More on the study of happiness: the role of priorities

Measuring happiness is a small industry among researchers. A new study suggests another important factor: the priorities that people set for their life affects long-term happiness.

Most of us have thought, ‘If only I could win the lottery, then I’d be happy forever.’ But according to one of the first studies to look at long-term happiness, major life events, like a sudden cash windfall, are not what make us happy, rather, it’s the priorities we set in life.

“The main thing that’s surprising about these results is that it challenges this whole field,” said lead author Melbourne University sociologist Bruce Headey. “This study goes against the prevailing wisdom that happiness is fixed.” The study was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previous studies suggest that happiness is predetermined by genetics and early upbringing, and that we eventually revert back to the same level of happiness regardless of changes in our lives. Looking at data from about 60,000 Germans for up to 25 years, however, Headey found that the more people decided to prioritize goals such as good relationships and good health, the happier they were, regardless of major life events.

While there are some critiques of this study (for example, it measures long-term happiness rather than daily satisfaction), it suggests again that the topic of happiness is a complex one to research with many possible factors influencing outcomes.

So should people set easier-to-reach priorities to be happy? What happens to people who set good priorities but aren’t able to reach them?

This also seems to be an interesting dataset with 60,000 people being tracked over the last two and a half decades.

(I’m also curious about the lead author saying that the study challenges “the prevailing wisdom that happiness is fixed.”)

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