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The Science of Happiness (And How to Be Happier)

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The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right. That’s one of the first statements in the United States’ Declaration of Independence. The most popular class in Yales history is Psychology and The Good Life, which is about how to lead a happier and more satisfying life. And Bronnie Ware, who worked in palliative care for many years, says in this article that one of the five most common regrets of dying patients is, “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

Each one of us is unique, with different dreams and ambitions. Yet, if you zoom out far enough, you’ll discover we want the same things. We want a satisfying life that’s filled with joy, meaning, and purpose.

We want to be happy.

In this article, we’ll talk about how to become happier. We’ll answer the following questions by turning to the latest science and research about happiness:

  • What determines how happy you are?
  • How much control do you have over your happiness?
  • What should you avoid in your quest to be happy?
  • What should you focus on instead to become happier?

The Science of Happiness (And How to Be Happier)

Slices of the Happiness Pie

In The How of Happiness, University of California psychology professor and happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky stated:

“The key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities.”

According to Lyubomirsky, when it comes to the difference in happiness level from person to person:

  • 50% of the difference is determined by genetic makeup.
  • 10% of the difference is based on circumstances.
  • 40% is determined by things we can control: our behavior and intentional activities.

Genes and circumstances play a role in your level of happiness, but they don’t make up the entire happiness pie chart. I imagine this being a pizza pie. Or maybe cookies. What were we talking about? Oh yeah, happiness (seriously, though, it’s sometimes not unrelated to cookies).

Given how so many things are marketed in the modern world, you might find yourself asking, “What’s the secret to happiness? Is there a shortcut? I want to be happy, but my to-do list is long enough already.”

But like most things that matter in life, there are no shortcuts to happiness. Don’t despair, though. While you don’t have 100% control over your happiness, there’s a lot you can do to influence your level of happiness — and some of these things are surprisingly simple.

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3 Things to Stop Doing If You Want to Be Happier

On the road to happiness, what you don’t do is just as important as what you do. So, we’ll approach how you create happiness from both angles. We’ll start with things you may want to eliminate from your current behaviors.

1. Don’t Make Happiness Your Goal

Don’t obsess over happiness. Don’t directly pursue it. This sounds counter-intuitive but stay with me while we break this down.

This Business Insider article points to several research studies that found trying to be happy makes you less happy. When you focus on being happy, you notice all the non-happy emotions and feelings that arise throughout the day. You fight and resist the non-happy states because they’re the opposite of what you want to experience. You feel like you’re failing at your goal every moment you’re not happy.

You start thinking, “My life is going well. I should be happy. Why don’t I feel happy? What’s wrong with me?” You become frustrated and disappointed because you’re not meeting your happiness expectations (which is backed up by this study).

This leads you to focus more of your attention on yourself. You grasp harder for happiness. You repeat the doomed cycle with more intensity. You get similar results again, which leads to lower levels of happiness.

The Science of Happiness (And How to Be Happier)

2. Don’t Expect Accomplishments or Things to Make You Happy

You daydream about getting that promotion. You think it will make you happier. And you’re right. Sort of.

When you achieve this accomplishment, you become happier. But the boost in happiness only lasts for a fleeting moment. Then, your happiness level drops back to the same place it was at before the promotion. (Note: you can substitute “promotion” in this example with buying that new house or getting that new car.)

We quickly adapt to negative and positive changes in our life. This results in our happiness reverting back to baseline levels despite these exciting additions or changes. This effect is known as hedonic adaptation, which is explained in this article about consumerism.

The short story — accomplishments and material goods will not fill your happiness pie. If you expect happiness to arrive at your doorstep once x, y, or z happens in your life, you’re going to be waiting a long time.

3. Don’t Obsess Over Money

A study published in 2010 by two University of Princeton professors, Angus Deaton and Daniel Kanheman, found that $75,000 is the magic happiness number. As income decreases below $75,000, sadness and stress increase while happiness decreases. If you’re struggling to meet basic needs, more money will solve important problems in your life. However, as income rises above $75,000, everyday happiness does not improve.

It turns out money can buy happiness — but only up to a certain point.

The Science of Happiness (And How to Be Happier)

2 Things to Start Doing If You Want to Be Happier

1. Invest in Relationships

Robert Waldinger is the director of the Harvard study on adult development that started in 1938 and is still going strong. The study started by tracking the lives of 724 men and expanded to include more than 2,000 of their children as well as their wives. According to Waldinger, “[T]he lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier period.”

Here are some key takeaways from the study:

  • The quality of your relationships is more important than the number of relationships.
  • Your spirit and health are lifted when you have people you can count on in your life.
  • On the other hand, loneliness leads to lower levels of happiness, health declines earlier in life, and shorter lives.

The Science of Happiness (And How to Be Happier)

2. Prioritize Joy, Meaning, and Health

According to Buettner, the author of The Blue Zones of Happiness, life satisfaction, meaning, and enjoying life on a daily basis play key roles in happiness. But health matters, too. Buettner states, “Health and happiness go hand in hand. You cannot pull the two apart, and one doesn’t exist without the other.”

Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said:

“Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life.”

Creating happiness in your life is answering that question. Life is asking you, what brings you joy? What gives you meaning? What gives you health? What makes you satisfied with your life?

If you’re not sure about your answers, the habits in the next section can help you navigate these questions.

The Science of Happiness (And How to Be Happier)

Use Your Habits to Be Happier

What we’ve learned from the research is that the happiness blueprint consists of prioritizing relationships, life satisfaction, meaning, joy, and health over accomplishments, status, and wealth. Let’s drill down from here to discuss specific habits you can adopt to become happier. Over time, you’ll find the unique habits that fill your happiness pie but here are some ideas for you to consider and experiment with.

According to this awesome science-based infographic on happiness, here are some happiness habits:

  • Regularly write down things you’re grateful for
  • Help someone in need
  • Relive the happiest moments of your life
  • Savor experiences and good times
  • Engage in activities that get you into a flow state, where you feel in the zone and lose sense of time
  • Practice mindfulness meditation
  • Make time for friends and family

In The How of Happiness, Lyubomirsky highlights some additional happiness habits:

  • Cultivate optimism by seeing the good side of things and looking forward to a positive future
  • Avoid overthinking, which leads to ruminations and negative moods
  • Avoid social comparisons
  • Practice acts of kindness
  • Develop strategies for coping
  • Learn to forgive
  • Commit to your goals
  • Take care of your body
  • Act like a happy person

You can notice common themes of being grateful, connecting with others, living in the moment, and taking care of your mind and body. And, like any other positive habit you’re trying to incorporate into your life, happiness is best not left to chance.

Look over those happiness habits and pick out a couple to practice. If helping others sounds good, schedule one day a month where you volunteer at a non-profit that holds meaning to you. If you know a flow state lifts you up, set aside an hour a week for an activity that gets you there (for many of us this is a sport or physical activity). If social comparisons regularly get you down, set a time limit on your social media habit and see if that increases your happiness.

There’s no magic formula for happiness, but there are specific things you can prioritize in your life and habits you can cultivate to become happier. Here’s to happiness for all of us.

Jose Ramos
Jose Ramos writes about personal development. He loves learning and using the insights he’s gained to improve his life. He used to relentlessly pursue achievements. Now he seeks balance, happiness, and wellness.

At his blog, he helps people find out what they want. And then he helps them build habits and strategies to craft the life they want.