Originally created 02/18/99

Studies show no link between circumstances, happiness



LOS ANGELES -- Chicago had 22 inches of snow during a single day last month. In Minot, N.D., it was 29 degrees below zero. In Alaska, it's so cold that the dog sleds are sitting idle.

From Alaska to Maine, people north of the 40th parallel are cursing the wicked winter of 1999.

But before getting too smug, those who live in warm weather should heed this little piece of advice: The climate you live in has very little to do with how happy you are.

That's the latest lesson to emerge from a body of psychological research on what makes people happy. In a recent article titled "Does Living in California Make People Happy?" psychologists found that the answer is a resounding no.

We've known, of course, for a long time that money can't buy you happiness, but researchers now are starting to understand why.

"Our research suggests a moral and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think," says David A. Schkade, a researcher at the University of Texas and co-author of the study.

Schkade and colleague Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University asked college students in the Midwest and in Southern California questions about their happiness. When rating themselves, the students in both regions were similar in their levels of happiness. But when rating whether people like themselves would be happier living in California or the Midwest, both groups said that Californians would surely be happier.

The fact that the study, published in the September issue of Psychological Science, found that people in the Midwest expected Californians to be happier (largely, because of the weather) shows a common flaw in thinking. Various studies on happiness have found that things like weather, money, marital status, age and beauty do not significantly influence the happiness of most people -- although we overwhelmingly think they do.

"We've gotten a lot of reaction to this article from people saying, `I don't believe you that people in California aren't happier,' " Schkade said. "People are not good judges of the effect of changing circumstances on their own life satisfaction or that of others."

The danger of misunderstanding the true origins of happiness, he says, is that "people might actually move to California in the mistaken belief that this would make them happier."

Or they might do other things -- change jobs, divorce, buy a Ferrari -- thinking such action is the ticket to happiness.

It won't be, agrees psychologist David Lykken, author of a new book called "Happiness."

"The route to happiness is not winning the gold. You feel grand for a while, but it doesn't last," he said.

The idea that happiness is not greatly affected by major life circumstances is a somewhat startling notion to some that has emerged only recently.

While the first major study in this area dates back more than 20 years, "it's really only been in the last decade that this whole area of work has begun to take off and gain wider interest," Schkade said.

That study, in 1978, found that people who became paraplegics did not become significantly unhappy because of losing their ability to walk. The same study also found that lottery winners, over time, were not greatly happier because of their new wealth.

"This article is famous because its results are deeply counterintuitive," Schkade said. "An observer would expect paraplegics to be more miserable and lottery winners to be happier than they are in actuality."

Other studies confirmed that changing circumstances don't seem to shake people from their tendencies to be either happy or unhappy. For example, studies show that most people return to their normal levels of happiness within a year after the death of a loved one and that no particular time of life is happier than another. Physically attractive people aren't happier, and people with disabilities aren't sadder, research has found.

Perhaps the strongest evidence that happiness isn't found or earned was published in 1996 in a study from the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. According to Lykken and co-author Auke Tellegen of the University of Minnesota, as much as 50 percent of a person's tendency to be happy is inherited; that is, people are born upbeat or melancholy.

The Minneapolis study looked at 254 sets of identical and fraternal twins who were separated at birth and reared apart. The happiness levels of the identical twins were strongly correlated. The researchers then studied a smaller number of the sets of twins and looked at their happiness scores -- both the identical and fraternal twins -- on two happiness surveys given 10 years apart.

"Among the identical twins, we found we could predict Twin B's score on the second exam from Twin A's score 10 years earlier," Lykken said. "But among fraternal twins, who share only half their genes, there was almost no predictability."

Based on this research, Lykken has proposed what he calls a "set point" theory of happiness.

"This means that six months or a year after winning the lottery, people are back to their original levels of happiness -- their set point," he said.

While there appears to be strong evidence that happiness is at least partially hereditary, Lykken still believes that people can change their sense of well-being.

"If things are genetic, then there is a certain fatalism around," Lykken said. "But what our studies mean is that you can let the genetic steersman have his head or try to change it."

For example, research has now turned toward the characteristics that depressed people tend to possess -- such as persistently negative or self-deprecating thoughts -- with the goal of trying to alter those characteristics.

But a possible flaw in the happiness-is-hereditary theory is that the current studies don't represent a wide range of environments in which people were raised. More studies are needed across cultures to see whether certain environments boost or erode happiness, says University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener, one of the leaders in describing the origins of happiness.

"The heritability figure is not a set figure but varies according to where the studies are done," he said.

Still, most people can probably accept that at least some part of personal happiness is inherited. But, Schkade said, few people buy the idea that major life events won't alter one's happiness quotient.

Take Janet McIntyre. An educated professional who is familiar with the research on happiness, she moved to Los Angeles from Chicago in December and says the change in climate has made her feel great.

"I've seen the studies that suggest people have a happiness set point," McIntyre said. "But the sunshine just makes me happier. January and February in Chicago are cold and very dark. And to wake up and have the sunshine streaming in your windows makes the day seem like it has more possibilities."