The Circumstances of Happiness

by Stephen Mills on September 21, 2009

Gold Bars

Or not!  Science has pretty much established that your circumstances are not very relevant to your happiness.  The impact is not zero, but decades of research have shown that only about 10% of your happiness level is determined by external circumstances.

The reason is something called hedonic adaptation.  In short, that simply means when our circumstances change, for good or bad, we fairly quickly adjust to those new circumstances.  Any bump in happiness is temporary.  Once you get that bigger house, that fancier car, more free time, or whatever, you will soon be needing a new fix.  An even bigger house, and even more luxurious car, something to do with your time, etc.  My home and cars are certainly bigger and more luxurious than they used to be and it didn’t take me long to get used to them.  They are now my baseline.  That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we also adjust when bad things happen.  One study showed dialysis patients are just as happy as healthy people.  That one just blows my mind.  I have to believe that there is some level of deprivation or abuse that would contribute to unhappiness, but evidently within an extremely broad range of what we would refer to as normal, it doesn’t matter very much.

“One of the great ironies of our quest to become happier is that so many of us focus on changing the circumstances of our lives in the misguided hope that those changes will deliver happiness.  In an attempt to allay unhappiness, a recent college graduate may choose a high-paying job in a distant city, a middle-aged divorcee may undergo beautifying cosmetic surgery, or a retired couple may buy a condominium with a view.  Unfortunately, all these individuals will likely become only temporarily happier.  An impressive body of research now shows that trying to be happy by changing our life situations will ultimately not work.”  — Sonja Lyubomirsky

While I intellectually accept the strong scientific evidence, it just seems so counter-intuitive that the effect of changes in circumstances could be that weak.  It seems that if my income doubles or if I moved to a beautiful beach house, I would be happier.  It seems clear to my intuitive self that if I was suddenly paralyzed from the waist down, I would be unhappy.  Maybe so, but the evidence is clear that in those cases and others most everyone adapts and returns to their basic happiness set point relatively quickly. You may disagree, but I’ve been convinced by the evidence.

Still, I’m not sure I have completely internalized that belief.  Have you?  Somewhere deep down inside my feeling self, I still am having those “if only” thoughts.  If only this or that were the case then things would be better.  Maybe that’s just human nature.  I don’t really know.  It’s so damn hard sometimes to follow your own advice.

This article may have seemed negative, but that was not my intent.  It’s extremely important that we know what not to do.  It’s critical to understand what does not work.  The path to happiness is becoming much clearer and it is no longer just a subject for speculation by philosophers.  Science is showing us the way.  You may consider that presumptuous, but I believe it to be true.

Does all this mean we shouldn’t try to improve our circumstances?  No it doesn’t.  However, we better be prepared for what we are getting when we succeed in doing so.  It’s not likely to be happiness unless there is some deeper meaning to what you are doing.  But in that case, what brings you happiness then is not your circumstances.  It is your actions, attitudes, and values.

I’m much happier than I was a year ago and it is the result of simply changing the way I think.  It came from the inside.  I can say that over and over and you can agree with it over and over, but unless you really internalize and accept the fact that your circumstances don’t matter much, you are never going to find the happiness you desperately seek.

There is nothing “missing” in your circumstances.

“You overlook what is already ‘here’ as you chase after ‘there’; you miss the ‘sacred now’ as you ponder your ‘next step’; you forget to be grateful for what ‘is’ as you prey after ‘more’.  You search, struggle, and strive, but you never arrive because you can’t get past the thought that something is missing.” — Robert Holden

What do you think? Leave a comment below.


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Genetic Happiness « Kink in Motion
September 30, 2011 at 10:37 am

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Deb Owen September 21, 2009 at 11:09 pm

I do believe that the state of happiness has much less to do with external circumstances than people believe. However, I also believe it does take more than simply just changing thinking. There have been 8 components found that lead to ‘meaning’, that lead to a happy, fulfilled life over the long-term. I do believe that changing thinking is a big component and is effective to a degree, but the recent uptick in ‘just change your thoughts’ literature that abounds leaves out the other components that lead to not just happiness, but meaning and fulfillment.

But you’re absolutely right. There is plenty of data out there showing people who survived much worse circumstances than most of us experience and did so with a sense of happiness and peace, while plenty of people who most would consider ‘well-off’ are still not happy. But when we stop looking in the wrong places, we’re also not at the whim of things we can’t control. And the wrong places? That’s all that external stuff.

Thanks for the great post!
All the best!
.-= Deb Owen´s last blog ..why you should be full of yourself =-.


Stephen Mills September 22, 2009 at 5:36 am

Hello Deb! Thanks for your very thoughtful response. I’m going to agree and disagree. I’m going to agree with there can be more to it than changing your thinking. I’m going to disagree that in some cases, mine being one there doesn’t have to be more. There are many ways to become happier and some of them involve actions (more on that in future posts). Some of them don’t. Am I now focused on some action based ways to improve my own happiness? Yes. Have I become much happier by just changing my thinking in certain ways? Yes. Have some of these ways be documented in research? Yes.

This article wasn’t intended as a prescription for how to become happier, it was intended to describe how not to do it. If I left the impression that I thought “changing your thinking” was the only way that was certainly not my intention. In fact my next article on the subject is very action oriented. Having said that, changing my thinking by not thinking, being present, not sweating the small stuff, detaching from outcomes, getting a new perspective, etc have made a world of difference.


Edge Maverick December 17, 2013 at 3:33 am

Hey Stephen, speaking of getting new perspectives, how about try gaining the perspective of shutting the fuck up and taking it in the butt? OH KEZIAH.


NomadicNeil September 22, 2009 at 4:49 am

I agree that you can’t rely purely on circumstances for happiness and I agree that you have to learn to cultivate the habit of happiness. The book ‘Affluenza’ by Oliver James also points out that the law of diminishing returns applies to the relation between happiness and income.

But I’m not sure about the idea that you ‘quickly’ adapt to new circumstances and reset to a previous baseline. I can think of several times in my life where I changed my circumstances and experienced a lasting improvement in my happiness levels. For example when I first went travelling. For 18 months I was very happy, maybe the happiest I’ve ever been and this even lasted a further 6 months after coming back. Part of me believes that my baseline happiness even increased because of the trip. Whether this is actually the case if of course difficult to determine.

Overall I’d say that the more I learn about myself and the world and the more I feel in control over my circumstances the happier I get. Ok, I could be setting myself up for a fall with the idea of ‘being in control’… but everything seems to be working out so far.

I think the problem is that the term ‘external circumstances’ is too broad and that some things do make a long term impact on happiness.

These realisations are very fundamental to my worldview now and are a big part of how I’ve structured my life-style-design plan.
.-= NomadicNeil´s last blog ..How I came to my decision: The rational version =-.


Stephen Mills September 22, 2009 at 5:52 am

Hi Neil! “But I’m not sure about the idea that you ‘quickly’ adapt to new circumstances and reset to a previous baseline”

The hedonic adaptation is clearly born out by mountains of research. Secondly nothing said in any of my articles is categorical. People always throw up counter-examples that are missing the main point. Third ‘quickly’ is relative. For example, the hedonic adaptation that occurs in marriage is 2 years. Is that ‘quickly’? Relative to what most people would consider a good long marriage yes. That would would be approximately 15% of the time I’ve been married. Finally all of this is averages anyway.

In regards to your traveling example. I would question that it was external circumstances that changed as being the factor. I suspect you were pursuing a goal and there was something going on inside your head at that point. I don’t think you just all of a sudden had “travel” as a circumstance. Having said that I really don’t know your circumstances.

Don’t mix up changing of circumstances with the other stuff going on in the process. Don’t mix up the end with the journey. Pursuit of goals can be an important factor in gaining happiness, but it isn’t the circumstances that achievement of the goal bring that matter. It is the pursuit of the goal itself. Your traveling example for instance.

Donald Trump has been both very wealthy and broke. I don’t honestly believe he does what he does for the money. I don’t know whether he is happy or not, but I can almost guarantee you that he does what he does for reasons other than the $$. I think he gets off on the pursuit and not the result.


NomadicNeil September 22, 2009 at 5:03 am

I thought I’d clarify what I mean by the term ‘external circumstances’ / life situation being too broad.

The following seem to fall under external circumstances / life situation according to Sonja Lyubomirsky.

Plastic surgery

What about, more friends, a girlfriend / boyfriend / lover / spouse, time to spend on hobbies, access to art and culture, being surrounded with like minded people or people that challenge you, opportunity for learning etc?

Are those not external circumstances / life situations as well? IMO those are circumstances we can actively seek out and attain.
.-= NomadicNeil´s last blog ..How I came to my decision: The rational version =-.


Stephen Mills September 22, 2009 at 6:00 am

Neil, thank you for another thoughtful comment. I’m just going to disagree with you that certain things you are listing (having a girlfriend, having more time, etc.) give you lasting happiness. They don’t and the research that compares the happiness of people with those things and without those things prove it. As I said in the article, it is counter-intuitive. I submit to you that you are confusing activities you undertake that make you happy with circumstances. I can’t get into your head and know exactly what you are thinking. In my mind the single greatest barrier to happiness is attachment to outcomes, but that’s just me. We all have our own ideas.


Claude December 17, 2013 at 3:10 am

You’re correct. We all have our own ideas. But the problem in this article and in the comments section is that you seem to, at times, pass your ideas off as being near fact. And my idea is that you’re a narrow minded douche bag for believing that science and your own personal experience are the only explanations for how to obtain happiness. I think a big problem in this debate is how one defines “circumstance”. You may define it differently than me. And that might be why I disagree with you. We may not even agree on the definition of what we’re debating. I define circumstance as a situation that you are in or a state that you are in, which may or may not be changeable. It’s the circumstances that we can’t change which we have to learn to move on and forget about. We can’t let those things affect our happiness. However, if the definition that I provided for the word circumstance is acceptable and you agree with it, then I would definitely disagree with your premise(s), one of which is “circumstances don’t matter much”. I have some news for you and for people like you that believe joy or happiness can be infinite or last permanently with the right way of thinking. That’s not the case. For 99% of people, including you, there will always be moments where you are unhappy, regardless of circumstances, attitude, thought, etc. For most people, ever lasting happiness never happens. And in most people, it probably can’t. And why does it need to? Wouldn’t it be boring to just be happy all the time and never experience the emotions of sadness and despair that we’re capable of feeling? Emotions which can help us grow even though they are largely negative? So yes, it’s true that having a girlfriend and having more time can’t bring lasting happiness. But my argument to you is that nothing can do that, depending on how you define “lasting”, and so your point is mute. Long term happiness isn’t the only type of happiness that is worth it. To me, any happiness we can get is good. Life is a roller coaster. For most of us, it’s going to have it’s ups and downs, regardless of your attitude. Whatever research you list is not definite. Science and results is ever changing. And studies are limited by scope and demographics. And again, I would argue, depending on how you define “lasting”, that research could equally prove that “lasting happiness” doesn’t even exist. In conclusion, a circumstantial outcome, depending on the person and how one defines circumstance, could most definitely bring happiness. I could list 1000 examples. You even opened your article by leaving the door open for that possibility. I think it’s just time that we stop telling other people what can make them happy and what can’t. Not everyone has the same capacity to think, to be positive, to ignore external factors, etc. There are just too many genetic factors among other things that can get in the way of that. And I’m sure that’s another thing that you’d disagree with. I don’t believe that everyone’s mind is the same. Not every mind has the same ability to change the way they think about a given thing. It’s amazing how complex the brain is. And to think that you or science can lay down a blueprint as to how much of each factor contributes to happiness and think that the blueprint applies equally to each person’s brain..its just silly. And finally, I could keep going forever, but I’ll close with this thought. Just because one desires a better life than what they have and believes it is achievable does not mean they can’t at the same time be thankful for what they have. I am thankful for having 2 parents that have been married for more than 30 years. I’m thankful for having a family that loves me. I’m thankful that I don’t have cancer. I’m thankful that I have an apartment to live in everyday, even though it’s roach infested among other things. I could keep going. So as you can see, the man you quote at the end of your article is wrong. I can chase after the ‘there’, which I know I can obtain and that I know will help me, while at the same time being aware and grateful for what I already have, the ‘here’. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Me trying to better my circumstance doesn’t keep me from realizing that I have things now to be grateful for. But that fact doesn’t keep me from also realizing that my life can be lived much much better and that it should be. As for the ‘sacred now’, I don’t miss that. But at the same time, I know there’s much better things that can come than the ‘sacred now’. There’s really not a whole lot more I need in my life. Just a few things. And they aren’t material objects. They aren’t the kind of things that you and Sonja would cite as “things that will only bring short lasting happiness.” And you know, I fully believe that I won’t return to baseline. I fully believe that one can achieve a goal and then stop setting new ones. I believe that one can find satisfaction once they reach a certain point in their life. A certain outcome. We don’t always have to keep striving and needing more. One can have one important outcome/goal and as long as it’s attainable and they don’t let their continued greed consume them, they can be fine. I will arrive, contrary to what your quoted hero says. And I will use this article and the proponents of it to summon the motivation that has lacked for so long. And I will show that you can have a goal, reach it, and be satisfied without the feeling of needing something more. It just all depends on what that goal is. I have yet to barely act. Everyday for so long, I’ve lived the same life. The same inaction. I have yet to even try. And that’s why I know I can do this. No, I have not strived. I have not strived nearly as much as I can and should. I know the potential that lies within me. And that is the key to my happiness. And only I know this potential. And once it’s realized, which I know it can be, that will bring lasting happiness. I desire nothing more. And I know specifically what I have to do to realize that potential. If I try and succeed in what I know I can reach, and I’m still not happy, I’ll admit that you’re right, along with all the scientists that think they have it figured out. But I know that once I do this and fulfill my potential, I’ll have the closest thing there is to a lasting sense of real happiness than any happiness I could get from tricking my mind into being content with little to nothing. Realizing your potential, thus leading to lasting fulfillment. For me, that’s happiness. The circumstance is this. I’m living a life in which my potential has been realized. And I’ll do it. I think the truth is that it’s everything. It’s circumstance and how that circumstance ties in with everything you’ve done to make it happen and what the other things are that the circumstance leads to. The trickiest thing again about this debate is defining what circumstance is. But I think if you go by the textbook definition, then absolutely, for some people, certain circumstances can bring lasting happiness.
Claude´s last blog post ..Steve Aoki, Mike and Chester In the Studio


Positively Present September 22, 2009 at 5:46 am

Happiness comes from inside. It’s a choice. I’ve spent most of my life trying to change my circumstances to find happiness and it’s NEVER worked. Now that I’m working on trying to find happiness within myself, I’m a lot happier! Great article!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..5 simple ways to cultivate inner peace =-.


Stephen Mills September 22, 2009 at 6:02 am

Hi Dani and thanks for stopping in to comment. I agree! Whew! 🙂


Jay Schryer September 22, 2009 at 7:58 am

Happiness is definitely a choice. As someone who has gone through several life-changing events, both good and bad, I can definitely attest to the notion that any changes in happiness from external circumstances are temporary. Some last longer than others, but eventually, you slide right back to where you were. The only thing that changes it permanently is changing your attitude.
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..God is Play-Doh =-.


Stephen Mills September 22, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Hey Jay, thanks for stopping by to comment. Your experience aligns with what I believe to be fairly well established. Its You!


Vin - NaturalBias September 22, 2009 at 9:22 am

I love these thought provoking posts, Stephen!

What I think makes a lot of difference in the amount of impact something has in regard to our happiness is how strongly it correlates with our values. I think your first response to Nomadic Neil makes a very important point which is that pursuing a goal that is aligned with values is not the same thing as the circumstances that result. Based on this, I think the concept of this article makes a lot more sense when related to pursuit versus accomplishment.

If pursuit is what inspires lasting happiness, then I think …

Marriage can be a source of lasting happiness because a healthy marriage is often an endless pursuit relating to the common values of the relationship.

An expensive car can be a source of lasting happiness if you enjoy racing it or modifying it.

A beach front condo can be a source of lasting happiness if you wish to develop a strong connection with nature.

Having more property can be a source of lasting happiness if you value the ability to grow your own food and need the extra property to do it.
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..The Stupidity of the Smart Choices Food Label =-.


Stephen Mills September 22, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Vin, you have it right. Goals that align with your meaning or values are critical. But I want to add one subtle clarification. If you don’t have that expensive car you can find meaning and happiness with other circumstances. The people who aren’t happy without the car are not likely to be happy with it. If you pursue the car because it is a thing you want to possess, because it is comfortable, because of status, then you will likely fail. With or without the car, it’s still THEM not the circumstances.

Married people are no more happy than single people after the bump. You can find happiness in marriage if done right, but just as many people find happiness without marriage. Once again it’s not the circumstances.

There are certain things I want so I can pursue other things of meaning, purpose, and value in my life. But without the underlying alignment, the circumstances are just circumstances. This is not an easy subject and it’s counter-intuitive, but I think I sort of have it sort of figured out for the current brief moment . 🙂


Diggy - September 22, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Heya Stephen!

I agree that happiness comes only from the inside. It is not money, material things, or even women that make us truly happy. We can have nothing and still be happy, and we can have everything and be unhappy. The thing to strive for is the balance of having enough AND being happy 🙂

Great post!
.-= Diggy –´s last blog ..Embrace your Insecurities =-.


Tracy September 22, 2009 at 5:25 pm

I find this uplifting because it goes both ways and means that any setbacks I have will only make me miserable for awhile and I am strong enough to adapt and bounce back.


John September 22, 2009 at 5:33 pm

This is very true, Stephen. A year ago I really wanted to get out of the house because being stuck with my mom used to give me a sort of negative connotation. Now that I’ve left home for a year, I realize the value in listening to my mother and having her be a presence in my life. I’ve significantly changed my lifestyle since a year ago as well. I was much more materialistic back then, but now I feel like a changed man. Getting the “next best thing” doesn’t matter anymore. I’m happy with the things I have now.

Of course, I plan on improving my life and living on my own terms after college. I just can’t accept the idea of the cubicle lifestyle anymore. Thanks for the inspiration, Stephen.
.-= John´s last blog ..My First Steps Towards Lifestyle Design =-.


BunnygotBlog September 22, 2009 at 7:24 pm

To me it is up to me to be happy and deal with the circumstances as they come. In many scenarios if you surround your self with happy and positive people you are going to gain a spirit stronger to deal when emotional things happen.
If you take a look around at your friends and love ones – the meaning of the saying you are who you keep company with is solid. So if you have to change places and friends to survive you do exactly that.

Great post!
.-= BunnygotBlog´s last blog ..Coco Chanel: Famous Quotes =-.


Tim Brownson September 23, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Cool post mate. I’ve been reading a lot on this subject lately and you are absolutely bang on. It seems weird that no matter how often people hear this information, they still can’t quite get their head round that it applies to them!

I think 99% of us are like that quite honestly. We are so conditioned to thinking more is better that to drop that belief can be tough.
.-= Tim Brownson´s last blog ..48 Bucks for 48 Hours =-.


Grampa Ken - Social Fix September 23, 2009 at 2:56 pm

“Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I am always amazed when I see video of children in very poor countries laughing and playing, unconcerned that they should have more to be happy about. They are happy because they are playing, because they have their friends and family, and some food to eat that day. Everyone has the right to be happy, and if they can be in their situation, shouldn’t we be filled with it?

Happiness is in our thinking and our thoughts can be directed to pleasant things at our wishes.
.-= Grampa Ken – Social Fix ´s last blog ..Children, Life and Happiness =-.


Giovanna Garcia September 24, 2009 at 11:36 pm

I believe a person is happiness when he or she is living in the moment and stay grounded. A wise person once say, “when a person is not happy it is because they are not grateful”.
Thanks for sharing.
Giovanna Garcia
Imperfect Action is better than No Action
.-= Giovanna Garcia´s last blog ..Strong like steel! =-.


Jessica September 26, 2009 at 4:35 pm

I agree with Giovanna! Actually the whole theory of happiness created by Eckhart Tolle in his book The Power of Now is based on living in the moment. We all live either in the past or in the future and this is what makes us miserable. The past is gone and nobody knows what will be tomorrow and the only life that exists is the life now. The moment we concentrate on life now, we are happy.


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