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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

Science’s attempt to determine the source of satisfaction

Everyone has a perception of what makes them happy. For me, these things include quality time with close family and friends, exercise, games of any sort, nature, deep thought, etc. There are also some things that I am not so proud of. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t think financial success, career success, and people’s perception of me also factor into my life satisfaction. Most, if not everyone, reading this will agree.

Nevertheless, studies have consistently shown that these things do not impact our long-term contentment — at least not anywhere near the extent to which we think they do. Take the classic example of money. The statement “money can’t buy happiness” will strike home with some and draw eye rolls from others. What does the research say?

Well, like with many things in science, you can find studies pointing in both directions if you try hard enough. Yet, the bulk of the evidence seems to support the idea that money does impact happiness as you move out of poverty to a decent standard of living. Once beyond this point, however, additional income has minimal impact on well-being. For example, life satisfaction increases with income in poor nations but does not in wealthier countries. Additionally, a study from 2010 found that those with higher income consistently report their lives as better, but improvements in affect and stress disappear beyond an annual income of roughly $75,000 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: As income rises, people perceive themselves as happier. However, gains in positive emotion eventually level out as income passes $75,000. This is also true for the alleviation of stress, worry, and sadness.

It’s even possible that we’re thinking about it the wrong way. Consider this well-known study, which suggests that it’s rank of income, not income itself, that affects life satisfaction. In other words, it’s not high income that makes you happy, it’s having a high income relative to those around you. Anecdotally, this feels accurate to me. I’ve noticed that I’m much more concerned about money when spending time with my high-earning friends. On the other hand, I spend a lot of time with people below the poverty line. I always come out of these conversations feeling grateful for what I have and truly losing all desire for anything more.

This leads to a larger point that goes beyond money. With certain exceptions, research has made it clear that contentment is controlled internally. The following results are surprising, but are simply evidence that most of us have flawed perceptions of what will make us happy. Consider two events that would generally be considered the best day of one’s life — winning the lottery, or the worst — becoming paralyzed in an accident. A famous study found that lottery winners are only slightly happier than paraplegics, and no happier than controls. On top of this, paraplegics derive more happiness from simple, everyday pleasures.

While winning the lottery and being the victim of a paralyzing accident are two extremes, the point is that there are very few external things that can impact your long-term satisfaction. Dr. Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist known for his research in this area, claims that even traumatic events often have no measurable impact on happiness after three months. Researchers seem to agree that we each have a baseline level of satisfaction, and that our minds are quite resilient in returning to this baseline after fluctuations in either direction.

The question then becomes: how do we shift our baseline level of happiness? I would think that the answers are unique to the individual. There may be one commonality, however. The Harvard Study of Adult Development is exceptional in that it has been collecting data for 75 years, commanding the efforts of multiple generations of researchers. Dr. Robert Waldinger, who now leads the study, had this to say about the results: “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

This all leads me to believe that there are two primary takeaways from happiness research thus far. Firstly, try to convince yourself of the fact that satisfaction does not come from external sources. Do not preoccupy yourself wishing for things to go your way because it won’t matter in the long run. Instead, work towards the difficult realization that lasting contentment comes from you choosing to be content with whatever comes your way. And lastly, prioritize the people around you. There is likely no greater way to impact your long-term health and happiness.


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