nancy_etcoff's picture
Psychologist and faculty member of the Harvard Medical School and of Harvard University
Psychologist, Harvard Medical School & Harvard University’s Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative; Author, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty

The Hedonic Set Point Can Be Raised

Most people are pretty happy and the rest distribute into the very unhappy, pretty unhappy or very happy categories. Wherever they fall on the happiness scales, people keep pursuing happiness. They want more. Can they get it? I offer a cautiously optimistic yes.

I'll admit that the initial yield from the new science of happiness did little to support my optimism. It showed that happiness levels are durable, withstanding sweeping changes in health and wealth. Life changes, it suggests, but you don't. It showed that there is a substantial genetic component to happiness. People have a personal baseline of happiness that is influenced by stable personality traits such as extroversion or neuroticism that are partly heritable The happiness baseline has been likened to the body weight set point, leading some to believe that adding permanent points on the happiness scale is as likely as offloading pounds permanently from the weight scale. You've got a battle on your hands with a formidable opponent: yourself. Short of a biological fix, happiness interventions seemed doomed to formidable recidivism rates.

But the extreme picture of the human happiness baseline as a fixed set point and of adaptation to life events as inevitable and complete is wrong, and it's being revised rapidly While the "average" person's happiness may bounce back to baseline, the happiness of many individuals does not (about 1 in 4 people show a change of 2 or 3 points on a 0-10 scale with 9% showing changes of 3 or more points and even stable people show an average of a 1 point change in a recent study). Personality is much less stable than body weight, and happiness levels are even less stable than personality.

I said "cautiously" optimistic because, so far, for every person who shows a substantial lasting increase in happiness, 2 people show a decrease. Discarding the set point idea for a more malleable happiness baseline means that we will uncover vulnerability as well as hope.

I am also optimistic that we will uncover diverse ways that people can find sustainable happiness. But we'll need to dig beneath the surface and resist "once size fits all" formulas. I'll give one example. Some often-cited research suggests that married people are happier than "singles" (the never married, divorced, widowed, co-habitors). The latter group is large and getting larger. As of 2002 there were 86 million single adults in the United States; more than 40% of adults over 18 are single, up from 28% in 1970. Is this massive demographic shift dooming us to increasing unhappiness? Should we encourage people to marry to increase their happiness?

People marry for many reasons, but here, lets just consider their happiness. The newest research follows large groups of people over long periods of time. It finds that the average person adapts to marriage; after the first year or two, she is not any happier than she was before marriage (an alternate analysis of the data suggests that adaptation is incomplete but that happiness is increased by a tiny amount , .115 on a 0-10 scale). Looking beyond averages to individuals, the data show that some people return to their former happiness levels, some end up much happier and about an equal number end up significantly less happy than they were before they were married.

Although this data will dismay some passionate advocates of marriage, I think it is good news both for the married and for the single. The idea that that marriage should make you permanently happier places a large burden on the already burdened state of marriage and unrealistic expectations on partners. But the fact that it can and it does for some, by a large amount and for very long a time is a thrilling possibility.

The data suggests that the demographic trends we are seeing away from marriage do not portend an increasingly unhappy society. Along with other evidence, it suggests that what is important for happiness is the quality of a relationship and not its civil status.

Finally, forget optimism, I know this for sure: we will always form passionate bonds with others, and through them find joy, solace, comfort, love, amusement, sympathy, and moments of ecstasy, and we will know in them the awe and wonder of being alive.