The golden triangle of happiness

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What is it that makes us happy?

We talk to UniSuper member Emeritus Professor Robert Cummins about the three key ingredients to happiness.

You’ve spent the past 17 years surveying people across Australia to produce the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index. What have you been studying? 

Our research concerns the science of happiness. Surprisingly, it comes in two forms: emotional happiness (the familiar, brief feeling of positivity following a nice experience) and mood happiness (caused genetically, as a stable, weak background positive feeling). Thoughts about our self usually include mood happiness, which is why people normally feel good about themselves.

What have you found? 

Everyone has their own set-point level for mood happiness—analogous to our set-point for body temperature. We also have a protective, homeostatic system, which attempts to return our feelings to set-point after a strong positive or negative experience.

What is the ‘golden triangle of happiness’?

We’ve identified three elements feeding the happiness protective system:

  1. Money, when used to prevent or recover from negative experiences.
  2. An intimate, sharing and caring relationship.
  3. A sense of purpose in what we achieve each day.

Does more money mean greater levels of happiness? 

As a population average, the answer is ‘yes’. However, the law of diminishing returns applies. For people earning less than $30,000, an additional $6,000 (a 20% rise) is associated with a one percentage point rise in happiness. For those earning $101,000-150,000, a one point rise requires an additional $350,000 (a 250% rise).

Does life get better with age?

On average, happiness decreases from young-adulthood to middle age. This is likely caused by the burden of children, mortgage, and a routine job. However, at around 55-65 years this trend reverses and happiness starts to rise. This rise continues into old age provided that no source of major threat appears, such as one involving the golden triangle resources.

What drew you to studying quality of life and happiness? 

In 1992, I joined a research project with two of the leading happiness researchers of that time. Both from Melbourne University, Professors Alex Wearing and Bruce Headey had discovered that following a strong change in happiness (due to some life event), happiness levels normally return to normal.

This collaboration set me on my current research path.

What would your ideal retirement look like?

The full set of the golden triangle resources—enough money to avoid worrying about the bills, an intimate partner who shares daily life, and looking forward each day to re-engaging an activity that is personally important and meaningful.


Want to learn more about creating a fulfilling retirement?

Check out the Planning for retirement section.


We’re committed to highlighting the insightful work and research our members undertake in the course of their occupations. This article is for informative purposes only, and UniSuper doesn’t recommend or endorse the comments, views, products or services featured within it.