Smile: A new view of happiness

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Smile: A new view of happiness

Two old men with white facial hair wearing German Lederhosen drinking beer and smiling

Good friends and good beer–and maybe even Lederhosen–can buy more happiness than money.

You may have heard the grim news: Psychologists who study human happiness have concluded, based on studies of identical twins who were raised separately, that people have a fixed level of happiness.

The supposed static nature of happiness was described as the individual happiness “set point.” For reasons related to genetics or early childhood, some people were happy, and others were not, and there wasn’t a whole lot you could do about it.

The set-point reminds us of a thermostat, so we’ll call it the “happo-stat.”

This dismal idea sounds like a creation of economics — the dismal science — but in fact it came from psychology.

Now, to the rescue we read a study based on a German economic survey that began in 1984.

The study, published this week in PNAS, debunks the happo-stat, and shows that our circumstances indeed affect our happiness, and that happiness does vary over time.
About time, we say.

thermostat reads 'ecstatic!!!!'

Sabotaging the set-point

The PNAS study examined data from the German Socio-Economic Panel, which interviews about 25,000 people annually. First author Bruce Headey, principal fellow at Melbourne University in Australia, told us that what really exploded the set-point theory was finding that about half of the study population moved at least 25 percentiles in the happiness level at some time between 1984 and 2008.

That meant a shift, for example, from the 25th to the 50th percentile in happiness.

If the happo-stat was real — if people are programmed to a certain level of happiness — that shift should not occur.

The data correlated several factors with those changes in happiness, says Headey. Being forcibly unemployed was a major negative force, but the length of the workweek also mattered. “People who wanted to work a whole lot more or less hours than they did were less happy than people working the right amount of hours.”

Neurotic mates were also associated with a decline in happiness, but being in a stable relationship was not linked to an increase in happiness, even though it is often considered a key to happiness. Those who focused on money and success were less happy than average, Headey says.

Overall, life goals and choices were at least as important as extroversion and having a stable partnership in changing the level of happiness.

Black and white photo of a couple dozen men and women smiling, facing same direction

It’s uncertain what got these Germans smiling back in 1954, but they likely led a life of fluctuating happiness.

Not so fast!

Except for repeated unemployment, the German data did not show that events like marriage, employment or the death of a loved one had much impact over the long term, Headey says. “Most of what you would think a major change in life circumstances affects you for a year or less.”

Much of the change in happiness, he says, is due less to life events than to “the nature of your partner, your social activity, changes in lifestyle and life goals.”

We asked the standard correlation cavil: When things happen simultaneously, how to distinguish cause from effect: The rooster’s crow does not cause the dawn. Dwelling on finances or acquiring a batty spouse could cause unhappiness. Or unhappy people may tend to focus on money or have a weak spot for marrying dunderheads.

Bottom half of male child's face, focus on his toothless smile

The personal happostat may not be set by DNA or early childhood, as previously thought.

Hounding the happo-stat

Headey conceded the correlational questions, but added that a long-term study helps unravel cause from effect. “If you follow people over time, you can, up to a point, see what comes first and what comes second. By asking the same questions over and over, we could see that a change in life goals led to life satisfaction.”

The results make sense to Robert McGrath, a clinical psychologist who treats college students at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “In my general experience, there is not a set-point, people can adjust their lifestyles and it does have an effect on the level of satisfaction and happiness.”

The study confirms the doctrines of positive psychology, McGrath adds: Most people can change their level of happiness with a healthy lifestyle, regular exercise and good social contacts.

Undermining the happo-stat should be considered good news, Headey and colleagues wrote: “Arguably, set-point theory has been stultifying in its implication that long-term change is improbable and that a person’s happiness is little more than a printout of the characteristics that he/she was born with … . It followed that neither individual goals, choices, strategies, and skills, nor public policy decisions, could do much to enhance happiness.”


Terry Devitt, editor; Steve Furay, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. YouTube: Laron dwarfs.
  2. The perfect salary for happiness
  3. Social time: crucial for happiness
  4. The Happiness Project.
  5. You can’t buy happiness.
  6. The science of happiness.
  7. Gross National Happiness.
  8. YouTube: Bhutan and GNH.
  9. PBS: This emotional life.
  10. Is happiness contagious?
  11. Policy and happiness.
  12. Long-running German panel survey shows that personal and economic choices, not just genes, matter for happiness, Bruce Headey, Ruud Muffels, and Gert Wagner, PNAS Early Edition, Oct. 4, 2010.