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Positive Psychology

By Isaac Thiele-Swift

You probably want to be happy. Well, good news! There's a science for that called "positive psychology". Positive psychology as we know it today was founded in the 1990s by American psychologist Martin Seligman. The bad news is that a lot of your happiness is outside of your direct control. The biggest factor is genetics, which accounts for 50-80% of the variation in happiness between individuals (1). The environment in which you grew up matters too; only 10-25% of abused children grow up to be healthy, happy adults (2). Some shifts can be achieved through therapy, meditation and medication, but this all requires sustained effort, a decidedly challenging idea. Beyond this, most changes in life circumstances are subject to the adaptation principle: people feel a spike in happiness after the change, before returning to their original level of happiness (3). This has led some psychologists to talk of a "hedonic treadmill", where people can take steps towards being happier while staying in the same place, which is even more depressing than running on an actual treadmill. However, there are some life changes which are not subject to the hedonic treadmill. Amongst these are a sense of autonomy, control, safety and purpose; a sense that one is better than others; and strong interpersonal relationships.

People like to feel in control of their lives, safe and secure and as though their lives have purpose (4). One prominent area where this is true is money. Money can't exactly buy happiness, but a lack of it can make people feel like their finances are out of control. This is probably why happiness increases strongly up to a gross household income of A$100,000, and increases much more slowly over that amount (5). People can actually be as happy with less, if they feel in control of their finances (6). Similarly, the citizens of First-World countries are, on average, happier than those of Third-World countries, and average happiness increases with gross domestic product (7). People also like to feel like they have autonomy and purpose in their work and an opportunity to demonstrate competence with clear, valuable achievements (8). Interestingly, the four occupations with the happiest workers are engineers, teachers, nurses and doctors; workers in each field earn an above-average salary, enjoy more autonomy than most workers and experience clear, measurable achievements (9). Sadly, this does not describe most jobs (10). Overall, humans' desire for autonomy and security can lead to happiness if people feel in control of their finances and can find rewarding work or some alternative thereto.

In a much more disturbing, but somehow unsurprising, turn, people are usually happier when they feel that they are better than those around them. People generally enjoy interacting with other people, but they especially enjoys interactions in which they are able to somehow express dominance over their interlocutor (11). I also wonder if this might explain why lottery winners become happier, although their winnings are usually well above the point at which income has little effect on happiness (the 1978 study suggesting that the happiness levels of lottery winners adapt to their winnings has been debunked)(12). Curiously enough, this also seems to work in reverse, with their neighbours becoming less happy due to status anxiety. They even become more likely to bankrupt themselves in a hopeless attempt to compete in displays of wealth (13). If you take one thing away from this blog post, don't do that. There is also evidence that people are happier with an income which is higher than those around them over one which is higher in absolute terms but lower than their contemporaries (14). This is, however, now being disputed (15). An even more disturbing, and undisputed, tendency is for people to enjoy the fall of high-status celebrities, or adopt abhorrent views in order to preserve their social standing (16). The best that can be said for this is that it guarantees employment for those who work for gossip magazines. This tendency to compare oneself to other with a desire to be better than they are, or at the very least not be worse, certainly reflects a dark aspect of human happiness. Turns out the realities of happiness aren't always all that happy.

Returning to a brighter note, the single most important lifestyle factor in a person's happiness is the quality of their relationships (17). In fact, social connectedness is also possibly the best predictor of longevity, and might partially explain why women usually live longer than men (18). The human need for meaningful relationships is also part of the reason married people are, on average, happier than unmarried people (19). Of course, this does not mean one should marry just to be happy. People in bad marriages are less happy than single people (20). Mr and Mrs Trump (whoever she happens to be by the time you're reading this) are living evidence of that. Interestingly, social media and text-based communication do not provide the same benefits for happiness and health as face-to-face interaction, and people have reported greater loneliness as social media have increased in popularity (21). While this might all sound very sweet, it's not entirely good news. As stated above, people can be, and have been, persuaded to do terrible things in order to retain the approval of others. A need for others can be a limit on independent thinking. That notwithstanding, there certainly is something beautiful about the strongest determiner of one's happiness being their relationship with their fellow humans.

So what's the point of all this? Firstly, I'm not trying to tell anyone how to live their life; I'm not qualified to do that, and if I were, it would be unethical to do so through a blog post. However, that's not to say that positive psychology is not of great importance in determining what we value. Quite a number of our cultural values are not particularly conducive to happiness. We chase promotions at work, something which is subject to the hedonic treadmill, and sacrifice time with loved ones, something which is not. We move away from our social support network in order to pursue a career which will probably make us less happy than we think. We teach children to chose an occupation which will bring them happiness, even though this isn't all that realistic for most people. Some people accumulate huge amounts of wealth beyond what can make them happy, rather than giving that wealth to those whose poor financial situation brings them unhappiness. In fact, positive psychology validates aspects of both progressive politics, which extol the importance of equality, and conservative politics, which extol the importance of family and community. A major theme in psychological research for at least the past three decades has been that human intuition is painfully unreliable. That might be something to bear mind when deciding what will make us happy.


1. Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (New York City, New York: Basic Books, 2006), 33.

2. Hannah Critchlow, The Science of Fate (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2019), 181; This may be in part due to less happy parents being likelier to abuse their children, and those unhappy parents then passing their genes for unhappiness on to those children. However a causal link has been established between childhood abuse and unhappiness and mental illness later in life.

3. Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, 84-86.

4. Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, 92-3; Dean Burnett, The Happy Brain (London: Guardian Faber, 2018), 88.

5. Robert Cummins, What Makes Us Happy? (Geelong, Victoria: Deakin University, 2014), 14-15.

6. Cummins, What Makes Us Happy?, 14-15.

7. Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now (New York City, New York: Penguin Books, 2018), 269.

8. Burnett, The Happy Brain, 80-3.

9. Burnett, The Happy Brain, 102; Donna Ferguson, "The world's happiest jobs," The Guardian, 8 April 2015,

10. Burnett, The Happy Brain, 91.

11. Burnett, The Happy Brain, 240-1.

12. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies (New York City, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017), 229.

13. Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies, 229.

14. Phil Thornton, brilliant Economics (Dorchester: Pearson, 2013), 198.

15. Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 270.

16. Burnett, The Happy Brain, 242-244.

17. Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, 94.

18. Susan Pinker, "Susan Pinker: why face-to-face contact matters in our digital age," The Guardian, 21 March 2015,

19. Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, 88.

20. Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, 253.


Burnett, Dean. The Happy Brain. London: Guardian Faber, 2018.

Critchlow, Hannah. The Science of Fate. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2019.

Cummins, Robert. What Makes Us Happy?. Geelong, Victoria: Deakin University, 2014. Accessed 10 May 2020.

Ferguson, Donna. "The world's happiest jobs." The Guardian, 8 April 2015.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis. New York City, New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now. New York City, New York: Penguin Books, 2018.

Pinker, Susan. "Susan Pinker: why face-to-face contact matters in our digital age." The Guardian, 21 March 2015.

Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth. Everybody Lies. New York City, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.

Thornton, Phil. brilliant Economics. Dorchester: Pearson, 2013.

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