Happiness can be learned


Is it possible to increase one’s well-being regardless of biological, economic and social conditions? Happiness is genetically influenced but not genetically fixed. Economic factors only significantly influence subjective well-being within subsistence-level poverty. How well we feel, how happy we are is a psychological state and personal development provides a possible path towards increased happiness. Let’s act on it.

Variables influencing well-being

For measuring (subjective) well-being, which is used synonymously with happiness here, often test variables are taken from external circumstances such as economic wealth (GDP) and democratization of a nation. There are also attempts to explain individuals’ well-being from a genetic perspective, either in the form of parameters related to physical or mental health or ‘hardwired’ personality traits. Happiness (again used approximately interchangeable with well-being) historically and contemporarily can be approached from a hedonic (pleasure seeking) or eudaimonic (virtue seeking) point of view. The eudaimonic paradigm brought an increased emphasis on concepts such as self-determination theory (SDT) that, as Ryan and Deci (2001) describes, means to be actively (mentally) fully functioning, rather than simply responding to (external) satisfactions of desires.


The main question approached in this article is whether there is the possibility to increase one’s well-being using psychological development, regardless of biological and social conditions. There are some biological aspects that are out of one’s control, e.g., gender, age, and to some extent physical and mental health, as well as genetically influenced personal traits. The article explores to what extent and based on what psychological factors and personal development can be conducive to an individual’s well-being to the better.


Inglehart, Foa, Peterson and Welzel (2008) found that economic factors only significantly influence subjective well-being within subsistence-level poverty context and that above that level the financial situation is relevant only as far as it allows for increased freedom of choice. As found by Ryan and Deci (2001), satisfaction was less predictive for reported well-being in collectivistic societies such as Japan, remained however still relevant. A related, but more exclusively ‘internal’ contributor to well-being is ‘locus of control.’ In the words of Ryff (1989),  it is about “having an internal locus of evaluation, whereby one does not look to others for approval but evaluates oneself by personal standards” (p. 1071). So, how much can we control our personal standards? “Happiness is genetically influenced but not genetically fixed” (Myers, 2000, p. 58). Personal development towards increased well-being that is supported by the three basic needs according to SDT, which are the experience of autonomy (volition), competence, and relatedness is possible. Efforts to focus on happiness in pedagogics are not only the ultimate goal of education but can feasibly be increased, addressing in real life students often unsatisfactory school life by coaching for well-being as suggested by Scoffham (2011).


How well we feel, how happy we are is a psychological state. Therefore it can be worked on psychologically. Just, some imbalances may be harder to balance, especially when basic subsistent needs are not met. However, we can learn to understand better underlying emotions that let us feel happy or not, and in addition to positive thinking we can choose our actions according to what feels good (Fuimano, 2009). Combined with increased resilience that can be mobilized by lowered expectations, intrinsic motivation and spirituality, there is a realistic path to increased well-being for everybody in any situation.


Fuimano, J. (2009). Learn How to Be Happy. Personal Excellence Essentials, 14(7), 11

Inglehart, R., Foa, R., Peterson, C., & Welzel, C. (2008). Development, freedom, and rising happiness: A global perspective (1981–2007). Perspectives of Psychological Science, 3(4), 264–285.

Myers, D. (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American Psychologist, 55(1), 56-67. doi:10.1037//0003-066X.55.1.56

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2001). ON HAPPINESS AND HUMAN POTENTIALS: A Review of Research on Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being. Annual Review Of Psychology, 52(1), 141.

Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069-1081. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.57.6.1069

Scoffham, S., & Barnes, J. (2011). Happiness matters: towards a pedagogy of happiness and well-being. Curriculum Journal, 22(4), 535-548. doi:10.1080/09585176.2011.627214

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About mathias sager

PSYCHOLOGIST and Independent Researcher I'm born in Zurich and grew up in Switzerland. For many years I lived in Tokyo, and also in Pune/India. I'm passionate about developing human potential, which is an overarching theme throughout all my work that is based on research and supported by intuition and art. Through teaching, counseling, and leading indivuals and teams around the world my goal is to inspire with interdisciplinary, innovative, and cross-cultural approaches to personal and professional development for individual well-being and the common good alike. Happy if you reach me on www.mathias-sager.com, connect on social media, or email directly to goodthings@mathias-sager.com. Developing human potential is my passion! - Independent Awareness Intelligence Research (mathias sager - Psychology, global) - MSc in Psychology (University of Liverpool) - Postgraduate in Conflict Management, Leadership and Crisis Communication (University of Applied Sciences Winterthur, Switzerland) - Executive Master in Business Administration (EMBA, iimt Fribourg, Switzerland) - Bachelor in Education Sciences (Switzerland)