This happiness study took 25 years to completeImage: DW/Nelioubin
October 11, 2010
Researchers found that those who prioritize family, friends, altruistic goals, and exercise are happier than those just chasing money and success.
According to the results of a long-term study in Germany, happiness has more to do with our personal choices than it does with our genetic make-up.
An international group of researchers analysed data gathered by the German Socio-Economic Panel Survey (SOEP) from its widespread study of 60,000 Germans over 25 years.
They found that altruistic goals were more important than money, and that focusing on family, social activities, exercise, religion, and working the right amount were good choices to ensure happiness.
The findings were published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
Set point theory called into question
Psychologists have been pondering what causes an individual's happiness for decades. In the 1970s many scientists thought that everyone has a set level of happiness - which they always return to - despite life's ups and downs. This is called "set point theory" and is thought to be determined by genetics and early childhood experiences.
One of the study's authors, Gert Wagner, an economist with the German Institute for Economic Research and a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, said that their results show that set point theory holds for around 50 percent of the population - but not for the rest - whose satisfaction with life changed over time.
"One third of the changes are negative ones like illness or death of the spouse," he said, "two thirds of the changes are positive, but small."
Wagner said these results show that it's easier for people to become unhappier due to terrible life events, and much harder for people to improve their satisfaction with life by making the right choices - but that's the area the researchers are most excited about.
"What's new in our study is we are looking on choices you have, and what we demonstrate is choices makes the difference," said Wagner.
Choices may be the key to success
This means that the things people prioritise in their lives are the key to happiness - and the findings will be no surprise for many.
"Social goals are more important than materialistic goals," he said. "And its good to be healthy and in order to be healthy, its good for you if you do a little bit of sports."
Every day most people do things that make us happy, and many people on the streets of Berlin seem to agree with Wagner's findings.
Andre Holzbecher, 22, is a physics student who enjoys team sports like beach volleyball and inline hockey, and values his close relationship with his family.
Sports are also important for Mahmoud El Sakran, 29, from Palestine, who goes for a daily run, but takes a moment just for himself at the start of each day.
"When I wake up I just relax in the bed for about 10 minutes and take a cup of coffee," he said.
Others, like Nadine Foude, a 25-year-old student, said that friends, family, thinking positive and eating chocolate make her happy.
The "right" choices aren't always easy
Relationships are very important, but according to Wagner and his colleagues choosing a neurotic partner is a surefire way to be unhappy.
But according to Jaap Denissen, professor of Personality Development at Humboldt University, who wasn't part of the study, choosing a healthy relationship isn't always easy.
"If you're used to being in bad relationships, you may expect the same kinds of experiences to continue," he said.
"Of course it's also a matter of how much you think you deserve a good partner. It's known that people who have low self-esteem, they do not perceive themselves to be a 'good catch' so-to-say on the mating market. So they may settle for less, for example, for people who are verbally abusive or otherwise abusive."
Making the so-called "right" choices for your own personal happiness isn't a piece of cake. Every decision we make is based upon a range of complicated factors.
But Denissen believes that "all people choose happiness. That's basically a universal thing across cultures," however he added, "to what degree they succeed in that is a different matter of course, and that is according to some theories, dependent on the degree to which the environment supports these basic needs."
Being happy is a complex combination of factors
Despite these new results Denissen added that many scientists had already been migrating away from "set point theory."
"Within at least the last decade, there have been major changes among psychologists and I would argue that the mainstream opinion right now is not consistent with set point theory," he said.
According to Denissen its not so constructive to pit nature and nurture against each other. Plus, psychologists themselves say that both factors play a dynamic and transactional role in an individual's happiness.
"The effects of, for example the environment can be contingent on a person's genes," Denissen said. "And also the effect of a person's genes can be dependent on environments. For example, some genetic influences may not express themselves if people are born under certain child-rearing conditions."