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Does Happiness Come from the Top-down or Bottom-up?

Have you ever noticed how two people in the same situation can respond totally differently? How can one person be so cheerful and positive, while the other person is so negative and downtrodden?

Are some people simply destined to be unhappy?

We all have a happiness set point. A baseline level of well-being that we return to after our emotional highs and lows subside. There is a level of heritability that is reflected in our personality, temperament, and overall affect.

Fortunately for the sake of happiness, biology is not destiny, and we can take efforts to increase our level of well-being by creating environments and experiences that are conducive to our happiness.

This idea of changing our life-circumstances is related to the bottom-up theory of well-being.

Bottom-up theory

According to this theory, happiness is a sum of many small pleasurable and positive moments. Our well-being is based on an accumulation of the amount of pleasurable and unpleasurable moments we experience.

This may include our work, marriage, level of income, where we live, and any other objective life-circumstances.

Though, when it comes to making lasting changes in our level of well-being, there is another theory that contends happiness is more of an internal process.

Top-down theory

This theory takes the approach that happiness is based on a person’s tendency to interpret and evaluate experiences as positive or negative. We all have a typical way we respond to situations.

Some may tend to respond more negatively and other more positively. From this perspective we are exploring happiness from one’s personality, attitude, beliefs, and overall self-perception and self-esteem.

So, which theory can help you increase your happiness?

In the bigger picture, both theories offer value and insight for increasing well-being and making healthy changes in our life.

If the environment and situation we’re experiencing is stealing our joy, we can change our life-circumstances. If this is the core of our problem, we can seek a new occupation, cultivate healthier relationships (or work on the ones we have), move to a new home, or take effort to improve our health.

At the same time, we should also explore how much of our dissatisfaction is related to our personal perceptions. We will probably want to explore our belief system, personality tendencies, outlook on life, and thinking patterns.

When these two theories are integrated, we can see that there are objective life-circumstances we must deal with, but that we all have a subjective opinion about whether our life is positive or negative.

Enhancing our well-being is both a bottom-up and top-down process.

If you are determined to become happier this coming year, a good place to start is too really figure out what it is you want. Discover what will lead you to greater happiness by exploring your signature strengths, what gives you a sense of meaning and purpose, and how you can cultivate more positive emotions.

Set some clear goals and take action toward these positive elements. As well, don’t forget about the good things you have. Practice contentment and learn to have some self-acceptance with what you cannot change.

Photo credit: Johnny Jet

Does Happiness Come from the Top-down or Bottom-up?

Joe Wilner

Joe Wilner is a life coach, licensed clinical psychotherapist (LCP), and drummer from the band Yes You Are. He is also creator of You Have a Calling, a blog and online community helping people discover and pursue their life’s work and mission. Through deep and personalized coaching, he helps ambitious, creative, and spiritually minded individuals make a greater impact, grow as leaders, and design a soulful life they are inspired by.

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APA Reference
Wilner, J. (2011). Does Happiness Come from the Top-down or Bottom-up?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Dec 2011
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