The Elements of Happiness

Though your inner feelings change many times during the course of a day, everyone has a baseline level of happiness. Evidence suggests that people with high baseline levels of happiness live longer, healthier lives than those with low baseline levels. People feel attracted to things that produce pleasure and avoid things that cause pain. You constantly balance pleasure and pain, and present and future happiness, although often this is done unconsciously.

Statistics show that despite overall gains in the standard of living, people are no happier now than they were in 1950. Between World War II and the present, the prevalence of clinical depression, substance abuse and crime has grown. The human tendency to “habituation” explains this trend. Even if your personal conditions improve, after a while you become used to your new circumstances. Emotionally, you then return to your baseline level of happiness or dissatisfaction.

In addition, humans are sensitive to their status in relation to others, and they’re happier when they believe their status is high. Thus, when everyone’s income goes up, people are no happier than before, because their status remains the same. On an individual level, if you can get off the treadmill and stop comparing your status to others, you’ll be happier.

Happiness does not depend on your age, gender, intelligence, energy or level of education (although having an advanced degree may add to your financial comfort, which in turn contributes to happiness). Though your heredity and upbringing play a part in setting your happiness baseline, the following seven factors also have a significant effect on your experience of happiness and pleasure:

  1. “Family relationships” – Married people are generally happier than singles. People whose parents were divorced are twice as likely as other adults to suffer from sadness and depression.
  2. “Financial situation” – Forced joblessness, as opposed to voluntary unemployment, affects not only financial security but also self-esteem.
  3. “Work” – If your work is too easy, you’ll be bored, and if it’s too difficult, you’ll be frustrated. Although Americans and Australians work more hours, on average, than people in other countries, often sacrificing family time and nonwork activities, their productivity is the same as that of workers in other developed countries.
  4. “Community and friends” – You’ll be happier if you can rely on those close to you to behave ethically.
  5. “Health” – Though bad health can lead to depression, many people can adjust to illness and remain happy. Untreated mental illness is a significant exception.
  6. “Personal freedom” – Living in a free and peaceful society is crucial to the pursuit of happiness. The more responsive people feel their government is to them, and the more power lies in their hands, the happier they feel.
  7. “Personal values” – Your philosophical approach and spiritual beliefs influence your experience of happiness, no matter what external conditions affect your life.

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