Life Science

Happiness: Do we have a choice?

The many dimensions of what makes us happy, today and over a lifetime

January 28, 2011

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a famous 20th century philosopher, was miserable all his life. Depressed and anxious, he once wrote in his diary, “There is no happiness for me; no joy ever.” Yet minutes before he died, he muttered: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

The concept of happiness is universally understood, yet escapes all comprehension. Can someone really be both unhappy everyday and happy over a lifetime? Does the notion of happiness change throughout the world, between communities, between people? Most importantly, do we have any choice in the matter?

Recent research in psychology, economics and public policy may help unravel this tangled knot of questions.

“Objective choices make a difference to happiness over and above genetics and personality,” said Bruce Headey, a psychologist at Melbourne University in Australia. Headey and his colleagues analyzed annual self-reports of life satisfaction from over 20,000 Germans who have been interviewed every year since 1984. He compared five-year averages of people’s reported life satisfaction, and plotted their relative happiness on a percentile scale from 1 to 100. Heady found that as time went on, more and more people recorded substantial changes in their life satisfaction. By 2008, more than a third had moved up or down on the happiness scale by at least 25 percent, compared to where they had started in 1984.

Headey’s findings, published in the October 19th issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, run contrary to what is known as the happiness set-point theory — the idea that even if you win the lottery or become a paraplegic, you’ll revert back to the same fixed level of happiness within a year or two. This psychological theory was widely accepted in the 1990s because it explained why happiness levels seemed to remain stable over the long term: They were mainly determined early in life by genetic factors including personality traits.

Instead of existing as a stable equilibrium, Headey suggests that happiness is much more dynamic, and that individual choices — about one’s partner, working hours, social participation and lifestyle — make substantial and permanent changes to reported happiness levels. For example, doing more or fewer paid hours of work than you want, or exercising regularly, can have just as much impact on life satisfaction as having an extroverted personality.

But even this dynamic choice-driven picture does not fully capture the nuance of what it means to be happy, said Jerome Kagan, a Harvard University developmental psychologist. He warns against conflating two distinct dimensions of happiness: everyday emotional experience (an assessment of how you feel at the moment) and life evaluation (a judgment of how satisfied you are with your life). It’s the difference between “how often did you smile yesterday?” and “how does your life compare to the best possible life you can imagine?”

Kagan suggests that we may have more choice over the latter, because life evaluation is not a function of how we currently feel — it is a comparison of our life to what we decide the good life should be.

Kagan has found that young children differ biologically in the ease with which they can feel happy, or tense, or distressed, or sad — what he calls temperament. People establish temperament early in life and have little capacity to change it. But they can change their life evaluation, which Kagan describes as an ethical concept synonymous with “how good of a life have I led?” The answer will depend on individual choices and the purpose they create for themselves. A painter who is constantly stressed and moody (unhappy in the moment) may still feel validation in creating good artwork and may be very satisfied with his life (happy as a judgment).

This distinction can explain the apparent contradiction of Wittgenstein (Kagan’s favorite example) — someone whose negative day-to-day feelings did not at all match his positive life evaluation.

However, because “people across the world and across historical time have different ethical standards,” said Kagan, “the same replies in Uzbekistan and New York can’t have the same meaning.” In other words, the same phrase — “I’m happy” — refers to very different conceptions of each person’s idea of the good life.

While Kagan is skeptical that notions of happiness can span oceans, Brookings Institution senior fellow Carol Graham, whose most recent book is called Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires, said there is remarkable consistency in the correlates of happiness between different countries. The consistent relationship between certain factors — like age, income, employment status, or health — persist regardless of culture, level of development or GDP.

However, Graham agrees with Kagan that definitions of happiness do vary — hence the paradox of the happy peasant and frustrated achiever. “Very poor rural respondents with very limited means report to be very happy,” said Graham, but “people who have actually made a lot of progress and increased their income report to be miserable.” This finding is puzzling, but according to Graham, it may be partly explained by the expectations people set for themselves in different situations.

For example, a poor person surrounded by crime and corruption may adapt to his situation and try to find happiness in day-to-day experiences, like spending time with friends and family. A wealthy person in more privileged circumstances may work long hours for a promotion (judging a prestigious job to be an important component of a good life), but not have many happy moments as she goes through her day.

Graham thinks that people may evaluate their happiness based on whichever dimension — happiness at the moment, or life evaluation — they have a choice over.

“If you’re a poor peasant in Afghanistan and just don’t have the agency to change your life circumstances … then surely you derive your happiness from a simpler definition — happiness as contentment,” Graham said. But if you have the capacity (through money or education) to lead a purposeful life, she explained, you think of happiness in the life evaluation sense.

In other words, when it comes to happiness, our choices may matter — but it depends on what the choices are about, and how we define what we want to change.

About the Author

Lena Groeger

Lena Groeger studied biology and philosophy at Brown University and is especially interested in the intersection of these two fields. After working as a graphic designer for Brown Health Education, she decided to think outside the poster and explore new means of communication, which led her to SHERP. She’s excited to write about the multidisciplinary questions of science and ethics for the general public. Visit her web site at



Geraldine Aldridge says:

Maybe it’s our goals that need changing

We are ambitious, which builds in on-going stress.
We set ourselves goals, which, if we don’t achieve them, we feel bad about.
We compare ourselves to others, which can lead to discontent, and/or guilt.
Society bombards us with commodities and tells us we need them.
Our upbringing and our peers lead us to form expectations of achievement, or leaves us with a feeling of ongoing failure.

I think true happiness can only be experienced when we learn how to treat ourselves gently, not to be too hard on ourselves, to forgive ourselves and love ourselves.
We can still aspire to things and aim for things, but we need to accept that no-one is perfect, and include ourselves in that. We need to follow our own hearts, retain our integrity, don’t allow others to dictate to us, give ourselves equal or greater value than we give to others, not less.

Ricci Hannah says:

I agree with Kagan on his point about not confusing or merging everyday emotional experience with life evaluation. Maybe we (the public, journalists and researchers) would all do well to stop using happiness as an umbrella term, and start using more specific words to describe for emotions and broader judgements or evaluations about life.

Jabr Alnoaimi says:

The paradox of happy peasants and miserable millionaires is only a paradox if there is an underlying assumption that money or wealth leads to happiness because there are also miserable peasants and happy millionaires.

An important factor in happiness is contentment with or acceptance (not fighting inwardly) of whatever happens. This arises from how psychologically a person views himself or herself in the world; does he look upon himself as a separate entity from the world which leads to a paradigm of conflict between himself and the world or as an inseparable part of the world which would lead to viewing whatever happens as just a happening in a complex universal fabric where losing something is equal to gaining it despite the passing and perhaps momentary feeling of pleasure for the first and pain for the second.

Acceptance is an attitude of mind and it makes no difference whether one is a peasant or a millionaire.

A man I knew once said he had made a decision to be happy and that he had achieved his objective. I was sceptical at the time but having studied and practised mindfulness I now know it can be done.
The most important thing for me is daily meditation which helps clear my mind and lets me separate what is really important from what is not. When I can remember to do that and “serve the need before me” ie just do what needs to be done at this moment and give that task my full attention I am more content and my work is of a higher quality.
My daily motto is be happy today and serve others. Whilst I cannot remember to do that all the time it does give a richer meaning to my life and helps to keep me in the present.
When teaching mindfulness I find that most of my students initially report that usually their attention is either focused on some past or future event but learning techniques to bring them back to the present helps their concentration and sense of satisfaction.
It is important to remember however that mindfulness is a practice and not a quick fix.

Gerry McCanny

Allow me to share a different perspective. We can spend “eternity’ trying to figure out how to be happy in this world; or we do what it takes to experience eternal happiness. For one day we will stand before almighty God and He will ask us what we did with what He gave us, how we served others, what we did with our time, whether we were faithful to our obligations, what we stood for and against, whether we shared our blessings, and if we forgave those who trespassed against us. How we answer then is dependent on what we do now. And what we do in this world will determine what we will do in the next.

I think longer-term views of happiness were called self-actualization. Its a very elusive thing. Shorter term, we are either happier alone or with others. based on our mood. Our moods and disposition seem to be replays of things we experience when we were very young, no matter how many short-term fixes we engineer in our adulthoods.

It’s not all impossible to fix, as others have alluded to here. I think the best thing you can do for yourself if you are unhappy is to find situations that improve on the events in your dim and distant part, but the problem is your memories are buried into your psyche and body, too, so others need to help. There is this thing called the Johari window that might be useful if a computer feed could grab slices from all 4 windows at all times and create a personal guide that is run every minute you are awake to help you ‘do the right thing’.

Both for yourself and for others.- give your needs say 55% and the rest of the world 45% of what it needs from a model human being.

Sorry for expounding. I am a Rationally Speaking ‘commenter’ or ‘follower’, but really a curmudgeon over there.

Maria Khundadze says:

I aggree with Kagan, happiness is a relative understanding. It much depends on persons internal view on the events. Basically the whole life human beings try to find happines, but seeking it they sometimes just forget to be happy. Psychological workshops may bring much benefits heling people recognizing themselfes and learn to feel happinnes.

Tomas says:

Did any of these guys heard about Budha? The Western World has been struggling with this issue for years, maybe its time to have a more holistic approach to happiness.
Don’t agree with happy with your life’s history but unhappy everyday, after all, the present is the only moment we live in.

Henk Tuten says:

Evolution doesn’t select on ‘happiness’, but on ‘effectiveness’ in a cultural reality

have a look at:

Gyrooryg says:

True, a smile can change soeomne’s life. When strangers care to flash you a quick smile as you guys cross paths, it really does brighten your day a little.

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