The broadly acknowledged "set-point" hypothesis of happiness states that a person's long-term happiness tends to be steady because it is reliant mainly on genetic causes. The idea is based partly on studies that show identical twins have more similar levels of life contentment than non identical twins. This implies that although your level of happiness may sporadically be thrown off by major life events, it will always return to a main set level within 2 years.
Bruce Headey at the University of Melbourne in Australia wanted to discover if people really are pre destined for a certain amount of happiness and his team queried people in Germany about their lifestyles, careers and social and religious activities. The survey was first completed by 3000 people a year, and that rose to 60,000 per year by the end of the 25-year study.
They found that evident changes in lifestyle resulted in sizeable long-term changes in reported life fulfilment, as opposed to causing the momentary changes in happiness that set-point theory had suggested.
One of the greatest influences on a person's happiness was their partner's amount of neuroticism. Those that had partners who scored greatly on tests for neuroticism were more prone to be unhappy – and shown to stay unhappy for as long as the relationship existed.
Family values and altruism also predisposed lasting happiness. Those whose yearly survey responses altered to place a higher priority on altruistic habits and family goals were rewarded with a long-term increase in life fulfilment. Those who had a priority of career and material success, experienced a corresponding long-term decline in happiness.
The pursuit of happiness was also helped in having strong religious or spiritual convictions. "People who attend church regularly seem to be happier than people who are not religious," says Headey.
A person's body weight was another factor for long-term happiness, notably for women. Underweight men scored slightly lower than those with healthy weights, while women stated being considerably less happy when they were obese. Being overweight seemed to have no effect on men's happiness.
Robert Cummins at Deakin University in Burwood, Australia, notes that changes in happiness reported by Headey's team could be influenced by individuals falling into or recovering from depression.
The group advises its findings may be useful to other populations, having found comparable patterns, as yet unpublished, in the UK and Australia.
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