Your circumstances in life don’t make much difference to your wellbeing ………
Whether you are in a great relationship, rich, in a successful job, unemployed or disabled, does not have a huge impact on your underlying happiness. By and large your circumstances, even your upbringing, have only a small effect on your wellbeing.
This is the surprising conclusion of successive studies* – we tend to assume that our happiness must depend on our circumstances – our loved ones, where we live, our work etc, but these things have less effect than we think.
But surely relationships matter?
Yes — the biggest circumstance in life is probably who we are with – right? But there are big upsides and downsides to our relationships, they can be incredibly fulfilling yet we always risk having our hearts broken. It works both ways.
Family Here we can enjoy our closest relationships and can simply be ourselves. Unsurprisingly when these relationships go wrong the effects are often severe. So for example* a child whose parents split up is more likely to suffer disadvantages including possible depression and divorce themselves. (But don’t worry, if that happened with your parents, it happened with mine — there are lots of ways we can offset family circumstances and even be stronger because of them).
Work Work related stress is a significant factor for many people but the interesting point is that good relationships at work contribute more to job satisfaction than high pay*.
What things really affect my happiness?
In fact the greatest influence on our wellbeing in life is our set-point* — which we inherit. Some of us are born pessimists or worriers, others are naturally easy going or optimistic, still others are born determined or resilient etc. Our set point accounts for 50% of our wellbeing. We can do things to change this but we will tend to be drawn back to our set-point. It is important to know yourself — what type of person YOU tend to be.
Our circumstances on the other hand, things that happen to us including relationships, influence our wellbeing by only around 10%. That is surprising enough, but the startling conclusion of this research is that 40% of our wellbeing is determined by our intentional-activity – ie what are you going to DO about it?
So how can we be happy?
Well you can’t change your family (usually); changing your employment is possible but can be difficult. These are circumstances. Like how much money we have in the bank or whether we are seriously ill or have recently won the lottery, we can’t change these but we do tend to over-emphasise them in our mind; While we are thinking about them, they always seem more important than they actually are.
Intentional activity is different. We each have a personal responsibility to contribute to our own wellbeing, and one well-proven way to do this is by what we decide to do.
“If we can get the motivation to engage in positive, meaningful intentional activities, circumstances associated with our health, money, and even upbringing, have a surprisingly small impact on wellbeing”, Ann Morisey
There are many kinds of intentional activity such as pursuing a sport or pastime or socialising. But it is when these are directed toward others, through a community group that we get the greatest benefits in terms of seeing the good effects of our work on others, and occasionally even accepting help ourselves (which can be the hardest part!).
“Community” is not just the people down my street or people I meet on the internet. Belonging to a community means having regard for each other and engaging in some shared activity– this could be as simple as coming together for a charitable cause or to attend church, or even for a BBQ! There are lots of ways we become happier people by contributing to a community. We are helped by others and we are helped by helping others.
“Individuals with robust and diverse networks lead healthier lives…. have stronger immune systems…. recover more quickly from trauma” Alison Glichrist
Lastly — back to relationships
We can bring relationships into our intentional activity. That requires effort. It means thinking what we can do for people around us, expressing care, saying things that are perhaps uncomfortable to say. By doing so we can start to change relationships from something that just happen to us (circumstances), to something we do.
It’s strange but engaging in acts of kindness help us not to worry about ourselves. When Jesus said “If you try to save your life, you will lose it. But if you give it up for me, you will surely find it”, (Matthew 10.39), he wasn’t trying to say something complicated or puzzling.
Also in this series:
- Buying Stuff Will Make You Happy …?
- Going to Church Will Make You Happy…?
- Infographic: How to be Happy