What really makes us happy? It’s a question worth asking, but is there an actual scientific answer and not just a philosophical answer?
Well sociologists have tried and this is a run down on what we know so far…

Our happiness seems to come from three distinct areas: our “set point”, our “circumstances” and our “intentional activities”


Unfortunately 50% of our happiness is determined by our set point. This is thought to be fixed, unchangeable with time and based on deep rooted neurobiology. It could be argued that it is genetically determined but really no one is sure.

Only 10% is determined by our circumstances. This is the real surprise as it is the thing we spend most of our lives trying to change. We want a better job, better finances, a bigger house, a better car… the list goes on but the essential truth is that circumstances is what we all focus on. I build on this in the “I’ll be happy when” is the reason we are all unhappy post. Circumstances such as being rich or poor, having a good job or not, do make a difference however the difference is small and is nothing like as important as we all think.

The intentional activities are where the real gains can be made. At 40% of contribution to overall happiness this dwarfs circumstances. Intentional actions are things we have to decide to do, they are the way we act on our circumstances. Circumstances just happen to us.

They include our behavoiurs, cognitive activities and volitional activities:

  • Behaviours:
    Going to the gym
    An act of kindness
  • Cognitive activities:
    Positive reframing
  • Volitional activities:
    Goal setting
    Achieving the goals

These activities have to involve thought, they cannot just be routine otherwise the benefits stop.

The science suggests we should put more of our efforts into our intentional activities and realise that we could get far more out of it than the continual chase to improve our circumstances.

Don’t be an Eeyore!
Act like Tigger!

Steve Young

See also:
Positivity and Happiness Talk


  1. pursuing-happiness-the-architecture-of-sustainable-change-review-of-general-psychology-2005-lyubomirsky
  2. lottery-winners-and-accident-victims-is-happiness-relativej-pers-soc-psychol-1978-brickman