The Science of Happiness: What’s Your Happiness Set Point?

This is going to be art’s greatest moment since Mona Lisa sat down & told Leonardo da Vinci she was in a slightly odd mood. – Edmund Blackadder (Blackadder Goes Forth, BBC)

I love Blackadder, and this quote has been pertinent as I’ve been in a ‘funny mood” for a week or two. I can’t put my finger on what triggered it (or I choose not to), but I have a general fug that is finally lifting. Ironically, I had a call from a friend over the weekend who needed a “Shot of Morag”. She was feeling down and wanted me to help cheer her up.  As we finished our conversation (uplift delivered) she commented “You are always so happy and positive. I wish I could be like you.”

This is not the first or last time that others have commented on my ability to give others a boost, for them to leave a phone call, an evening out, a coaching conversation, or leadership program, feeling energized and ready to take on the world.  But given my ‘funny’mood you will see why I paused to consider her comments. Maybe I needed to take my own medicine!  I will admit that I am a glass-half-full person, I tend to see the good in most things, and when faced with challenges personal and business try to see the positive side, or the light at the end of the tunnel. Does this mean that I am never “unhappy”? No, but when I do have these “funny moods” I notice them. They feel odd. They feel awkward.

Which got me to thinking. Do happy people have a better life and fewer worries? Are they luckier than most? Or, should we attribute their emotional fulfillment to character strengths and mind power? What makes for happiness?

Happiness research, a field known as “positive psychology,” is chockfull of relevant findings. Some of the latest research suggests that people who focus on purposeful living are more likely to enjoy good mental health and longevity, as compared with those whose primary goal is achieving happiness. If you’re highly satisfied with your life, you’re less likely to suffer from psychological or social problems, physical illnesses, stress and work issues.

Everyone, at one time or another, experiences bad luck and the problems life throws at us. But is it possible that some individuals are genetically wired to be happier? And if you’re not among them, what can you do to improve your level of satisfaction?

Hardwired for Happiness

It turns out that mood and temperament do, indeed, have a significant genetic component. In a 1996 study, University of Minnesota psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen surveyed 732 pairs of identical twins and found them to be closely matched for levels of adult happiness, regardless of whether they’d grown up together or apart.

While everyone experiences ups and downs, your mood revolves around innate emotional baselines, or “set points.” Current research suggests that 50% of our capacity for happiness is genetically predisposed. Does this mean we should just accept our levels of happiness? I don’t think so. Although self-acceptance is a part of my coaching practice, I also believe everyone should try to improve their life satisfaction.

Still, more than 40% of how we experience satisfaction and well-being depends on our motivations, goals and behaviors. Even with an inherited range of happiness, we can do a lot to become more satisfied with life. Surprisingly, only about 10% of the variance in happiness levels is explained by differences in life circumstances (rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, etc.).

The richest Americans — those earning more than $10 million a year — report levels of personal happiness only slightly higher than those of the office workers they employ.

As we attempt to understand and quantify our happiness quotient, a new question emerges: How many positive vs. negative experiences must we have before we can consider ourselves genuinely “happy”?

I’m curious. What makes you happy? What do you think about your own genetic set point for happiness?


SkyeTeam is the brainchild of Morag Barrett (nee McLeod). Morag’s experience ranges from senior executive coaching to developing high impact teams across Europe, America and Asia. She is a highly effective speaker, trainer and executive coach. Morag draws from a deep and unique operational skill set. Her corporate career started in retail banking with Royal Bank of Scotland Group in the UK. With 15 years experience in the finance industry, Morag understands the challenges of running a business as well as the complexities of leading and managing the people that are part of that business. Prior to launching Skye in 2007, Morag was responsible for global leadership and executive development in a US Telecoms company. Since launching SkyeTeam she has had the opportunity to work with clients in a range of industries including: Healthcare, Telecoms, Mining, Manufacturing, Engineering, and Technology.

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