Mental Health

The Science of Happiness: Strategies for (More) Sustained Joy

Research states that 50% of your happiness is genetic, 40% is under your control and attributed to activities you intentionally choose to engage or not engage in. That leaves just 10% due to circumstances.

I’m Sarah! 

I’m a licensed mental health professional, mindfulness teacher, and mother. I offer tools and resources that empower you to show up as the parent (and human!) you want to be. Learn more.


For most of us, there’s a lack of clarity about what actually makes us happy, so let’s get clear on what happiness really is.

Happiness is often seen as this:

But that’s not the full picture.

Happiness is an UMBRELLA term that encompasses everything from general contentment to euphoria. It’s not JUST euphoria.

Research states that 50% of your happiness is genetic, 40% is under your control and attributed to activities you intentionally choose to engage or not engage in. That leaves just 10% due to circumstances.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’ll be happy when….”

  • …I get married.
  • …I get a new job. 
  • …I make more money*.
  • …my kid grows out of this phase.
  • …I finally get that new {insert latest coveted object here}.

This is the “I will be happy when“ trap.

*There is a threshold here where people need to be able to pay their bills and provide for themselves and their families, which, of course, depends on where you live in the world. Once your basic needs are met, the “I will be happier when I make more money” trap comes into effect.

It turns out that if someone can and does change their circumstance, they may experience a boost in happiness for a short period of time, but this new norm quickly becomes the baseline, and sure enough, they’re back to craving more and more. It’s an endless cycle!

And if you’re nodding your head, feeling like all of this is really familiar, congratulations! You’re human. We can explore hedonic adaptation and affective forecasting to understand why we feel this way.

Hedonic adaptation is our universal trait of rapidly adapting to improved (or worsened) conditions. It’s why we always want the next shiny, new thing. It’s why we say things like, “I will be happier when I have the new iPhone.” And when you get the new iPhone, it might make you a little bit happier for a short time, but then boom, you’ve adapted to your new baseline and find yourself wanting the next new thing. It never ends!

Affective forecasting is your ability to predict how you will feel in a future situation.  I encourage you to reflect back on how accurate your predictions are of your feelings in future situations. Research and usually a little personal reflection show that humans are traditionally not very accurate at all in predicting their future feelings. Thus, we do not feel happy when we achieve or get something we thought would make us happy.

So if only 10% of our happiness is determined by circumstances, and we’ve learned that ultimately those circumstances don’t hold much sway, what does impact our happiness!?

Roughly 50% of your happiness is genetic. Yup, something else to blame your parents for is your mood. 😉 

One caveat is that this research didn’t address an important genetic expression factor. You’ve most likely heard of nature vs. nurture. And while our genetics have an impact, our environment dictates which genes are turned on and off and, thus, our growth and development. So, while this research has limitations, it can help us understand that our genes and upbringing significantly impact our happiness baseline. 

This leads us to the last piece of the happiness pie, and that is that 40% of our happiness is under our control and can be influenced by our intentional thoughts, actions, and practices. Our choices and habits significantly affect how happy we are (or aren’t). 

In other words, you can take control of your happiness, and using science-backed strategies, such as mindfulness, forgiveness, finding meaning, taking care of your body, and optimism, can help. 

While these strategies are probably already familiar to you, I’ve heard a great line in the science of happiness: There is a gap between what we know is good for us and what we actually do.”

Want to cultivate more happiness in your life? (Who doesn’t?!) 

I encourage you to do the following:

  1. Give yourself a WHOLE LOT OF GRACE. Always.
  1. Watch out for the resolution trap. Don’t buy into the thinking that your happiness lies in something you must do/achieve/change.
  1. Pause, reflect, and get clear on what’s under your happiness “umbrella.” Not what makes you jump for joy but what makes you feel content.

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