The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right, according to the Declaration of Independence. And researchers have long associated happiness with good health and wealth. Is that really true? The study of happiness is a growing field in psychology and health, and the research comes up with conflicting results.
In a 2011 study in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, researchers found that subjective well-being—a sense of satisfaction with life and having positive emotions—predicted better health and greater longevity in populations from around the world.
But more recently, in a 2015 study published in the Lancet, British researchers who tracked over 700,000 women in the United Kingdom concluded that the reverse is true. Their surveys found that having better health in the first place likely makes people feel happier.
Whether it’s happiness that influences health or the other way around, it’s clear that good emotional states and good health tend to go together. Here are some of the recent findings on what factors have the greatest bearing on happiness, and how much of your well-being is within your control.
Happiness is not about money—to a point
Researchers used to assume that having more money makes people happier—and that assumption was supported by good data. From the 1920s to the 1950s, an era of depression and world war, as household income rose there was an increase in people’s self-reported happiness. But more current research shows that money increases happiness only up to a point. Studies by the Nobel laureate psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman showed that money increases happiness until people earn about $75,000 annually, and after that your emotional well-being doesn’t increase with income.
Your sense of happiness may be related to your age
Investigators from the University of Warwick in England and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire say happiness tends to decline in midlife—whatever your circumstances and wherever you live.
The sample of humanity in their 2008 study (in Social Science & Medicine) was enormous—2 million people from 80 nations. Where did they get the information? Unbeknownst to most of us, huge surveys of well-being exist and are regularly updated and analyzed. These include the U.S. General Social Surveys, the Eurobarometers, and the World Values Surveys.
Amazingly enough, all over the world, from Bangladesh to Sweden to Chile, people say midlife is a hassle. The probability of depression peaks in midlife, and happiness reaches a low point. In the U.S. this typically happens to women at about age 40 and to men at about 50. In Europe and Asia, happiness shrinks for both sexes in their forties and fifties. People move gradually into this downswing, then seem to slowly climb back out as life goes on—all other factors being equal. People in their sixties and seventies, if healthy physically, tend to be as happy as young people. Researchers thus often refer to a “U-shaped curve” of happiness over the life cycle.
Your relationships count—a lot
A large body of research indicates that your social relationships are not only related to your sense of happiness, but also to your health and longevity. A 2010 analysis of 148 studies involving more than 300,000 people found that social relationships have as great an impact on mortality as smoking and alcohol consumption— and a greater impact than obesity or physical inactivity. Most recently, a 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that social isolation is a more important risk factor for high blood pressure than diabetes, which is known to increase the risk of hypertension.
One likely explanation is that social support “buffers” against stress—that is, it provides emotional and tangible resources that help us deal with adverse events and illness and maybe even enhances resistance to illness. Being part of a social network often gives us meaningful roles that boost self-esteem and purpose of life, which in turn can improve mental and physical health.
“The importance of good social relationships for health has now been shown in almost every study ever done,” says S. Leonard Syme, professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, and a pioneer in the study of the effects of social relationships and other social determinants on health. (Syme has been a member of our Editorial Board since our first issue in 1984.)
In fact, we humans appear to be hardwired to need strong social ties. In a 2015 paper in Current Opinion In Psychology, James Coan and David Sbarra describe the Social Baseline Theory. It suggests, based on years of social psychology and neuroscience research, that being alone is fundamentally harder than being together with others. According to their research, it simply requires more effort and resources to function in the world solo.
A measure of happiness may be within your control
Some people who have few friends or family members can do little about it because of personal problems or just the luck of the draw. But many others may have more control over their happiness than they think. Research by Sonia Lyubomirsky, PhD, at UC Riverside suggests that while about half of your sense of happiness is set by your genetics, life circumstances—how privileged you are, whether you’re married, whether you have kids—accounts for just 10 percent of the variance in happiness. Her 2005 study published in the Review of General Psychology attributes 40 percent—nearly half the variance—to your daily life experiences: The people you see, the activities you do, how you see your world each day.
Not all researchers agree with her model. But if it is right, then you have the capacity to change your sense of well-being and happiness. So this year, make an effort to get out of yourself by, for instance, joining a club or working for a cause you believe in. Try to adopt a new perspective on other people that’s less fearful or competitive. You may add greatly to your life.
Also see 5 Science-Backed Strategies for More Happiness from UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.