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What really makes us happy? Essay

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Updated: Mar 24th, 2019


There has been an ongoing debate regarding the real forces that determine our happiness. Indeed, psychologists have struggled in an effort to gauge happiness and identify strategies that can be used to increase individual happiness levels. However, these research efforts have not been successful in coming up with a conclusive explanation for the actual determinants of happiness.

The main debate revolves around the classic “nature versus nurture” debate that concerns the relative importance of a person’s inherent traits (nature) against personal experiences (nurture) in determining or causing personal disparities in the levels of happiness.

While some psychologists support nature as the more significant factor that contributes to individual happiness, others insist that nurture is more significant. Behavioral studies show that both nature and nature contribute to our happiness. Studies on this topic are still underway with researchers and theorists from both sides passionately defending their argument as the prevailing one.

The Nature vs. Nurture Debate

To explore the nature vs. nurture debate in relation to individual happiness, we have to define what constitutes happiness. The Open University defines happiness as “a positive feeling covering a range of emotions from joy to contentment” while unhappiness is defined as “a negative feeling associated with a range of feelings from sadness to depression” (The Open University, 5).

Furthermore, whenever we are happy, we want to the feeling to persist but when we are unhappy, we want the feeling to end. Happiness and unhappiness feelings cannot be said to be mutually exclusive since we sometimes have both emotions at the same time.

The quest for happiness is a universal phenomenon. A significant proportion of persons when asked what they wanted most in life, mentioned happiness as one of the things they wanted. While every person would like to have happiness in their lives, researchers are divided on how to achieve this happiness (The Open University, 125).

There are those who say that happiness is caused by life events experiences (nurture) such as happy relationships, social influences, social status, employment (Layard, 3), achievement of goals and so on, however, others assert insist on the genetic makeup of individuals. The latter has been criticized for its heavy dependence on social construct. For instance, it can erroneously lead to the conclusion that a certain genetic makeup is superior to others in determining one’s capacity for happiness.

Nurture as a source of Happiness

Contrary to the belief that nature determines a person’s sustainable happiness is a counter-argument that happiness changes throughout a person’s life due to life events and experiences. Therefore, we can conclude that nurture plays a more significant role in determining a person’s happiness.

Life events include happy relationships with spouses, peers, and other persons, the national, geographical, cultural region in which one resides as well as demographic elements, personal history and life status variables such as social influences, social status, employment, and the achievement of goals.

Life events are a great determinant of happiness among children and adults. For instance, a study by the Children’s Society concluded that the most important element in determining young person’s happiness was family, friends, and a feeling of being loved and supported (The Open University, 85).

Several studies have also shown that adults’ relationships with friends, family, income, economic growth and partners greatly affect their happiness. Social psychologists have shown that family relationships are the single most important factor that determines happiness in both children and adults (The Open University, 125).

While proponents of nature (genetics) as a source of happiness assert that life events have only a temporary impact on one’s happiness, occurrences such as widowhood, divorce, and continued unemployment have a long-term effect on one’s happiness. Although the contribution of genetics to happiness cannot be ignored, life experiences play a more significant role in the quest for happiness.

Findings from studies show that identical twins exhibit more similarity in happiness levels than twins who are not identical. Since genes are inherent with a person having no control over the type of genes inherited from parents, perhaps it is the realization that one can take steps in determining their level of happiness and well-being that makes life experiences a more significant contributor to happiness (The Open University, 125).

Despite the widely held belief that happiness is mainly influenced by life events and genetics, social psychologists tend to deviate from this classic definition, instead saying that our happiness is hinged on the way we feel (The Open University, 57). They point out to reports that found out that optimists were more healthier, were less worried about illnesses, made better progress from health complications and lived longer than pessimists.

The studies suggest that life events only serve to teach us to expect a lot or less in life. A bitter experience can make us to be routine pessimist thinkers and this habit can block memories of good things that have happened to us before and even lead us to make the worst of future opportunities for happiness. In general, we can have happiness in life by focusing on positive aspects of our own lives, having optimistic realistic expectations, and believing that that our happiness lies on our hands.


Happiness is a very important aspect of our day-to-day lives, however, determining the source of happiness. In this paper, I conducted a literature review on the various determinants of happiness from research paper and opinions from experts. While there is no single factor that causes happiness or unhappiness in our lives, life events and experiences are seen to play a more significant role as compared to genetics. However, we must stay positive in our thinking and learn how to enhance our happiness from the experiences.

Works Cited

Layard, Richard. ‘Towards a happier society’, London School of Economics lecture, adapted from New Statesman article, 20303, pp. 3–4, Web. (Text 8)

The Open University. Y163: Starting with psychology, 2007, p. 125 (Text 7)

The Open University. Y163: Starting with psychology, 2007, pp. 53–7 (Text 4)

The Open University. Y163: Starting with psychology, 2007, pp. 5–6 (Text 2)

The Open University. Y163: Starting with psychology, 2007, pp. 83–5 (Text 5)

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'What really makes us happy'. 24 March.

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