Were You Born This (Un)Happy, or Did You Marry Into It?

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Tom Stoddart Archive/Contributor

In the burgeoning field of happiness research, most scholars have favored the idea that a person’s level of happiness has a set point, like the float ball in a toilet tank. Sometimes everything  goes down the drain, but sure enough, water eventually rises back to the same level — as will any one person’s happiness. But a new study out of Australia suggests that’s not true. Who we marry, how we prioritize our goals and how much work we do can permanently change our happiness levels.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were arrived at by an analysis of a 25-year longitudinal study of 60,000 Germans (who, contrary to the stereotype, seem to have about average happiness). It found that most people reported large changes in life satisfaction over that period of time. Almost 40% of people said that their level of happiness had changed by about 25%, and 12% of respondents said their life satisfaction had moved up or down by 50%. And these contentment shifts were permanent.

What brought them about? A lot of it depended on the choices the participants made and the way they lived. The study found, for example, that marrying a person who was neurotic was a huge downer. “Individuals with relatively neurotic partners are significantly less happy than those with more emotionally stable partners,” says the study, whose lead author is Bruce Headey of Melbourne University. To be sure, having a neurotic spouse was less of a drag on happiness than being neurotic yourself, but it was still significant. Even worse, it wasn’t something people got accustomed to; those with unstable spouses remained less happy than those with well-adjusted ones. (More on SPECIAL Health and Happiness).

Always thought you’d be happier if you worked less? Not according to this study, which found the underemployed much less content than the overemployed. In fact, not having enough work was almost as much of a downer as being single. “For both men and women, doing fewer paid hours of work than they want apparently has close to the same impact on life satisfaction as not being married/partnered,” the study notes. Not surprisingly, being unemployed had the worst impact, particularly for men. (Long-term unemployment is already a known driver of permanently lowered happiness.)

On the other hand, people whose careers were most important to them were less happy than those whose families were more important, and those whose major life goals were altruistic in nature were the happiest of all. “It appears that prioritizing success and material goals is actually harmful to life-satisfaction,” notes the study. In tandem with that, those with strong religious faith were happier than those without. (More on Do We Need $75,000 a Year to Be Happy?).

Then there’s weight. Germans who exercised regularly were happier than those who didn’t, but men who were underweight are less gleeful than men who were merely overweight or even obese. There could be cultural differences in body image between Germans and Americans, but some of the same patterns emerge. Women who were obese were relatively unhappy, but merely overweight women were not.For women, being obese actually reduces life satisfaction more than not having a partner,” the study says.

Of course there is a bit of a chicken/egg conundrum here. Is it the exercise that’s making people happy or the other way around? “Some unhappy or depressed people may find it difficult to engage in social activities or regular exercise, and some neurotic individuals may perhaps have to settle for neurotic partners,” notes the study. In other words, you were unhappy before these life choices, not because of them.

Why study happiness at all? Economists and people who make public policy are using it now as a measure of how successful a society is. Since material wealth seems to have limited ability to increase and maintain people’s happiness, they’re trying to ascertain what kind of goals should society be aiming for. If every person’s satisfaction level is pre-determined by their genes and early childhood, should they even bother? This study suggests they probably should.

That is, if it makes them happy.

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