Do You Believe You Can Be Happier? The Importance of a Happiness Growth Mindset

Updated: Feb 11, 2020

Do you believe you can be happier? It turns out your answer to that question – that is, whether you believe your levels of happiness can change - may play a key role in how happy you actually are.

In a series of studies published in the Journal of Positive Psychology researchers investigated whether mindsets about happiness – namely, whether you believe happiness to be malleable or fixed – is related to levels of happiness and satisfaction with life.

Happiness Growth Mindset: A belief that happiness is malleable and can change.

The researchers found that people who had a “happiness growth mindset”that is, they believed that happiness can be improvedhad higher levels of wellbeing than people who believed that happiness was fixed and stable. In addition, not only were people with a happiness growth mindset happier and more satisfied with their life in general, they were also more satisfied with their relationships, work, and health.

But, Can You Actually Increase Your Levels of Happiness?

The good news is, research supports the notion that you can change your enduring levels of happiness (your long-term happiness, that is, not just that momentary happiness you get from that first bite of chocolate).

According to the “Sustainable happiness model”, happiness is defined as high levels of positive emotions, high life satisfaction, and low levels of negative emotions and is the result of:

1. Genetic predisposition;

2. Life circumstances; and

3. One’s intentional activities.

Research supports the notion that there is an inherited aspect of overall happiness. In fact, a meta-analysis of studies found:

40% of our happiness is attributable to our genes

The genetic influence on happiness means we each have our own “happiness set point”, which is determined by our temperament and personality and rooted in neurobiology.

Happiness Set Point: A genetically determined personal set range for our level of positive and negative emotions that we gravitate towards in both good and bad times.

Many people believe the secret to happiness is to experience as many positive events as possible. However, according to the hedonic treadmill theory, people tend to adapt rapidly to new positive events or experiences and people’s emotions tend to revert back to their happiness set point as the novelty of a positive experience subsides.

Take the classic study of 22 lottery winners. Despite any initial increases in happiness, after a few months the lottery winners were no happier than controls (who had experienced no such winnings) and also took significantly less pleasure from ordinary events and activities (such as buying new clothes). The hedonic treadmill means the more material possessions we accumulate, the more our expectations rise and become harder to fulfil. This makes it less likely the things we buy will make us "happy".

The benefit of the hedonic treadmill is that the reverse is also true - after adversity we will overcome our suffering and hardship eventually. Depression is almost always episodic, with recovery occurring within a few months of onset. An early study of individuals who experienced spinal cord injuries found that these individuals adapted to their greatly limited capacities: within 8 weeks they reported more positive than negative emotions, and within a year they reported being only slightly less happy than individuals who were not paralysed. Although more recent research suggests that people adapt better to some negative events compared to others, overall, we show a remarkable ability to adapt even to profoundly adverse life events.

Your circumstances only account for an estimated 10% of your happiness

“The basic root of happiness lies in our minds; outer circumstances are nothing more than adverse or favourable."
– Matthieu Ricard

Empirical evidence does show that married people, people who earn more money, religiously committed people, and healthier people rate themselves as happier than their relative counterparts. However, research also shows that all of your circumstances combined – where you live, how much money you earn, your age, marital status, health, education, race, religion, and gender – only governs a small part of your overall happiness.

What’s more, according to the hedonic treadmill, while the idea of a bigger house, a new partner, or shedding a few kilograms (or years off your D.O.B.) might seem like it will make you happier, in a few weeks or months, your happiness will inevitably drift back to your happiness set point.

In terms of increasing your happiness, the most important thing to remember is:

50% of your happiness is in your control

Approximately 50% of your happiness does not depend on your genes or how much money you make or your relationship status or what you do for work. Rather, it depends on your mindset – how you view your past, present, and future – and the choices you make in your life.

So What Can You Do to Increase Your Happiness?

1. Develop a Happiness Growth Mindset

A happiness growth mindset sounds a bit like a pop-psychology idea – if you just believe you can be happier, you magically will be!

Unfortunately, you will not.

Simply believing you can be happier will not make you happier.

So why is having a happiness growth mindset important? A happiness growth mindset is important because improving your mental health in any meaningful way requires action. It requires effort. It requires intentionally engaging in activities that are scientifically shown to improve mental health. However, if you do not believe that you can be happier, why would you put in any effort towards being happier?

2. Intentionally Engage in Activities that Enhance Wellbeing

Research indicates that you can increase your enduring levels of happiness by intentionally engaging in three types of activities:

  • Behavioural activities – such as exercising regularly, spending more time socialising, and being kind to others;

  • Cognitive activities – such as reframing situations in a more positive light, being in the present moment, and counting your blessings;

  • Volitional activities – such as pursuing important personal goals, and devoting your time and effort to causes that are meaningful to you.

The purpose of EBW is to talk about these evidence-based activities that can improve our mental health.

To try an exercise that has been found to produce long-lasting happiness - click here!

A note if you are feeling depressed:

Undertaking any new activity takes effort and can seem impossible at times. The benefit of seeing a Psychologist when you are trying to improve your wellbeing is that they can use their clinical expertise to assess your specific situation. They can then advise you of the activities that will most benefit you, and guide and support you through the process of initiating, carrying out, and maintaining these activities. Please be kind to yourself when you are trying something new. To find a psychologist in Australia, click here.

“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”
– Dalai Lama


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