Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

The Not So Secret Secret to Happiness

Some of us walk around–or, in all probably, sit or sulk around–wondering why we’re not as happy as we’d like to be. We might think we’re lacking some thing–a car, micro-apartment, six-pack abs, whatever. We believe that if we had that thing, we’d be happy. Perhaps we think that happiness, or lack thereof, is a genetic condition; one we were born into and, in all probability, will die with. Or perhaps we believe that happiness is a mysterious formula–one no one has revealed to us.

If you fall into one or all of these three categories, University of California, Riverside Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness,” might shed light on the veracity of your conceptions.


Lyubomirsky supports the idea that stuff makes us happy or unhappy, but probably not to the degree we think it does. We need the basics: adequate food, shelter, physical security–essentially the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But the extent that circumstances affect our happiness is only 10% of our overall happiness quotient. This is perhaps why many poor countries have populations that claim to be happier than rich ones.


Many of us spend a good deal of time adjusting circumstances: working to make more money so we can put more food in the fridge or afford a bigger home to put that fridge in…or whatever our circumstantial definition of success may be. This is not necessarily the best use of time.

After a certain (modest) point, it’s all the same. Princeton economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman found that after a certain level of income ($75K/year for an American family)–the amount needed to get the basics and stash away a little for a rainy day–everyone has the same shot at being happy. The woman making $76K/year has the same opportunity to be happy as the one making $76M.


The next and biggest slice of the happiness pie, according to Lyubomirsky, is what she calls our “set-point.” This actually supports the idea that happiness is a function of genetics. The set-point is our baseline level of happiness, i.e. how happy we are at idle, which, for some ain’t so happy, and for others, is ebullient, and for many is somewhere in between. Your set-point constitutes a whopping 50% of your happiness–not the best news for the depressive among us.


But, and this is a big but, the rest of the happiness pie (40%) is filled with “voluntary action,” which are the things we do and the way we live. Because this is such a big factor in our overall happiness, even if you have miserable circumstances and a low set-point, you can significantly affect your overall level of happiness through action.

And what are these happiness-delivering voluntary actions? This is where the notion that happiness is some sort of Skull and Crossbones secret loses its potency. The things that make us happy are, for the most part, ridiculously self-evident, not the lack of knowledge of what those things are.

We ran across a post on the site Greatist called “25 Science-Backed Ways to Feel Happier,” which, as the title suggests, are a bunch of voluntary actions that are clinically proven to make people feel happy. Here are some examples:

Nowhere on the list does it suggest consuming a smoothie of dried iguana liver and rainbow chard. There are no required expeditions to Shangri-La. No Lamborghinis or Porsches. The only item of the 25 that isn’t patently obvious is the inclusion of the color yellow in your life. The secret to happiness, so the post suggests, might be that there is no secret.

We are not trying to be pat here. We don’t undermine the deleterious effects of things like poverty, violence, mental disorders and other tough circumstances. These things can be legitimate and tough-to-combat downers.

But let’s face it, most of us enjoy reasonably abundant circumstance and reasonable mental clarity, and yet we pretend to not know what will make us happier. Our real issue is the failure or unwillingness to do the things we know will make us happier.

Today, spend a little time considering the things you know work in elevating your mood. Most importantly, do one or more of those things, even if, or especially if, it’s inconvenient to do so.

Top Secret Yellow Envelope image via Shutterstock