The Science of Happiness

Psychologist Ronald Siegel reveals why some of us are happier than others – and how to feel more joy

Medically reviewed in July 2021

The science of happiness is getting major attention these days. The Today show covered it for a solid week. A St. Louis researcher received a $5 million grant to research happiness over three years. And at more and more companies, there’s a new title in the C-Suite: CHO, or chief happiness officer.

Clearly, happiness is about more than having a good time – but what exactly is the nature of this slippery emotion? To learn more about it, Sharecare spoke with well-being expert Ron Siegel, PsyD, assistant professor of psychology, part time, at Harvard Medical School and author of The Mindfulness Solution (Guilford Press, 2009).

Sharecare: Is happiness something you’re born with? 
Siegel: People have genetically predisposed set points for happiness, not unlike the set points we have for weight. Most people who have tried to diet know that if you don’t put in some effort—eating fewer calories, exercising more—you’re going to drift to a certain level of weight. The same is very much true about our sense of wellbeing. You have to put in effort to maintain it.

Sharecare: How much do genes play a role?
Siegel: About 50 percent of what causes people to be happy is genetic. Another 40 percent is our attitude toward our experiences—how we deal with the ups and downs. The most surprising finding is that only 10 percent has to do with good and bad fortune in life. Even though most of us imagine, “If only I could win the lottery or find the love of my life, then I’d be happy.” Those things matter somewhat, and very bad fortune certainly matters, but for the most part we readjust after losses and gains and gravitate to our genetic predisposition.

Sharecare: What are some qualities that happy people tend to have in common?
Siegel: They appreciate the present moment, and can savor experiences and have psychological flexibility -- which means that they can adapt to changing circumstances, since our lives are ever changing. They are much more focused on the needs of others and the wider world rather than their own immediate pleasure and pain. And they experience gratitude.

Sharecare: Why does happiness seem elusive for so many of us?
Siegel: One of the reasons happiness is so elusive is just that we didn’t evolve to be happy. We live with a fight-or-flight response system, paired with high analytical thinking. When we feel threatened, we don’t just feel stressed: We remember bad things happening in the past and imagine them happening again.

Another factor is our constant preoccupation with self-esteem, how others view us, who is wealthier/smarter/thinner, who has more friends. Every society is stratified in these ways.

Sharecare: You’ve defined happiness as "relative lack of negative feelings such as anger, sadness, and fright.” How can we achieve that? 
Siegel: It’s a paradox: If we try to get rid of anger/sadness/fright, we end up more locked in those emotions. Ironically, the degree to which we become free from those feelings corresponds to the degree to which they’re fully able to occur. In other words, it’s ok to have a good cry. People who are comfortable with negative feelings tend to be happier than people who try to block avoid or suppress them. The only way out is through. 

Android users: See how stress could be affecting your happiness. Download the FREE app.

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