go to content

12 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Happiness

Turns out that money can buy you happiness.

Posted on

1. There isn’t one single thing called “happiness”.

ThinkStock / BuzzFeed

Not, at least, as far as scientists are concerned. "Happiness is not a simple construct," Dr Robin Gilmour, a psychologist from Lancaster University, tells BuzzFeed Science. There are at least three aspects, he says: positive affect, or feeling good; an absence of negative affect; and an evaluative aspect, looking at your life in general and asking "am I a happy person? Am I happy with my life?"

Things that make you happy are not just the negatives of things that make you unhappy: breaking your arm makes you unhappy, but you're not happy now because you haven't broken your arm. And things that make you feel good in the moment might not make you feel like your life is going well, and vice versa. A tough day applying for jobs might not be fun, but getting one might make you think your life is going better.

The picture is complicated even further by the concept of "meaning". Prof Paul Dolan of the London School of Economics, author of Happiness by Design, tells BuzzFeed Science that an important part of what it means to be happy is "captured by adjectives like purposeful, meaningful, fulfilling, and worthwhile".

This matters, because whether some things make you "happy" or not can entirely depend on how you define "happiness".

2. It’s also really, really hard to work out whether something makes you happier, or if it’s just something that happier people do, or both.

ThinkStock/BuzzFeed

"It's extremely difficult to draw hard causal links," says Gilmour. For instance, it's widely believed that happier people are healthier and live longer. But does being happy make you live longer? It's hard to say. Rich people tend to be healthier and live longer, and rich people tend to be happier (sort of; we'll come back to that). Also, being unhealthy makes you unhappy. So what causes what? It's very hard to say.

3. Some people really are born happy.

ThinkStock / BuzzFeed

One meta-analysis – a study of studies – carried out last year found that 33% of the variation in your levels of happiness is down to your genes. Professor Peter Fonagy, a psychologist at University College London, tells BuzzFeed Science that that figure could be an underestimate, and it could be as high as 50%. "You inherit a set point of happiness, to a large measure," he says, although "behavioural genetics is not a very exact science".

Dolan says it's hard to say exactly, because the way that genes and the environment interact is so complex, but that those numbers are in the right ballpark. "It wouldn't be surprising, because most other things have some genetic component," he says. "There will be a significant chunk of happiness that's genetic. Some people are just lucky."

4. And money really can buy you happiness.

Paul Sableman / Flickr / Via Flickr: pasa

You may have read that it can't, or that getting richer only makes you happier up to a certain point – one common figure is $75,000 (£52,000). But there doesn't seem to be much evidence for that.

"Life satisfaction always increases with income," says Dolan. "It might not increase very much as you get very rich, but your life satisfaction does increase as you get richer." There is, he says, no "satiation point" – no point when you've had enough. More money always equals more happiness.

But there are three serious caveats. One is that it levels off pretty quickly. Fonagy says that after a certain point it's "very rapidly diminishing returns", so you need to earn a lot of money to make yourself much happier.

The second is: Remember all the ways there are to measure happiness? The "money can buy you happiness" data all comes from evaluative surveys. That is, you ask someone how they feel about their lives. More money always makes people feel better about their lives.

But in terms of the day-to-day experience of life, it does level off – "and in fact it might even do worse than level off", says Dolan. "One paper I was looking at, some people on more than $100,000 (£70,000) are actually less happy. So it could be that in your daily experiences, that getting richer could cause you harm."

5. How you spend it matters.

ThinkStock / BuzzFeed

Dr Lily Jampol, a marketing psychologist at Queen Mary University of London, says that "How you spend your money is extremely important for happiness." She says that spending on material goods tends to be less effective at making you happy than spending on experiences or social activities – so going on a holiday or to a gig with friends will make you happier than buying yourself a new pair of shoes.

That said, says Dolan, there's a limit to how good the evidence is for this. "People report being happier from the experiences," he says, "but there hasn't been any long-term follow-up. You might catch me a day or two after the fantastic gig I've been to, and I'm very happy, and the leather jacket that I could have bought might not have made me as happy. But would it a year later? Well, that's still an open question."

6. Religious people tend to be happier than atheists.

Sean824 / Getty Images / BuzzFeed

"People of faith – any faith – are generally a bit happier than secular people," says Dolan. "It's a small but significant effect." But it's hard to know exactly what the relationship is. One of the most important things that drives happiness is social connectedness: having and seeing friends and family regularly. And, of course, going to church automatically gives you a community of people you see regularly. "The religious happiness effect is in part explained by social connectedness, and a sense of identity and shared belonging and the fact that you share social activities," says Dolan. "You go to church on a Sunday morning together."

But that's not the whole thing. "[Religion] gives you a sense of transcendence and being able to go beyond the immediate, so that you are less bound by your immediate reality," says Fonagy. "That can protect you from things that can impinge on your happiness." It also can give people a sense of validation, by telling them that they are good and important.

7. There really is a mid-life crisis.

By Bert Kaufmann from Roermond, Netherlands (Loneliness) [CC BY 2.0 (creativecommons.org)], via Wikimedia Commons / BuzzFeed / Via commons.wikimedia.org

One of the most famous results in happiness research is the "U-shaped curve". It shows people tend to be happiest when they're young; that level of happiness drops off in adulthood, hits its lowest point in middle age (around 50), and then starts to climb back up. It's a real phenomenon, backed up with good evidence.

Of course, it's more complicated than that. "These findings are all from evaluative questions," says Dolan – remember, the ones about "how happy are you with your life". There's much less information from experiential questions, and what there is "shows much less of a pattern", he says.

Also, it's only really been recorded in Western societies. The picture gets much more complicated if you start talking about other cultures. But none the less, the U-shaped curve is a real thing.

8. Education doesn't make you happier – at least, not on its own.

ThinkStock / BuzzFeed

Better-educated people tend to be happier, according to Well-Being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology, but better-educated people tend to have better jobs and more money, and having better jobs and more money makes you happier.

But having a better education can get you a better job and more money, so education can lead to happiness, even if it doesn't cause it directly.

(There is some evidence that better-educated people tend to be slightly less happy than less-educated ones on the same income, though, perhaps because of raised expectations.)

9. All of this only really applies to the West.

Unsplash / Hide Obara / BuzzFeed / Via unsplash.com

"Happiness, at core, is quite an individual construct," says Gilmour. And Western societies are focused on the individual. "You are very aware that the centre of your universe is you as an individual," he says, "and you are constantly reinforced about being aware of your own individual state and where it is on some pleasure/happiness continuum." That means that when you are asked "how happy are you with your life", you have an answer ready. But that's not the same in all cultures. "Han Chinese and a number of Asian cultures are group-based, rather than individual-based," he says, "so your experience is less strongly individualised, and so individualised components of happiness are less strong."

In some cultures people just don't ask themselves these questions so much, which means that it's very difficult – if not impossible – to compare happiness levels between very different cultures.

10. Good-looking people seem to be slightly happier, but only slightly.

ThinkStock / BuzzFeed

That may well be because good-looking people tend to have better social lives, be more successful, earn more money, and generally lead better lives than the rest of us. But that's another article altogether.

Tall people seem to be slightly happier, too. Probably for similar reasons.

11. Death and divorce can, in some circumstances, make you happier.

Joseph Barrientos / Unsplash / BuzzFeed / Via unsplash.com

In general, we adapt quite quickly to life events, says Dolan: "As a general statement of fact, with lots of caveats, you get used to most stuff, good and bad, relatively quickly." But the things that have longer-term effects are the things that, in his words, "draw attention to themselves".

So marriage makes you happier, temporarily – about five years after marriage, you'll be back to baseline, on average. But during the period when you're going to get married, you're happier, because the happy-making event is imminent and on your mind. "A good piece of advice is to keep postponing your wedding," he jokes.

On the flip side, though, one thing that draws attention to itself is uncertainty, and that can be hugely negative. So if your relationship breaks down, and you separate but don’t get divorced, you could end up incredibly miserable. "In separation, you have uncertainty – will we get together again, won’t we,” he says.

When you get divorced, though, "happiness starts rising again", because we need closure and certainty. "We need to close off options sometimes," says Dolan. Sometimes, he says, a loved one's long illness can be worse than the death itself. "There is often a release, because the alternative is being unable to move on."

12. One of the most important things is being in charge of your own destiny.

Zach Weiner / SMBC / Via smbc-comics.com

"Agency" – that is, feeling like you are able to make your own choices and go your own way in life – is hugely important to happiness. That, says Fonagy, is a large part of why being better-off makes you happier (not having any money reduces your choices, not having choices makes you miserable). But more than that, he says, "the combination of responsibility and the absence of agency is a particularly toxic phenomenon".

If you've got lots of stuff you need to do – look after your children, pay your rent, do your job – and no way of making your life feel your own, you're going to be miserable. "It's power divided by responsibility," says Fonagy. "This toxic combination of 'oh my god, I've got to do X, Y and Z; oh my god, I don't have the resources to do X, Y and Z'."

But remember that U-shaped curve? Fonagy thinks the combination of agency and responsibility is behind that. And as you get older, people tend to be more in control of their lives.

Every. Tasty. Video. EVER. The new Tasty app is here!

Dismiss