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When down in the dumps, plenty of us have thought that all we need to turn things around would be to win the lottery or get that big break. Surely a change in luck would bring us the long-lasting contentment we’ve been looking for. Maybe it would cheer us up for a while -- say, even for a year or two -- but major life events like getting married, starting a new job or scoring a financial windfall are not the ticket to happiness we think they are. At least, that’s according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. So I’m destined to be this miserable forever, you’re thinking. Not quite. The study also found that happiness is not set in stone either. These findings fly in the face of past research that suggests our genes and early upbringing will determine the range of contentment we can experience in life.
So if it’s not our genes or how we’ve been raised or major life events that decide how blissed out we are, what is the secret to lifelong happiness? According to this group of researchers, the priorities we set in life determine long-term happiness. Specifically, the study, which followed 60,000 Germans for 25 years, found that people who focused on relationships with friends and family instead of material goods, money or the corner office, maintained the highest levels of happiness, regardless of what positive or negative life events befell them.
They also found that life goals and choices had just as much impact -- if not more -- on life satisfaction as certain personality traits, like being extroverted. Previous research has shown that introverted people are less likely to be happy in life. However, this study gives hope to the introverted, suggesting that a person’s commitment to family, helping others, participation in social activities, going to church, having an emotionally stable spouse, and regular exercise are all equally or more important than being extroverted.
People who felt they had a good work-life balance also tended to be happier than those who traded one for the other. While being overworked negatively affected people’s happiness, people who felt underworked also expressed less overall life satisfaction.
The quality of one’s marriage was another key factor to happiness. People with emotionally unstable or neurotic spouses reported being unhappy. In general, those who placed high importance on having a good marriage or a good relationship with their children scored high in life satisfaction. But women with husbands who did not share the same family-oriented goals reported less life satisfaction than single women.
While this study yields interesting findings on what brings us happiness in life, the researchers point out that, because it’s a survey, it cannot resolutely determine cause and effect. It could just be that the people who reported being happier share similar life goals. Choosing to focus on family and friends, if it’s not in your nature, won’t necessarily bring you more satisfaction in life. More research is needed to find out if that is in fact the case. The important lesson here, according to researchers, is that happiness comes from living a life that allows you to focus on what’s important to you. If you are not living in accordance with your goals and values, you’re less likely to be satisfied.
What are your values -- and how well does your life reflect them? Chime in below!