The other two components are your circumstances and your habits. Research is all over the map on what percentage each part represents. Circumstances—the good and the bad that enter all of our lives—could make up as little as 10 percent or as much as 40 percent of your subjective well-being. Even if circumstances play a big role, however, most scholars think it doesn’t matter very much, because the effects of circumstance never last very long.
We may think that getting a big promotion will make us permanently happier or that a bad breakup will leave us permanently brokenhearted, but it isn’t true, as a casual look back on your own life would surely attest. Indeed, one of the survival traits of human beings is psychological homeostasis, or the tendency to get used to circumstances quickly, both good and bad. This is the main reason money doesn’t buy happiness: We get used to what it buys very rapidly and then go back to our happiness set point. And for those of us lucky enough to avoid illness, even the unhappiness from the COVID-19 crisis will be in the rearview mirror before very long.
Genes and circumstances aren’t a productive focus in your quest for happiness. But don’t worry, there’s one variable left that affects long-term well-being and is under our control: habits. To understand habits, we need Equation 2.
Equation 2: Habits = Faith + Family + Friends + Work
This is my summary of thousands of academic studies, and to be fair, many scholars would dispute it as too crude. But I am convinced that it is accurate. Enduring happiness comes from human relationships, productive work, and the transcendental elements of life.
A little bit of clarification is in order here. First, faith doesn’t mean any faith in particular. I practice the Catholic faith and am happy to recommend it to anyone, but the research is clear that many different faiths and secular life philosophies can provide this happiness edge. The key is to find a structure through which you can ponder life’s deeper questions and transcend a focus on your narrow self-interests to serve others.
Similarly, there is no magic formula for what shape your family and friendships should take. The key is to cultivate and maintain loving, faithful relationships with other people. One extraordinary 75-year study followed Harvard graduates from 1939 to 1944, into their 90s, looking at all aspects of their health and well-being. The principal investigator, the psychologist George Vaillant, summarized the findings as follows: “Happiness is love. Full stop.” People who have loving relationships with family and friends thrive; those who don’t, don’t.
Finally, there’s work. Maybe it shocks you that work is part of this equation; it shouldn’t. One of the most robust findings in the happiness literature is the centrality of productive human endeavor in creating a sense of purpose in life. Of course, there are better jobs and worse jobs, but most researchers don’t think unemployment brings anything but misery.