What does it mean to be truly “happy”? Few concepts seem as simple—even young children can tell you if they’re happy—but the deeper you dig, the more enigmatic true happiness becomes. And it seems that even when people have a good sense of what makes them happy, they often fail to prioritize those things. Research has found that placing a high value on happiness actually can make people less happy. Finland, for example, is the happiest country in the world…yet it also has a high suicide rate.
Bottom Line Personal asked happiness researcher Brendan Kelly, PhD, to give us a better understanding of what happiness is and how you can achieve it…
Life is least happy in the middle. One might be the loneliest number, but 47 is the saddest age. When a Dartmouth College economist examined data from 132 countries, he discovered a remarkably consistent pattern—happiness has a U-shaped trendline as people age, with the lowest point arriving at age 47 virtually everywhere in the world.
Why are the late 40s the least happy years? Most likely because that is when people tend to be under the most pressure—supporting families, paying mortgages and struggling to advance their careers. Naturally some people’s life events will alter their personal happiness trends, and of course, younger and older people face pressures, too, but when you look at societies as a whole, the data are clear—the late 40s are when happiness is hardest to achieve.
What to do: Don’t mistake midlife malaise for a downward happiness spiral that will drive you deeper into despair…and don’t assume that you must change careers or spouses to rediscover joy. Life likely will start to be happier soon simply because that’s what usually happens as 47 disappears into the rearview mirror.
There are two different types of happiness. Hedonic happiness is pleasure in the moment, such as splurging on a weekend trip to Las Vegas. Eudaimonic happiness is more akin to contentment, such as the sense of fulfillment derived from saving money and making progress toward a financial goal. Which of these matters? Which is true happiness?
The answer is…both. People who balance hedonic and eudaimonic happiness are better off than those who derive pleasure exclusively from one or the other, according to University of Rochester psychologists. That balance becomes an issue for some people as they age —there’s a tendency to drift excessively toward eudaimonic happiness later in life.
What to do: If your life is largely without hedonic happiness, borrow some exultation from others. Spend time with your children, for whom joy in the moment is natural and contagious…or adopt a dog or cat—pets can radiate spontaneous joy. Another option: Prioritize forming new friendships—to the brain, this is a form of hedonic pleasure.
Placing a high value on happiness makes happiness less likely. Here’s some troubling news if you’re reading this article because you very much want to be happier—if you put a high priority on happiness, you hurt your chances of obtaining it. A series of recent studies have made this paradoxical finding—in fact, prioritizing happiness even seems to be a risk factor for depression. One theory is that striving for any one specific emotion—in this case, happiness—is a less effective path to long-term happiness than is accepting one’s emotions. Another possibility is that people who put a very high priority on happiness set their expectations so high that even good times disappoint.
What to do: Be aware of what makes you happy, and let this guide your day-to-day decisions…but don’t see sadness as failure. It isn’t reasonable to expect to be joyous all the time.
We dread disappointment more than we desire happiness. Investors have heard about the risk-aversion trap—many investors cost themselves returns because their fear of losses exceeds their desire for profits. A similar problem pops up with happiness: Many people fail to take advantage of opportunities to do things that are likely to make them happy because they’re too worried about the possibility that these things could go wrong. In particular, they’re often concerned that they’ll look foolish in other people’s eyes if, for example, they try a new hobby but flub the attempt.
What to do: If you’re tempted to decline a potential source of happiness for fear of looking foolish, you should know that it’s much harder to appear foolish than you think. Reason: Almost no one is paying attention to you—they’re all caught up in their own lives.
Money is the secret to happiness…up to a point. The old adage “money can’t buy happiness” is wrong—a pair of Princeton researchers found a strong link between people’s income and their self-reported evaluation of their happiness. But more money doesn’t always equal more happiness—these researchers discovered that additional income beyond $75,000 stops providing additional happiness. Further research from Purdue University has set the limit at anywhere from $60,000 to $95,000, depending on how happiness is measured. In fact, annual income above $95,000 seems to be linked to slightly reduced happiness, though these figures can vary based on local cost of living and other factors.
There is some logic to this. It’s likely to undermine your happiness if you don’t have enough money to meet your basic needs and feel secure about your future…but once you achieve financial security, additional income might not provide enough upside to offset the additional workplace pressures and responsibilities required to earn it.
What to do: If you earn significantly more than $75,000 to $95,000 per year, reflect on your work/life balance. Would you be happier if you worked less even if that meant you earned less?
Religion and politics affect happiness. There is a strong link between people’s core beliefs and how happy they are. Studies have repeatedly found that religious people tend to be happier than nonreligious people—a 2017 review of the research on the subject conducted at Sultan Qaboos University found that this was true across religions and around the globe. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 36% of actively religious Americans described themselves as “very happy” compared with 25% of inactively religious and nonreligious Americans.
What to do: No one should change his/her deeply held convictions based on these findings, but you can understand that certain convictions could make you less happy. Someone deeply committed to political causes might be well served to cultivate nonpolitical interests as well.
People living in societies with shared values tend to be especially happy—if they’re part of the “in crowd.” Not only is Finland the happiest country in the world, the other Nordic nations invariably land near the top in happiness surveys as well. These countries have a great deal of “social cohesion”—their citizens tend to feel unified, which contributes to happiness. But there’s a dark side to social cohesion—people who feel excluded from the mainstream in very unified societies often are tremendously unhappy, which likely explains Finland’s steep suicide rates.
What to do: If you’re part of the in crowd in a close-knit community, reach out to people who seem outside the mainstream. Not only could your gesture help those outsiders feel included, it could make you happier, too. The person who does a favor typically gains more happiness from it than the recipient.