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8 Happiness Myths and the Truth Behind Them

From money to genetics, here’s what scientists know about what actually makes you happy


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Authentic happiness starts from within.
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What makes us happy? It’s a question we often ask. So, it’s not surprising that it’s a popular research subject among scientists.

Everyone has an opinion, it seems, on the route to true happiness, but how do we separate fact from fiction? We spoke to happiness experts and discussed the science related to common happiness beliefs to get a better understanding about what might make us happy — and what might not.

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1. Money will make you happy.

What science shows: It’s complicated, says Robert Waldinger, M.D., a psychiatrist and coauthor of The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. “There’s debate in the research community about this.”

In 2010, a Princeton University study by professors Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that once your basic needs are met, your happiness level plateaus — typically at income levels of $75,000 or higher.

But in 2021, research by Matthew Killingsworth at the University of Pennsylvania contradicted these findings: Higher incomes did increase happiness without a plateau.

To put the debate to rest, the two teams “had what they called an ‘adversarial collaboration,’ ” Waldinger says. In other words, they decided to conduct a joint study with Barbara Mellers, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, serving as an impartial facilitator. The study, published in 2023, discovered that “your happiness keeps going up, [even] after you get your basic needs met,” but only if you’re already a happy person, Waldinger says. But “If you're unhappy, and you're looking for wealth to make you happier, that doesn’t work.”

As Killingsworth puts it in an article in Penn Today, “Money is not the secret to happiness, but it can probably help a bit.”

2. Material things will make you happy.

What science shows: This may seem to be tied to money and happiness, but there is a distinction. Buying material things “provides some initial satisfaction. But that satisfaction and that happiness declined soon after,” says Sophia Godkin, a psychologist and author of the book, The Couple's Gratitude Journal: 5 Minutes to Create a Stronger and More Fulfilling Relationship. People adapt quickly to situations. So, that feeling of happiness when you buy that brand-new iPhone fades over time. Furthermore, people tend to “engage in social comparisons,” Godkin says. When you notice that someone has a newer, more expensive iPhone than you do, then “all of a sudden, I’m no longer as happy as I was,” she adds.

On the contrary, studies have suggested that materialistic people are less happy than their peers. According to the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, California, “They experience fewer positive emotions, are less satisfied with life, and suffer higher levels of anxietydepression, and substance abuse.”

3. Happiness is genetic.

What science shows: “It’s a combination of genetics and environment,” says Robin Miller, an integrative medicine expert and instructor of the Wondrium series The Scientific Guide to Health and Happiness. Genetic differences account for approximately 40 percent of the variation seen in happiness propensity, with the remainder attributed to environmental influences, according to 2022’s “World Happiness Report.”

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Even though happiness can be partially genetic, that “doesn't mean that you’re fated to be a certain level of happiness,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology and author of The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does. Her research is often referred to as the “happiness pie,” with happiness slices of 50 percent genetics, 40 percent activities and 10 percent life circumstances.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director of the Greater Good Science Center, agrees that genetics is not destiny when it comes to happiness. “There’s a lot of opportunity for people to behave in ways to prioritize their time and attention and effort in ways that can lead to changes in their happiness.”

4. If you become disabled, you will never return to your former level of happiness.

What science shows: “There's something called the disability paradox,” Miller says. Although potentially devastating, disabilities don’t necessarily preclude happiness. “As long as your needs are met and you’re comfortable, you can get back up to your [previous] level of happiness.”

If you’re in a car accident and then lose a limb, most people think that they could never return to their former state of happiness, but research shows that this isn’t true. “Generally, we fall back to this happiness set point,” says Mike Rucker, a psychologist and author of The Fun Habit: How the Pursuit of Joy and Wonder Can Change Your Life.

One study compared happiness levels of lottery winners and people paralyzed by an accident. Surprisingly, lottery winners were not happier than the people who experienced paralysis. Over time, all of the people in the study returned to their former state of happiness in a process called “hedonic adaptation,” Godkin says. Hedonic adaptation is when people return to their former state of happiness after a positive or negative event.

5. Losing weight will make you happy.

What science shows: Restrictive diet programs might yield quick results. But “people who are actually successful in losing a substantial amount of weight are actually less happy,” Godkin says. A study out of London suggests that obese people who lose weight are most likely to report a depressed mood.

Sometimes people think that if they lose a certain amount of weight, like 10 pounds, then they will be happy. “That’s a big myth,” Simon-Thomas says. “It’s the same as the money question: If I just got another bonus, I'd be happy.” People might experience momentary happiness after losing weight or receiving a bonus, but “all of those things quickly become normal, and you adapt to them,” she says.

Lyubomirsky adds: “Generally, happiness isn’t really found in external things.”

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6. Being in a relationship or married will make you happy.

What science shows: “We expect that [getting married] is going to take all our problems away, and it doesn’t,” Godkin says. She explains that when people first get married, they experience a “honeymoon phase,” or increased satisfaction and positive emotions, but that doesn’t last. “We return to this state of happiness that we were at before,” she says.

7. Happiness is up to the individual.

What science shows: Happiness might seem to be rooted in the self, but your community matters. “If I’m happy, but all the people around me are not, I’m not going to stay happy,” Simon-Thomas says. Often people think that they can learn how to be happy without factoring in the people who they interact with on a daily basis. But according to Simon-Thomas, “Our happiness depends on the happiness of others.”

8. All of my happiest years are behind me.

What the science shows: “It’s never too late,” Waldinger says. He explains that he devoted a whole chapter of his book to trying new things or making changes to your life no matter what your age is. As an example of this perspective, Waldinger recounts the story of a man from his research study who is in his 60s and joined a gym for the first time in his life. The man ended up finding a group of friends at the gym, and the experience was a revelation. Now “I have a group of friends who I feel really connected to,” the man says.

Waldinger stresses the importance of feeling connected to others as a key to happiness. In his book, he says the most important takeaway that he can offer is: “Positive relationships are essential to human well-being.”

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