Mechanical Happiness

The ancient philosophers tried to understand what makes us happy. Modern academics study the question, and try to come up with answers. It is such a broad question, and so individually differentiated, that a universal definition might not be possible. But while we are all unique, with our own preferences, there are some things we all share that make us happy. While the shape of happiness might be individually different, its broad outlines are remarkably similar. I think this is an important idea to have in mind, because many of these things do not involve deep introspection, alignment of philosophical beliefs with actions, or anything complicated. Many things that make us happy just involve our daily behavior.

I call this idea mechanical happiness. The idea is that for almost all of us there is a rather robotic list of behaviors we can engage in that will make us happy. Getting to the root of our problems might be difficult, and being able to engage in these behaviors might involve a lot of change and be challenging, but aiming for these things on a regular basis gives us a clear direction in which to move.

So, what drives human happiness? There is not one thing, and some the important determinants of happiness are not in our control.

Our individual personality traits and genetic makeup play a significant role in our baseline level of happiness. Some people are naturally more predisposed to positive emotions and life satisfaction due to their temperament and genetic factors, which account for approximately 35-50% of the variation in happiness levels. That’s a lot! This is important because it’s quite possible that each of us has a different set point of happiness– and if we can accept this, rather than compare ourselves to others, we might have a much easier time accepting things as they are. Moreover, this might not be that alterable– so constantly striving to be the happiest person if we are not naturally wired that way might, paradoxically, make things worse. But know that a part of our happiness equation is probably hardwired and not terribly amenable to change.

The cultural and societal norms, values, and beliefs in which we are embedded can shape our perception of happiness and the factors that contribute to it. The society in which we live can drive both our belief structure, and have other complex impacts– for example, very high levels of income inequality have been linked to decreased happiness. Living in a place that does not allow individuals to have financial security can drive unhappiness. Living in an environment without clean air causes problems with maintaining good physical health.

Strong social connections and supportive relationships with family, friends, and loved ones are crucial for happiness. Having a robust social network provides a sense of belonging, support, and love, which are fundamental human needs. Social relationships are considered one of the most important factors for happiness. The size of our network is probably less important than the quality of our network. Equally important, our own perception of the adequacy of our social support and relationships is critical. If we have a close knit family and a few good friends, and this feels good, it probably is. In other words, being a social butterfly who feels happy and satisfied with having lots of connections is not inherently better or worse than having a few close friends.

While money alone cannot buy happiness, financial stability and meeting basic needs contribute to overall well-being and life satisfaction. Money might not make you happy, but not having enough money to meet your basic needs can make you miserable. The impact of income on happiness has diminishing returns beyond a certain level of wealth. Increasing levels of income do seem to correlate with higher levels of happiness, but as we travel up the income ladder, the amount of additional wealth we need in order to achieve an increasing level of happiness also increases. In other words, an additional $30,000 of annual income could make a large difference in happiness when that means our income rises from $40,000 per year to $70,000. However, if we are making a million dollars per year, an additional $30k makes almost no difference in our happiness. The relationship between happiness and income is complicated (and debated), and money alone certainly does not lead to happiness– but a lack of money often leads to unhappiness. While the topic of money and happiness could probably be a book, the one other comment I’ll add is that our satisfaction with our income is largely dependent on our peer set, rather than a number. If your friends all own jets, you feel lousy flying first class. If your friends fly coach and you fly business, you feel great.

Good physical health and well being, including regular exercise, proper nutrition, and sufficient sleep, positively impacts happiness levels. Poor health can significantly diminish one’s ability to experience joy and contentment. Fortunately, these factors are some of the ones we have most directly under our control, even in the short term. The increase in happiness we can achieve by simply sleeping regularly, exercising consistently, and eating well is significant.

Significant life events, both positive (e.g., marriage, career success) and negative (e.g., loss of a loved one, job loss), can temporarily influence happiness levels. However, people tend to adapt and return to their baseline level of happiness over time. Interestingly, these types of events– for example, getting a promotion– generally do not lead to a sustained change in happiness. I wrote about this, albeit with a different emphasis, in this post. The importance of this is high, because we often link our happiness to the achievement of some goal; while reaching that goal may very well increase our happiness temporarily, it tends not to be sustained.

An optimistic mindset, the ability to savor positive experiences, and a tendency to interpret events in a positive light can contribute to greater happiness. Practicing gratitude and focusing on the present moment can also enhance well-being. This is another factor that we have under our direct control. It’s also something where we can build our lives– we can develop habits, routines, and practices that help us remain grateful and in the present moment. This idea is also deeply intertwined with the concept of narrative– the story we tell ourselves about our life. Again, this is something we have control of (unlike our genes), so it makes sense to pay particular attention to it.

On a longer time scale, we can try to live somewhere that supports our needs as humans. We can take care of ourselves financially.

So, on a day-to-day basis, what can we do? We can stay socially connected. We can exercise, sleep and eat well, and try to take care of our bodies. We can try to remain grateful, building in habits and routines to help us cultivate this mindset. Doing these things is not complicated– it is simple, but not necessarily easy. But the good news is that most of these things are things that any of us can do, today, and be reasonably sure it will make us feel better– even if our more complicated problems don’t go away.


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