Exploring how life’s magic leads to happiness has lead me down some peculiar paths and has lead me to some even more peculiar ideas about happiness. I would like to clarify some of these ideas and explain what the field of positive psychology has discovered about happiness.

1. Money doesn’t buy happiness. 

Money does buy happiness… a little bit. We need enough money to cover our basic needs and to have some sense of stability. We are happier when we are warm and dry, have food in our bellies, and have a degree of choice/mobility financially. I have heard a few different numbers given for how much is ideal, but it seems that happiness increases as household income increases until it plateaus somewhere in the mid to late tens of thousands. (Seventy thousand in household income was one number given; I imagine this number would fluctuate depending on cost of living, inflation, etc.*)

2. Winning the lottery will make you happy. 

Neither is it true, though, that the more money we have, the happier we will be. This is because of something called the Hedonic Treadmill, also known as Hedonic Adaptation.* We become accustomed to a new income and lifestyle and continue to want more and more. Thus, something like getting a huge windfall will make us very happy… for a very short period of time, until we adjust to that change. The idea that more money will give us more happiness (beyond approximately seventy thousand in annual household income) is a myth. We will be just as happy making seventy thousand a year as making two million a year, or two hundred million. For those on the Hedonic Treadmill chasing that six figure salary, it is better to focus on daily intentional changes like practicing gratitude and to recognize that much of happiness comes not from a change in income, but a change in mindset.

3. Running/eating well/thinking happy thoughts is all anyone ever needs to be happy. 

I once had a coworker at a mental health nonprofit who believed this and was very dismissive of mental illness, which infuriated me. Mental illnesses can be life-threatening and can require professional treatment, often including medication or even hospitalization. Would we tell someone with stage four cancer to take a walk and eat some vegetables? No, we would trust that that individual was following a healthcare plan set up by medical professionals to best suit their needs. The same goes for mental illness.

4. Positive psychology is invalid because it ignores mental illness and is just about “happy thoughts.” 

I actually heard a Professor of Psychology make this argument against studying positive psychology and I wondered how familiar he was with positive psychology research. Positive psychology is a more holistic approach to mental health, rather than focusing exclusively on illness. Just as a doctor might suggest preventative lifestyle changes such as eating well and exercising, so too can a positive psychologist suggest ways to increase our mental wellness. Additionally, “positive emotion” is a very small piece of the mental wellness pie, and having healthy emotional responses, including “negative” emotions, is also vital to overall happiness, according to positive psychology research.*

5. Everyone has an equal opportunity for happiness. 

Fifty percent of happiness is genetically variable, and another ten percent is circumstantial.* If someone else just doesn’t seem as happy as you no matter what they do, consider that they might be genetically predisposed to be a little less happy. Circumstantial factors like culture, socioeconomic status, and gender also play into how happy we are.

6. You can’t change how happy you are. 

Despite happiness having a genetic set-point and being influenced by circumstance, forty percent of our happiness IS variable.* That means there are things we can do, like practicing gratitude, learning something new, and performing random acts of kindness, that can increase our happiness quite a bit. Our happiness is absolutely something that we DO have some control over if we are intentional about making changes to support positive mental health.

I hope this has clarified some nuances about happiness. There are a lot of memes and platitudes on the internet that don’t address some of the complexities found in happiness research. I am far from being an expert, but I have done quite a bit of research, so if you have a question about happiness you would like me to address, please let me know.

*Source for this post: Positive Psychology: Theory, Research, and Applications by Kate Hefferon and Ilona Boniwell