Formula for Happiness = S (Set range, personal biology) + C (Circumstances) + V (Voluntary control)

Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has proposed a formula for the causes of happiness that accounts for stable and variable components of long-term happiness; H (enduring level of happiness) = S (personal set range) + C (circumstances) + V (factors under personal voluntary control).

Voluntary/intentional activities have similar level of influence (40%) compared to genetic set-point for happiness (50%)

The happiness set-point (estimated influence 50 %) “is genetically determined and assumed to be fixed, stable over time, and immune to the influence of control”.

Circumstances' estimated influence is only 10 %. These include the geographical region where a person resides, demographic factors such as age and gender, and major life-status factors such as marriage, and being sufficiently wealthy.

Intentional Activities' estimated influence is 40 %. Activities are more controllable than genetic factors, personality and most circumstances and offer the greatest potential to sustainably increase happiness. They have similar level of influence (40%) compared to the genetic set-point for happiness (50%).

Happiness enhancing strategies fall into 3 activity types:

1. Behavioral activity reflects a person’s actions:

- physical activities
- meditation and mindfulness
- social activities such as deliberate acts of kindness and gratitude

2. Cognitive activity indicates a person’s attitudes:

- cultivating gratitude
- forgiveness
- cognitive approaches to coping with adversity

3. Volitional activity is motivated towards achieving goals:

- pursuing goals that are concordant with one’s values and interests
- maintaining hope
- meaning in life

The dominance of social relationships for happiness

In a recent study, the most striking finding was the dominance of the Social Relationships dimension. People are happier when they are around others and relationships are necessary for happiness.

Therefore, individuals pursuing happiness should spend time and energy developing and maintaining their relationships. Does that involve online relationships developed via Twitter and Facebook?

A recipe for long-lasting happiness

Happy people are those who:

- are involved in a number of close relationships and practice their social values
- do not overrate the importance of circumstances or spend undue energy striving for circumstantial change
- enjoy satisfying and active leisure pursuits
- pursue (behavioral) activities and (cognitive) attitudes that are rewarding and in line with their broader sense of purpose
- have a philosophy of living that helps them to navigate life’s complexities

“Optimism is the belief that good things will happen to you and that negative events are temporary setbacks to be overcome” - a classical definition from the Mayo Clinic (

The major 5 personality factors are abbreviated in the acronyms OCEAN or CANOE:

- Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
- Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)
- Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
- Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/callous)
- Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)


Exploring the Causes of Subjective Well-Being: A Content Analysis of Peoples’ Recipes for Long-Term Happiness. Journal Journal of Happiness Studies, 2012.
Image source:, public domain.

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