the lottery, your mood will level out back to its original state after approximately six months. No feeling, negative or positive, creates real lasting impressions. When thinking about that in terms of recovering from depressing events like being dumped by your boyfriend or getting fired from your job, that sounds pretty uplifting. In a few months, you’ll be just fine. On the flip side, positive events don’t create that much of a permanent effect on your life either, and that sounds a bit discouraging.

If positive feelings as a result of huge changes only last for six months, what actually sustains our happiness forever? To remain exciting, does life have to be a constant string of gigantic events that overlap each other so the six months of happiness never runs out? That sounds exhausting. But if big highs always come to an end, how long is it until I find myself un-stimulated and bored with life? That sounds even worse.

I don’t really know the answer to these questions. I’m kind of just living my life and hoping for the best. Yet if I plan on living way longer than six more months, I need to search elsewhere for happiness. But where?

To answer this question, I’d like to take a closer look at what happens after people win the lottery. According to Brooks, people wreck their lives after hitting the jackpot. They find themselves wanting more outrageous things in life – drugs and alcohol, lavish vacations, hookers – because they can now afford them. But when that money runs out, their values shift: Winning the lottery makes every other thing in their life have less value. They become victim of the contrast effect, which says that events in our lives don’t have fixed value but rather only have value in comparison to other events. So, becoming a multi-millionaire becomes so awesome that nothing else possibly compares. The same thing occurs when awful things happen. We put so much energy into worrying about one huge bad thing that we, again, forget what we had placed value into before. Nothing else matters except this huge thing.

This might be where the 12% comes in and where some of my cynicism can be alleviated. I would say that 12% of my happiness is not attributed to just my choices in general, but rather to my choices to place and sustain value in little things that make me happy, like watching re-runs of Sex and the City and writing articles like these. Once something dramatically good or bad occurs as part of “life circumstances,” we tend to focus all of our energy on it, and this affects how we view everything else. But once these grandiose positive or negative emotions eventually and inevitably dissipate, what do we have left as our sources of happiness? We have Sunday brunches with friends. We have nail polish. We have soccer games and favorite outfits. We have holidays with cousins. We have Mario Kart and Taylor Swift and Game of Thrones. We have coffee and wine. We have pasta and meatballs. We actually have a lot.

The fact is that a huge move to California will have the same effect on your overall happiness as getting a divorce. And, yes, the teeny-tiny 12% of actual control we have over our happiness seems disheartening. But choose to focus that 12% of control on sustaining the value of the little things in the face of the dramatic, earth-shattering effects of the big things. Even when something monumental occurs, don’t lose sight of how much those smaller, seemingly mundane things make you happy. Fighting against this contrast effect in your quest for happiness is a skill, but one that will be very beneficial to you in the long run.

After all, life – if we let it – is just a summation of friends, pop culture indulgences, and food, is it not? Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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