Happiness potential achieved!

How To Hit Your Happiness Potential (& Why Most Fall Short)

Welcome back to my Happy.Healthy.Whole Project (HHWP). Today is my 17th straight day of blogging about the HHWP! If you’re just joining us, or just want to catch up on the days you’ve missed, you can do so HERE.

We’ve got some important topics for today! I will address the following questions in today’s HHWP post:

  • What determines how happy we are in life?
  • Is it even possible to increase our happiness levels long-term? Or are we doomed to be unhappy no matter what we do?
  • And finally, how can we achieve our happiness potential?

Let’s get to it!

Are you living up to your happiness potential? Hint: most people aren't
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The Set Point Theory Of Happiness

In the book Psycho-Cybernetics, which was now published 60 years ago, author Maxwell Maltz first proposes the idea of a “happiness set point”. 

Think of the happiness set point as being similar to the thermostat in your house. If the temperature in the house gets too high, the air conditioner will kick on to cool the house off. Likewise, if the temperature in the house gets too low, the heater will come on to warm it back up. The purpose of the thermostat in your house is to maintain the temperature within a certain range, or “set point”, that feels comfortable to you.

The happiness set point does essentially the same thing – it maintains a person’s happiness level within a certain range. Of course when good things happen, a person will experience that temporary high of pure joy, but after awhile when the emotion has worn off, the person will return to their normal level (or set point) of happiness.

The same thing is true for negative emotions. If something happens to make us sad, our happiness levels will decline, but over time, they tend to return back to baseline again.

Diagram illustrating the happiness set point theory
Diagram illustrating the happiness set point theory.

What Determines A Person’s Happiness Set Point?

Psychologist and happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues have explored this question for us, and the answer is pretty simple. The happiness set point is determined by genetics.

Everyone is born with a certain capacity for happiness which they inherit from their parents. Some people are born with a high happiness set point, and some are born with a lower happiness set point. 

Just like some kids are born with a high amount of athletic ability or intelligence and others are born with less natural athletic ability or intelligence.

In fact you probably know people that just seem to be very happy all the time. I had a spanish teacher during first period in high school who was the most happy energetic person I’ve ever met in my entire life. So much so that she was a little much for me to take that early in the morning after just having rolled out of bed.

And on the other end of the spectrum, there are those people that seem to be much less happy. You probably have a pretty good idea of where you fall on this happy to grumpy (think Snowwhite and the 7 dwarves) scale, as Tal Ben-Shahar has so aptly named it.

What If A Person Has A Low Happiness Set Point?

Wait… so does this mean if we are dealt a “grumpy” hand by genetics we’re just doomed to be unhappy forever?!?

Actually, some researchers think so. The psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegan said that, “It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller and is therefore counterproductive.”

BUT most researchers don’t really believe this.

With her research Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the book The How of Happiness, has estimated that about 50% of happiness is determined by the genetic happiness set point.

Shoot… There’s nothing we can do about our genetics. But what about the other 50 percent you ask?

Great question! Sonja and colleagues found that roughly 10% of our happiness is determined by our life circumstances (poverty level, where you live, your gender, home situation etc.) and the remaining 40% of happiness is determined by our behaviors

So to recap, happiness is determined by:

  • 50% genetics – there is nothing you can do to change this.
  • 10% life circumstances – these can be hard, but not impossible, to change.
  • 40% behavior – GOOD NEWS! We have 100% control over our own behavior.

So, what does this mean? It means that even if you were born with a low happiness set point, you can still increase your overall happiness levels by choosing to engage in behaviors that make you happier.

Let me say that again.

According to modern psychology research, you CAN increase your overall happiness by choosing to engage in behaviors that make you happier. Click To Tweet
How to achieve your happiness potential and why most people fall short of this goal.
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Why Most People Fail To Achieve Their Happiness Potential

Unfortunately, Tal Ben-Shahar, Positive Psychology Professor at Harvard University, and author of the book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, has found that:

“Most people fall far short of their happiness potential.”

– Tal Ben-Shahar

Why might this be? Why are people failing to achieve happiness? Following the logic above, I would conclude that: 

Most people fail to achieve their happiness potential because for whatever reason, they choose NOT to prioritize the behaviors that make them happy. Click To Tweet

Some of the possible reasons that people fail to engage in the behaviors that make them happy:

  • Believing that pursuing their own happiness is selfish.
  • Social and cultural pressures prioritizing achievement over happiness.
  • Not believing that it is impossible to increase happiness levels.
  • Not having a good idea of what actually makes them happy.

To follow up on that last bullet point – Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and Nobel Prize winning economist, has found that humans aren’t very good judges of what actually makes them happy.

We often think that certain things (like money, popularity, status, owning nice things etc.) will make us happy. So we work really hard to achieve those things, only to find out when we get them, that we aren’t really any happier than we were before we had them.

How To Achieve Your Happiness Potential

In order to be able to achieve your happiness potential, you must actively seek out and engage in behaviors that make you happier.

So the logical next question is: what behaviors are known to increase happiness?

Of course this is going to be different for everyone, since different things make different people happy. 

But it is important to remember that there are two types of happiness – pleasure (short-term happiness) and purpose (long-term happiness). To be truly happy, we must have both types. 

The pleasurable part of happiness is pretty easy to figure out. Sit down, and try to make a list of everything you can possibly think of that makes you happy. It could be big or small, anything from that pumpkin spice latte to family vacations. Try to come up with a list of at least 25 things. 

Once you have your list, pick a few of those things each week, and make time for them in your schedule. Prioritize these things – they are important to your happiness, but when we get busy, they are usually the first thing to go.

Next, we come to “purpose” the long-term happiness. This is usually where people go wrong in their judgement of what makes them happy as Dr. Kahneman pointed out.

Dr. Shahar gives the following advice:

“Those who shift their focus from material goods and prestige to the ultimate currency [happiness] will raise their base level of well-being. By pursuing work, education, and relationships that yield both meaning and pleasure, we become progressively happier.”

– Tal Ben-Shahar

So to sum that up, if you want to increase long-term happiness chose to engage in behaviors and pursue goals that focus on:

  • Health instead of beauty.
  • Social connection and community contribution instead of status and prestige.
  • Pursuing work that you are passionate about and has meaning to you rather than following the money.
  • Building quality relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners.
  • Personal growth and self discovery.


We covered a lot of important topics today! Let’s review.

There is a genetic determinant of happiness, which we call the happiness set point. And while we are unable to change our genetics, this shouldn’t discourage you about your ability to improve your happiness! 

According to modern psychology research, the best way to improve our overall long-term happiness is to actively seek out and engage in behaviors that make us happy, rather than sitting back and hoping happiness will come to us. Click To Tweet

Most people fail to reach their happiness potential, either because they don’t prioritize happiness, or because they truly understand what makes them happy.

So this is me, your personal cheerleader and happiness coach, reminding you, to get out there and do what you love! And if you’re not sure what makes you happy, take the time to do a little self discovery, and figure out what that is.

I am actually running a FREE 30-Day Self Discovery Challenge right now! If you’re interested in learning more about it, just click on the image below.

Until tomorrow,


30-Day Self Discovery Challenge
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Author: clarissa.cabbage

Clarissa is a teacher, a coach, and an avid adventurer! Armed with a master's degree in Exercise and Wellness, she is on a mission to teach people how to build healthier habits that support the adventurous lifestyle of their dreams. There is nothing Clarissa is more passionate about than helping people get active and live their lives to the fullest!

22 Replies to “How To Hit Your Happiness Potential (& Why Most Fall Short)

  1. Really great read! I’m always interested to read about happiness and how I can apply it to my life because who doesn’t want to be happy and have a positive outlook in life, right?

  2. What an insightful post. I knew our behavior, attitude and circumstances play a great role in making us happy but didn’t know our genetics play 50% role in it. That was a good and interesting thing to know. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You are very welcome Priyanka! I knew that there was a genetic component to happiness, but I hadn’t read that particular statistic until recently. I’m really liking it!

      Thanks so much for following along with my project!

  3. So interesting! I had never heard of the concept of a happiness set point but it’s so fascinating and really makes a lot of sense. It’s so curious how genetic it is too, I’m always interested in nature vs. nurture!

  4. This post is great and insightful. I always enjoyed reading a good post about how happiness can be applied to any part of my life and how I can improve my overall health with happiness.

  5. Really great post! I have been thinking a lot about happiness lately, What it is and how to achieve it. At the end of the day I believe that happiness is a choice. One that far too many of us don’t believe we deserve. Hopefully, with posts like yours, more people to choose happiness for themselves.

    1. I sure hope so Tiffany! It’s be amazing to be able to make a difference in someone’s life and level of happiness. I too believe that happiness is a choice. In fact, it’s one that I had to make and work at really hard! I hope to help others do the same. Thanks for adding to the conversation here! ☺️

  6. The idea that someone might be doomed to be grumpy all the time is kinda sad, isn’t it? I’m glad to hear that not all researchers agree with that view… I’d like to think that everyone has the potential to find happiness in their life.

    1. Yes, I absolutely believe that everyone is capable of happiness. Although I don’t think we should leave it to chance. Like all good things in life, we need to work at it!

      Thanks for sharing your ideas and following my project Britt!

  7. This is a really great post! Something different and very much needed, very informational! Thank you for sharing this with us!

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