Happiness is not really different in each person. In fact, science shows us happiness is basically the same for all of us. And our roadblocks to happiness are all basically the same as well — that we each think we are special and the research doesn’t apply to us, so we just keep trying to earn more accolades or more money.

That said, here are some checkup tests to take to see how you’re doing in the happiness department.

You were born with a genetic disposition to being happy (or not).
Scientific American writes about hedonic adaptation which is basically our ability to return to our regular level of happiness no matter how much money we have. (The classic study for this is from the 1970s which found that after two years, lottery winners were no more happy than they were before the big win.)

So instead of making the irrational assumption that you are different than the rest of the human race, try accepting that you aren’t, and look for happiness somewhere other than money.

In fact, your set point for happiness is mostly genetic – based on how optimistically you approach the world. But you can make a 40% impact on your optimism level by changing your daily routine in relatively small ways – like doing a bunch of random acts of kindness in one day, on a weekly basis.

Sonja Lyubomirsky’s new book, the How of Happiness is packaged to look like a sequel to Daniel Gilbert’s bestselling book, Stumbling on Happiness, and it sort of is a sequel. Lyubomirsky is a professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, and she describes twelve steps you can take to change your happiness set point – and the science behind those suggestions.

Wondering if you’re an optimistic thinker? Here’s the test. (middle of the page)

Burnout undermines your happiness, and it’s not about time.
Burnout has little to do with how many hours you work and a lot to do with the type of work you’re doing. Burnout comes from not being able to achieve what you want to achieve even though you are working hard to get it. It’s a situation where you have goals you can’t pin down (like if you work for four bosses) or goals you can’t meet (like if you have an impossible deadline).

People who are most susceptible to burnout are nurses in pediatric burn units because the goal is so clear and so urgent – stop the pain in small children – but it’s an impossible goal to meet.

Other people who are susceptible, though, are lawyers, who are at the beck and call of clients who generally cannot be pleased because they are in legal trouble and upset about it, and even if they are not in legal trouble, who likes spending money on a lawyer?

The thing is that a lot of lawyers make a lot of money. So the money part does not ward off against burnout and might even make you feel more compelled to stay in a bad situation.

Are you on the road to burnout? Here’s the test. (middle of the page)

Stop telling yourself it’s about your job.
One of the first things people think when they are unhappy is that they need to change their job. Maybe they’ll get a job that pays more, or that allows them to be their true self, or will be their dream job.

But you know what? A job does not make you happy, it only makes you unhappy. And forget about that raise, because the incremental happiness you get from earning more than, say, $100,000 is barely noticeable. (Yes, even if you have a family of four in San Francisco. Stop thinking you’re the exception to every rule. It’s a flaw that undermines your ability to change.)

The thing that increases our happiness is our relationships. A job cannot make those better. However a job can make you so unhappy that you can’t relish the relationships in your life.

Do you want to know if the problem is your job? It’s not likely, but here’s the test.

Align your goals with what really makes you happy.
A lot of you are probably incredulous. Maybe you think the American Dream is about getting a good job and earning more money than your parents. But the American Dream used to be about moving west and buying land, and now we see that as something for older generations that doesn’t apply to us. So maybe the idea of more money and better jobs is the new detritus of the American dream, and if you don’t believe me, maybe you have an outdated outlook.

Wondering if you think like your grandma? Here’s the test.

54 replies
  1. thom singer
    thom singer says:

    Nobody can be happy all the time, but how we react (or over react) to situations will effect our moods. Some folks knee jerk reaction is to think every situation effects them in a negative way. I think people who are calm and rational most of the time have more happiness than those who make everything into a drama.

    To some degree we get to pick our levels of happiness by how we view the world. Is your glass half full or half empty. My guess is if you think half full you have more joy in your life. If you think half empty you have more bad days. Perspective and happiness go hand in hand.

  2. deepali
    deepali says:

    Excellent post! I’ve been blogging about this a lot lately, ever since I first stumbled on your blog and then later when I read Gilbert’s book.

    I’ve really been mulling over the idea that we’re not the exceptions we think we are. I love the idea, actually.

  3. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    Happiness is a quest for finding joy whatever your present circumstances. There is a significant component of happiness that is a choice. You seem to suggest some people are just happy. That is me. If I knew for sure how to help others find more happiness I would. Avoid regret, treat others well and smile.

  4. Di
    Di says:

    Why do you always link money and happiness? People don’t always want more money to be happy. Sometimes they want it to have access to things that they can’t have today. Sometimes we want to have things just because we want to have it…Not to find more happiness or be happier!

  5. Brian Johnson
    Brian Johnson says:

    One thing that consistently makes me happy are your great posts on the science surrounding the topic! Thank you for presenting this in a digestable format that I would not have the attention span to research for myself.

    Are the people we socialize with a symptom of our demeanor or the result of it? I can think of several people I know that are generally bitter and unhappy, and they spend their time with people who have similar attitudes. I’ve often thought that choosing who you spend time with is critical to how you view yourself and the world, but maybe it’s the reverse: maybe you choose your social network BECAUSE of your outlook and personality because misery loves company. Only once or twice in my life have I consciously thought ‘I don’t want to be around this person because they bring me down.’ Any thoughts?

    Another high burnout industry is running non-profits specifically because of your point regarding on not meeting goals. Many times Boards have strong input on goals but don’t contribute meaningfully to achieving them and aren’t as emotionally vested in the outcome as the managers tasked with with job. Financial expectations of non-profit Boards are notoriously overly optimistic and difficult to achieve.

    Great post.

  6. Kathy S
    Kathy S says:

    WOW do you still earn 200K a yr? I agree that money isn’t the answer.. I think TIME is the answer (although the more $ you have the more time you have.. so..) The best times of my life were when I was not working or in school and living the easy life which included going out with friends, getting my nails done, hanging out in bookstores and reading anything I could get my hands on. I probably spent only $1600 a month on rent and bills so it wasn’t about the money.

  7. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Penelope: Fun post! And I like the linkages with your past posts.

    I suppose as a Gen-Xer by birth (but a Gen-Yer by your test), who scores 6 on the job test, who is not on the way to burnout by the criteria listed in your post and who was recently told that her ‘optimism and sunniness is irritating’, I suppose I am all set on the road to happiness. Heck I live on that road.

    And seeing some comments here about money and happiness: I must say money may not buy happiness but it sure makes it easier to be happy. Besides, people have to try the alternative to know.

    On a more serious note, there is plenty of research linking poverty to higher incidence of depression and other kinds of ill health. I believe good health is essential to happiness so I would say the correlation suggests money can significantly influence happiness.

  8. James Schellman
    James Schellman says:

    This is a good post, and offers some good insight on happiness. Nice work.

    One of my favorite happiness quotes comes from Alexis Carrel – “Happiness is not having what you want, it is wanting what you have. Happiness is a choice that requires effort sometimes.”

  9. Alanna Shaikh
    Alanna Shaikh says:

    A long time ago I was an intern in Uzbekistan, and I was living on $300 a month. I was so broke I couldn’t afford yogurt or tomatoes. Then I got a paying job and spent a couple of months buying anything I wanted and feeling wealthy. When I added up my expenses, it turned out I was spending $450 a month. The difference between deprivation and abundance, in that context, was $150 a month. I’ve tried to hang on to that lesson since then – that I need very little, materially, to be happy.

  10. LP
    LP says:

    Alanna —

    That’s a pretty good story. I think PT makes the point somewhere around here that money makes a big big difference in happiness up to (for an American single childless person) about $40,000/year. Probably more in NYC or LA, but the point is the same — once you have enough money to pay your bills plus a little more, additional increases in salary don’t do much for your overall happiness. Maybe because, as you point out, the relevant feeling is the feeling of ‘abundance’ — having enough.

  11. Matt
    Matt says:

    Great post. I resonate very closely with the definition you provided of burnout. Mine was associated with being president of a developing fraternity, and the burnout came directly from “not being able to achieve what you want to achieve even though you are working hard to get it.” I still was passionate about what I was doing, but it was killing me to do it.

    As far as happiness with regards to the American Dream, lately I have been concerned with making sure that I wake up and go to bed completely content and happy with the day. I am less concerned with possessions than I am with leading a life of fulfillment.

  12. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    It does ‘pay’ to experience life and take the time to know yourself. It’s only you who will know if you’re happy/satisfied with your career choice. It’s the job of the person in charge of filling a position to find the most qualified person for that job. It’s not their job to determine if you’ll be happy with the job. Of course, it’s a win-win situation when both parties are happy and that is an achievable goal.

  13. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    Happiness IS different for every person. I’m not saying the science is invalid or the studies not accurate, but they are all measures of the aggregate. It is wrong to apply deductive reasoning–taking the general (statistically-observed norms) and applying them back down to specific individuals–to human lifestyles, because our lives are complex, interrelated sets of values, motivations, dreams, relationships, history and emotional development. Our lives are also far from static–at one stage of life, a different set of things may make us happy than another.

    I’m not saying that we are hopelessly complex or that analysis is pointless. These quizzes are great to help challenge our preconceived assumptions and open us up to new ideas. But I think knowing what makes you happy is ultimately a very individual and dynamic thing. The analysis is “marginally” useful…it can help us understand that the marginal increases in something like money don’t continue to make us happier. The way our brains work can help us learn to accept ourselves and be aware of reactions and behaviors that we would otherwise allow to be self-destructive. These methods are tools we can use to better understand our unique condition.

    But each of us is different; life is a constant journey to fit in based on the many things we do have in common with one another, and find our own happiness.

    Of course, I’m Gen X and INTJ :)

  14. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    I still think the people who say money doesn’t make you happy are the people who have it. Money and finances are the number one thing that cause tension in families. You could have all the time in the world with your family but if there is little income things could get rough. As this post states it is the relationships that mold happiness. Your family being first, friends and neighbors to follow. I also believe that what people percieve to make them happy would, in the long run, turn on them. Happiness starts with YOU and radiates out. Find what that is and stick with it. If it changes, so be it.

  15. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Matt Bingham:

    “I still think the people who say money doesn't make you happy are the people who have it.”

    Exactly! And I do not see them in a hurry to get rid of their money either. They sure know something and many of them probably have experienced the alternative to know better.

  16. Chris
    Chris says:

    Today mom mom called me to tell me that my grandmother’s house, which she was in the process of emptying in preparation for sale, flooded. Pipe burst in the attic some time in the last week, water from top to bottom, all the way down to 3 inches in the basement. The money from this house is my Mom’s nest egg. My mother, who is the most optimistic person I know had this to say:

    “Well, this sure makes it easier to decide what to get rid of.”

    I didn’t learn anything about financial success from my mom, but she sure taught me how to be happy.

  17. kristi
    kristi says:

    I liked this post because it inspired me to interact with it. I took all the tests, and found out that I am an optimistic person who either is about to or already has burned out (69). Probably because my job is a 1-2 hour commute each way, with dangerous driving conditions to boot. I am a gen-x by birth, but scored 17 on the test, making me gen-y.
    As the sole breadwinner for a family of 6 with one more in college, I can’t just up and change jobs–the one I have has very affordable health insurance that we use to the MAX.
    Money is tight enough to have to choose between the electric bill and groceries, so I do think that more $$ each paycheck could help lessen the stress I’m feeling and increase the happiness.
    But is this just me thinking “I’m the exception” ??

  18. Neil C
    Neil C says:

    Money definitely does not guarentee happiness-what is important is quality of life. If the job pays you enough so that you are able to do what you want & gives you enough free time & lack of stress to enjoy your free time then that is a good job whether is pays you $40k or $400k.

  19. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    Good post. My mom always says that you can choose happiness. And while I don’t think she meant happiness in its turest form, I do think she meant attitude. I think a lot of people in their 20s suffer more from bad attitudes and don’t think about how they can take action to make themselves happier.

  20. Don
    Don says:

    Good post, however, I think your test for determining whether a person has a good job is far too simplified. I can think of at least two very important aspects your test does not address:
    1) Does the job place you in a “high demand – low control” situation for a majority of time? This is a stress inducing combination where demands placed on an individual are high, and the person has very little control over how the job is performed. 2) Do you work for a person who is not a good leader; most typically a boss who over manages and under leads?

  21. Joe
    Joe says:

    But of course, your relationships are influenced – if not determined – by your job and how much money you make, so it really kind of *is* your job.

  22. John Feier
    John Feier says:

    Penelope,

    That worldview is certainly in tune with the current economic trends. As I was trying to tell Sidney, there is NOTHING that you can do that cannot be done for cheaper by someone else on the planet. We are all about to go through some rough economic times as we see the standard of living that we are so used to dissolve right before our very eyes.

    I would recommend that everyone max their cards out and get as many loans as you can while there is still time. When the wages decrease to such a point that we simply cannot pay it off, the government and the system itself will eventually have to absorb it all. This was why Bush tightened bankruptcy laws. But at some point, he’s gonna have to realize that we can’t simply pay debt that was incurred at a higher level of income with a lower level of income.

    So, go ahead and do all the legal looting you can. They encouraged us to use credit in order to make up the difference between the world we had and the world they said we’d be so much better in. So let’s put it all back on them.

  23. Music Site
    Music Site says:

    I totally agree with Liza, yes money can bring time but it is not necessary bring happiness, I think we need open and nice heart more than anything but let us be honest: I think without money we wouldn’t be able to do anything, I think money is a gift and at the same time is a curse.

    Thank you for sharing this,
    Regards.

  24. Tony Tallent
    Tony Tallent says:

    Reading this post, I am reminded of the chapter in your book, Brazen Careerist, about the idea that happiness does have a salary-range–$40,000. All the rest is topping. I think there is really something to this. I’ve seen my friends over the years after they have capped over the 40K mark and then far beyond. No obvious happiness taking place with more zeroes added to their paychecks.
    After you have all the basic needs met work is about somehow aligning with principles you hold and it helps to have a boss–or ultimate “leader” (whatever that is) who isn’t schmarmy.
    Tony Tallent

  25. Lucia
    Lucia says:

    I don’t know, Trunkie, after I cracked $100,000 I certainly was a *lot* happier. When I cracked $150,000, I was ecstatic. As Mick Jagger said, Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you the yacht to pull up next to it.

  26. Sidney
    Sidney says:

    John,

    Hmm, go into debt to wreck the system? I guess getting a good job to do your part to help make the system better just doesn’t quite have the same romance to it. And there was a great column today by N. Kristol in the NY Times that highlighted several social entrepreneurs doing their part to make the world a better place. If the system is so wrecked, why aren’t you one of those people trying to make a difference?

    As for the money question, it is all relative. It depends on the life you want to live and where you want to live it. I’m in S. Cal, to afford a house and indulge interests like traveling, food and wine, actually paying the artist for music I download, Laker games and and everything else that makes life more enjoyable; it certainly costs more than $40K a year. And I would certainly be less happy without all those extras or without having the extra money to donate to the causes I believe in. In Orange County, $40K qualifies you for affordable housing; in Santa Barbara, a six figure salary does.

  27. Shawn
    Shawn says:

    There’s nothing worse than working with someone who is mad about everything (and I mean everything)…the boss, the paint color they used on the walls, the free pizza someone bought for the staff because it didn’t have pepperoni. Although I don’t know that they’d need a test to figure out they’re chronically unhappy because they probably already know and the thought of a test would…you guessed it…make them even more unhappy. Maybe they would most benefit from a vaccine.

  28. Banu
    Banu says:

    “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” said Rumi. In order to be happy, I believe we have to connect to our souls. As you mentioned, a lot of people do not know who they really are. They live a life they THINK they should live (because someone said so, because they need to feel special, etc). There are many roads to help you hear that voice. Mine is Kundalini Yoga & writing. I hope everyone to find the courage to go deep and meet their true calling. Keep up the good work! :)

  29. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I absolutely agree with this post.

    I have always been an advocate of live your life, not your work. Too often people trap themselves in their career. They tragically lose themselves in it, losing their true identity, family, sense of being realistic… their happiness. I always say that you cant take care of someone else if you cant take care of yourself. If you work to live and/or become so miserable with your work that it impedes on your personal life…where do you find yourself? Constantly unhappy and always stressing yourself and the people around you out. It is a lot of wear and tear on your mind and your body and its unfair to everyone else (whoever they may be). And who wants to be a Debbie Downer because they’re unhappy with what they do? I maintain that your work should not become your personal life (unless if that what really makes you happy). Its difficult but people need to at least find a middle ground between life and work… where happiness is incorporated in their lives. My test for happiness: When someone asks me how I am doing, I can say good and truly mean it.

  30. lizzette nowell
    lizzette nowell says:

    i have always been a realist.i sincerly believe in the art of loving yourself sincerly.i dont believe in marraige becuase if you just take a second and think about what it really is you may reconsider,although i believe in god,i dont believe in marraige a piece of paper.and little do people know,a person tends to change some what after that paper.if i truly love myself to love some one else then i love myself to know that something written is not needed to prove my love…perhaps i need a written contract to prove my existence..come on the same relates to loving someone else..i wouldnt want to become a yes person..do you!!

  31. mark
    mark says:

    My test for happiness – If i have been google searching “how to be happy” and if i am reading this post and all the comments, chances are i have not been feeling so happy lately.
    :)

    Some random thoughts;

    I have been very happy most of my life and consider myself lucky. Lately, some tough times and too many choices have made me discontent.
    For me – I think the idea of a gratitude journal could get me back to the “glass half full” attitude that would work well for me. I suspect this is one of the great benefits of religious traditions of daily gratitude.

    Another factor i think worth bearing in mind is the age of people you are interviewing.
    If you survey 30 year olds, you will probably find they are working too hard and kids are making them more stressed than their single friends who are also 30. But interview 60 year olds, and the single ones may regret never having kids. The 60 year old early workaholics with grown up families may be of on a trip with their gray haired partner – and glad they slaved all those years to get there.
    So without wanting to sound contrary to the drive of this post – Short term unhappiness, for some, might still lead to greater life satisfaction overall – all be it offset in time.

    Thanks for the great post.

  32. Marsha G
    Marsha G says:

    You’re absolutely right. I made a good amount of money at a national corp and found myself promoted to a “no win” burnout job.

    Now that I’m not working, my friends say I am much more relaxed and and look years younger. Working 16 hour days and feeling as though I wasn’t getting anything accomplished was bruising my spirit.

    Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE money. But the trade-off wasn’t worth the dollars.

  33. stephen
    stephen says:

    Over the last ten years, i have experienced the death of a sibling, a forced career change and numerous failed relationships. Financial problems and losing best friends to drugs and alcohol. I think i have been mad and sad for so long, i may have forgotten how to be happy. Also, the constant betrayal of lifelong frinds has added to my unhappiness. Where did it go, and how, will i ever get it back….I honestly try, and want so bad to be that happy person i used to be..any thoughts?

  34. NCK
    NCK says:

    Theres a problem here. There are people, like me, who ARE sanely happy. I just don’t show it. I don’t walk around with a smile on my face. I don’t rush over to meet everyone. I don’t want to be the center of attention.

    I admit, I don’t LIKE people very much, I think most of them are fair weather at best…..but I AM NOT UNHAPPY ABOUT IT.

    But its killing my marriage. ANd I don’t know what to do. Are there any classes to SHOW you how to APPEAR HAPPY??

    I know SEVERAL people who are Joe Smiley and are great at the little things, but disappear when things get tough….I guess thats what is more important to my wife……..Its tough.

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