Social scientists have boiled down Americans’ level of happiness to three major sources: genetics, events and values. The first two are largely out of our control, but the last one is where we have a great deal of control with which can ultimately determine our happiness.
According to a University of Chicago’s General Social Survey of Americans conducted since 1972, it found that about a third of Americans reported they are “very happy,” about half say they are “pretty happy,” and 10% to 15% report being “not too happy.” And these ratios have stayed about the same over 40 years.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece titled “A Formula for Happiness” and in similar content on a YouTube video, Arthur C. Brooks explains how research has determined that 48% of our happiness is inherited and another 40% is based on events that have occurred in the recent past. Much of that may be beyond our control. This leaves just 12% that can help us alter our happiness quotient.
Many people may think there is direct relationship between money and happiness. And this is generally true for the poor.
But Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman found that once people reach a little beyond an average middle-class income level (about $75,000), even big financial gains don’t bring about much more, if any, happiness.
So that brings us to the 12% of which all of us have some control over our happiness. And this is in our values.
According to Brooks, these values come down to four things upon which we have a great deal of control. These are: faith, family, community and work.
Faith does not necessarily mean being religious, but is more about the interior or spiritual life. Family is obvious, but may require a new perspective with regard to how integral these people are to our overall happiness. Community means cultivating important people into our lives and being charitable. This includes the friends we choose to associate with and how generous we are to those outside of our immediate family.
And then there is work.
“Work can bring happiness by marrying our passions to our skills, empowering us to create value in our lives and in the lives of others,” says Brooks. This secret to happiness through work is what Brooks calls earned success.
“This is not conjecture; it is driven by the data,” says Brooks. “Americans who feel they are successful at work are twice as likely to say they are very happy overall as people who don’t feel that way. And these differences persist after controlling for income and other demographics.”
I should point out that Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C. public policy think tank with an obvious free market perspective. Its mission is “to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism.“
His perspective is that free enterprise is the right approach to reaching happiness through work. He says that if you want happiness not only for you but for others around the world, then you should work for free enterprise everywhere.
I won’t debate the potential political and economic argument here, but instead stay focused on the element of pursuing work that matters to you which can help determine your happiness.
What about you? Are you happy? Are you very happy? Is there something you can do to alter the values upon which determine your level of happiness?
Here at the end of another year, perhaps it’s time to take stock of where we are. Since our faith, family and community is ultimately under our control, it comes down to whether or not we choose to take responsibility for them or not. The same is true for work.
Do you believe you are creating value with your contribution at work? If so, the research says that you are more likely to be happy with your life.
As I’ve written about on a number of occasions, the work we do is a lot more than simply a paycheck and a way to provide for us monetarily. In our work, we have the opportunity to find fulfillment, a sense of purpose, and a reason for being that can ultimately help determine our overall happiness.
Don’t we owe it to ourselves to find and make ourselves happy by pursuing work that joins our passion and skills to provide value to us, and to the world?