How Our Habits Affect Our Happiness Levels
Why is Happiness Important?
Some might ask: Does happiness really matter? After all, it’s difficult to measure, and various events and circumstances may affect each of our happiness levels differently. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on things we have more control over, like achievements and material possessions? As it turns out, this isn’t necessarily the case. This article will make a case for why happiness is worth thinking about and working toward by exploring the impact it has on us and the degree to which our actions can affect it.
Happiness can provide us with physical and psychological resources that impact our health and productivity, among other things, which means that increases in subjective well-being can have huge implications for the quality of our lives. Research has found that there is a positive association between positive emotions and strong immune systems (Cohen et al., 2003). Measures of well-being also correlate with the tendency to engage in health-conscious behaviours; for instance, happier people are more likely to have a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (Blanchflower et al., 2012). In contrast, an induced sad mood tended to lead to unhealthy food choices, such as the choice of buttered popcorn over fruit (Garg et al., 2007). Furthermore, experimental studies concluded that positive emotions foster sociability (Isen, 1970; McMillen et al., 1997), liking for oneself and for others (Sarason et al., 1986; Baron, 1987, 1993), and effective conflict resolution skills (Baron et al., 1990).
Can Happiness Levels Be Changed?
Some researchers posit that individuals have a happiness set point—in other words, that our happiness levels are primarily determined by heredity and personality traits and should remain relatively constant. In line with this, some research findings suggest that circumstantial factors such as income, age, and number of friends explain only a small fraction of the variation in subjective well-being (Diener et al., 1999). Proponents of the hedonic treadmill theory would also argue that individuals are likely to return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite positive or negative life changes. A 15-year longitudinal study conducted by Lucas and colleagues (2003) offered support for the idea that individuals largely adjust to changes in life satisfaction that follow from marital transitions. Their results revealed that in general, events such as marriage result in a change in life satisfaction, but not a long-term one (Lucas et al., 2003).
As the happiness set point and hedonic treadmill theories and existing evidence to support them demonstrate, trying to increase our long-term levels of subjective well-being may not be particularly simple or straightforward. However, considering the significance of life goals in determining long-term happiness, as well as findings that support the effectiveness of interventions designed to increase happiness, doing so is far from impossible.
Is Hedonic Adaptation Inevitable?
Contrary to the notion that happiness levels cannot be increased or decreased in the long term, recent studies highlight that individuals may not always return to the same levels of well-being after major life events. Although we often experience adaptation after positive and negative events, there is also evidence that some events—including divorce, the death of a partner, and disability—can lead to long-term differences in subjective well-being (Lucas, 2007). In Lucas’ study on reactions to changes in marital status, those who had strong reactions to marriage or widowhood did not adapt to their former baseline levels of life satisfaction. Instead, these people seemed to establish a new baseline following the event (Lucas et al., 2003). In addition, individuals adapt to changes in subjective well-being to different extents (Lucas, 2007). While this means that the impact of negative events can be lasting, the fact that hedonic adaptation is not inevitable also indicates that there is hope that happiness levels can be increased over time.
Life Goals Matter
In a longitudinal study, Headey (2008) found that life satisfaction is affected by the goals we attach value to. A rather strong positive association was found between a focus on non-zero sum goals—in which each person’s gain does not come at the expense of another person—and a high level of life satisfaction. Some examples of non-zero sum goals are family goals and altruistic goals. Not only that, the pursuit of non-zero sum goals was also associated with long-term increases in life satisfaction. Meanwhile, attaching significance to zero sum goals related to success, such as work achievements, may have a negative impact on subjective well-being.
How Habits Can Affect Happiness Levels
Several happiness interventions have been found to be successful in increasing happiness levels, suggesting that happiness is indeed a worthy pursuit. These habits include:
- Gratitude practice. Interventions encouraging gratitude in individuals were followed by an increase in positive emotions (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Seligman et al., 2005).
- Engaging in physical activity can result in small, yet lasting and cumulative, increases in well-being (Mochon et al., 2008).
- Getting in touch with one’s strengths. Taking a survey that identified personal strengths and making deliberate effort to use these strengths more often led to increased subjective well-being even after six months (Seligman et al., 2005).
Other than these, it is important to try to avoid negative habits that hinder us from being happy. For instance, mental habits such as negative self-thoughts predicted symptoms of anxiety and depression (Verplanken et al., 2007). Perceiving oneself to be suppressing one’s emotions has been found to correlate with lower life satisfaction in both American and Chinese individuals (Kwon & Kim, 2019). Self-compassion can help us to resist such habits. Moreover, studies show that heavy users of digital media are often lower in well-being, which stresses on the importance of moderation when it comes to the use of digital devices (Twenge, 2019).
Altogether, we can conclude that seeking to improve our well-being and increase happiness levels can be a fruitful endeavour. Interestingly, it seems that major life changes may not be the key to lasting happiness. Instead, engaging in activities that provide smaller, but more regular, boosts of positive emotions that build over time may be more effective in improving well-being.
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