The American Dream tells us we are free to pursue happiness, but doesn’t give us instructions. Even life-changing events such as winning the lottery have been shown (Brickman 1978) to only increase happiness in the short-term.
The secret to long term happiness is a concept that seems too sacred to be studied and dissected. However, many researchers devote themselves to this topic, and this paper by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky presents a nice theory about sustainable happiness.
This elusive goal is difficult, and may be impossible. Many past studies have shown that each person has a base level of happiness which they can only deviate from temporarily. Even more unfortunate, is that this base level of happiness is 50-80% inherited.
The researchers in this paper divided events that increase your well-being into: activity changes (intentional acts such as exercising) and circumstantial changes (such as being assigned a great roommate). They performed 3 studies on psychology students who had recently experienced an increase in well-being. These studies showed that sustainable happiness was only possible through activity changes. Intentional changes resulted in a bigger boost in happiness and more varied experiences.
After a period of time, those who experienced the increase in well-being because of an activity change retained their increase more than those who experienced the increase because of a circumstantial change. The ones who became happier by chance became accustomed to the change and were no longer affected by it.
There is no shortcut — effort and hard work are the best route to happiness.
Sheldon, K & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). Achieving sustainable gains in happiness: Change your actions, not your circumstances. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 55 – 86.