Decades ago, researchers discovered that individuals appear to have a ‘set point’ of happiness. For example, if someone scores 6 out of 10 for happiness, that score may slightly increase or decrease according to life’s ups and downs, but they’re likely to keep returning to a 6 over their lifetime. A year after a big lottery win, people were found to be exactly as happy as they were before. This happens because we quickly get used to new circumstances and return to our set point once the initial excitement wears off.
At first, scientists assumed the set point was genetic, but it now appears that it’s a combination of epigenetics and habits, meaning that a low set point is not a life sentence. Epigenetics refers to ways of behaving that have been passed on to us through our genes, but which are reversible. If our parents or grandparents suffered trauma in wartime, say, we may inherit their fear of loud noises, or a tendency to mistrust. These epigenetic traits can continue to affect us until we take steps to address them. Once we liberate ourselves, those genetic factors are ‘switched off’ and not passed on to our offspring.
Changing longstanding thought patterns and personality traits doesn’t happen by itself. It takes concerted effort, prompted by the surprising revelation that it’s largely our own behaviour, rather than our lack of good fortune, that keeps us miserable.
So is happiness a choice? The short answer is that nobody chooses to be unhappy, but we can choose to be happier once we understand how. Instead of yearning for a better job, partner or income, we can steer ourselves towards more contentment, gratitude and enjoyment, regardless of our circumstances.