Are you happy as a lark?
Most people want to behave this positive feeling but aren’t 100% sure how to be happy. Studies show that about half the world is happy so there’s lots of room for improvement.
It’s also interesting that about one-third of the world is neither happy nor unhappy. So, it seems many people aren’t elated or depressed but somewhere in the middle.
In 1988 Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart. So, the big question is: is the secret to happiness that easy?
We’ll be taking up issues like the meaning of happiness, the happiest countries in the world, and how to be happy. It’s our hope this will put a smile on your face.
If you ask 100 people what happiness is you’ll get a cornucopia of different answers. As with other philosophical questions, there’s no “right” answer.
That said, in terms of textbook definitions there’s a general consensus about what happiness is.
What does Merriam-Webster have to say about happiness? The dictionary was founded 185+ years ago and is considered the go-to source for English dictionaries.
Webster defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment.” Wellbeing involves one’s health/happiness while contentment is related to one’s satisfaction. So, if you want to go by the technical definition “happiness” is about people being healthy and satisfied.
Keep in mind this is a technical definition, so there’s some debate about whether it’s true or fallacious. What’s important is it’s a starting point since it’s an objective definition by a dictionary company that’s sold 50+ million copies.
In addition, it seems logical that having good health and feeling contentment is a practical definition of what it means to be happy. How happy is someone who’s suffering from the common cold or aches and pains, right?
It also makes sense that people who are happy have learned to be satisfied with the particular situation they’re in. As it’s often been said in one way or another: we can’t change other people’s actions—only our reactions.
It can be tough to deal with difficult people and situations, but being able to decipher what we can and cannot control is arguably one of the best ways to achieve “happiness.”
If you want to learn how to find happiness one of the best ways is to see what the experts say. Yes, sometimes their ideas seem impractical in the real world, but they have know-how related to areas like human behavior.
Here are some ways happiness experts define the human emotion:
In other words, this school of thought is about focusing on people’s actual experiences instead of their reflections on it. Here’s the thing. Studies show that people’s view about happiness can be different when people recall/reflect.
The argument is that happiness is more complex than many experts claim it is. When people reflect on past experiences, they tend to focus on experiences in terms of positivity, starts, and endings. This can change how we view happiness because we tend to pick and choose about what made us happy.
Some experts argue that happiness is about our relationships with people and things. That includes ourselves, other people, work, and something larger than ourselves.
This approach combines ancient and modern views on happiness.
For example, does happiness come from within or things/people in our lives like work and friends/relatives? Some happiness experts say how to be happy is about one or the other. Others say it’s a blend of how we feel and our interaction with the external world.
It’s not a game-changer theory to refer to happiness as an emotion. However, some experts argue that it’s that and only that. It’s a long-term emotion rather than one that people experience in the spur of the moment. In other words, happiness is about long-term wellbeing/contentment.
Some experts argue that happiness is better defined not by how it’s defined but instead who defines it. In other words, they say there’s no single definition that defines “happiness.”
Instead, the happiness of people can be many things. It can involve emotions, pleasure, satisfaction, meaning, contentment, and so on. They point out that philosophers have been trying to define happiness for quite a long time, so it’s virtually impossible to give it a textbook definition.
Instead, these experts argue that happiness is about achieving “well-being” that is subjectively defined. What’s more important is that they experience positive emotions related to happiness instead of ones like sadness that are connected to unhappiness.
This concept of happiness focuses on different levels of happiness. In other words, there’s a difference between being achievements playing Candy Crush and reaching your full potential as a person.
Here are the three levels of happiness that are often linked to this theorization:
Some experts argue that our memories are more important than our experiences. They explain it’s not effective to focus on happiness in terms of our pleasures / displeasures we experience on a day-to-day business.
These happiness experts argue happiness is more about our memories. The main difference is our memories focus on long-term good times instead of experiences that often change from good to bad.
Theorists like Martin Seligman argue that people can achieve happiness by achieving a balance of:
It’s believed people who can balance these three happiness-related aspects of life will be the happiest.
These are two ingredients required for happiness according to some experts. It’s not enough just to have positive feelings 100% of the time. That’s part of the equation, but it’s also important to be content about whatever situation you’re in.
In other words, it’s critical to have certain feelings to be happy, but that’s not all. It’s just as important to have the right judgments.
Even if you’re going through some challenging situations, you can still be happy. That’s the case if you’re content about whatever that situation may be. That might not be easy, but it’s critical.
When we define “happiness” it really depends on what you mean. For example, some people say happiness is related to enjoying life, feeling good, etc. In terms of this definition of happiness, it’s really more about who you ask instead of what it is.
Some experts argue that happiness is about “fullness.” This involves different areas of our lives like living and working. It’s about having experiences that make us “full” whether it’s in our home or work life.
What’s it all about? This concept of happiness is more about our perception of our lives instead of the exterior situations that affect them. The result is our conscience becoming more mature and complex.
Yes, sometimes we face some tough situations in life that can be tough to deal with. However, if we take this approach, we can still have a positive outlook even if we’re going through tough times. It’s not easy, but it can be quite effective.
Harvard researcher Tal Ben Shahar explains in his book Happier that happiness is about pleasure and meaning in our lives. More specifically, it’s about our experiences related to those factors.
While pleasure is about the short-term benefits of happiness meaning is about the long-term ones. So, the Harvard professor argues that happiness isn’t the extreme of hedonists’ definition but also isn’t about making long-term plans that will result in a feeling of satisfaction. In a word, it’s complicated.
If you’re looking for ways to be happy you should definitely consider long-term academic research. Here are some major studies on happiness.
An interesting Harvard University study dating back 80 years ago to 1938 has researched what makes people truly happy. The original goal of the study that started during the Great Depression wanted to learn about what caused people to have lives that were healthy and happy.
The study focused on Harvard sophomores during the pre-World War 2 era. Fewer than 20 of the participants in the study are still alive. In fact, the study is so long-term that it later included the participants’ offspring.
The Harvard study tracked the p health of the subjects, which were all male since Harvard banned female students in the late 1930s. It focused on the successes and failures of the students in terms of their professional and private lives.
The director’s study Robert Waldinger explains that the surprising was surprising. That’s because the study revealed that people’s relationships have a big influence on their health.
This doesn’t mean that eating right and exercising regularly aren’t important. However, taking care of your relationships is also important and can make people happier.
The study found that close relationships were the most important factor in happiness. They were more critical than money or fame.
How important are they?
Relationships have more influence than things like genes, IQ, or social class. Relationships are important for keeping people content during tough times and maintaining good mental/physical health.
The Harvard study found a strong link between people’s personal relationships and successful careers. This included relationships with relatives, friends, and community.
In fact, one interesting finding showed that healthy relationships were even more important than low cholesterol among subjects that reached the age of 80. Those who were happiest about their relationships at 50-years-old were, in fact, the healthiest at 80-years-old.
One specific finding was that marital satisfaction had a huge effect on the subjects’ mental health. An interesting finding was people in their 80s who had happy marriages didn’t have lower moods on days their physical pain spiked. These types of relationships also resulted in happier and longer lives.
The study also showed that people who didn’t smoke/drink heavily also tended to live longer lives. Good social support was another factor that helped to maintain good mental health.
So, does this mean that happy couples never bicker? In fact, the study found that some of the couples 80+ years old squabbled on a daily basis. However, the main difference was the couples could count on each other during tough times, which minimized the effects of small arguments.
The Harvard study also showed that midlife relationships were more important than genetics in terms of happiness and lifespan. The study showed that people’s personalities can indeed change at 30+ years old contrary to popular belief. Many of the participants who were “train wrecks” in their 20s turned out to be healthy and happy people in the80s.
Waldinger shares that it’s very easy for people to get isolated today. That’s due to hectic lifestyles that cause people to get caught up in their work. However, he notes the study reveals the importance of developing our relationships. In fact, it’s caused him to focus more on relationships than during the past.
Here’s a video about the 80-year Harvard study:
A meta study by Dr. Ed Diener from the University of Illinois (UI) studied the effects of happiness on health and longevity. It included 160+ studies on human/animal subjects. The study found “compelling” evidence that happy people live healthier and longer lives.
This probably isn’t surprising but let’s get to the nitty-gritty of the meta study published in the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. The study reviewed 8 kinds of studies.
For example, one 40+-year-old study followed almost 5,000 university students. The study found the students who had negative attitudes tended to die younger than their schoolmates who were optimistic.
Another study followed nearly 200 Catholic nuns from early adulthood to senior age. It discovered that the ones who penned positive autobiographies in their 20s usually out-lived ones who wrote negative reports.
In addition, animal studies also showed a close link between stress and bad health. The studies showed that animals that experienced more stress were also more likely to have lower immune systems, heart disease, and die younger.
How serious can a bad marriage be? The researchers also discovered that marriages with conflicts and hostility often resulted in results like low immune systems and slower wound healing. So, a marriage on the rocks can definitely be bad for your health.
The meta study also found that lab experiments on students discovered that positive moods boosted the immune system and lowered hormones that are stress-related. It also resulted in faster heart recovery.
Diener shared he was “shocked” and “surprised” by the data. The meta study included several types of studies that all had the same conclusion. Our mood states can have an effect on a person’s health and how long they live.
The UI professor argues that recommendations for good health shouldn’t just be related to a good diet, exercising regularly, and not smoking. Diener says that it’s also important to be happy and avoid serious anger/depression.
The school’s researchers note that people with strong connections are happier due to surveys. In terms of a biological explanation, the human body contains systems that cause us to become more social.
They include the mesolimbic dopamine system. This system not only is linked to addiction but also makes people happier in the case they give to other people. When people are helpful/cooperating this results in pleasure.
One study at the University of Oregon involved a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. The UO economist then told the participants they would sometimes give their earnings to charity and other times they would keep it. An interesting result was the brain’s areas linked to pleasure/reward lit up when they were told their money would go to charity.
Some research implies that about half of the difference in happiness among the two twins is related to genes.
Meanwhile, a study at the University of California Riverside implies that life situations make up around 10% of the difference in happiness. Almost half of that figure is related to daily life experiences.
Some studies seem to disprove the UCR findings. However, in the case they’re correct it shows we are able to change our personal happiness.
That includes having a new perspective about other people that are less competitive or fearful, for example. Another option is practices like gratitude that produce self-awareness.
UC Berkeley argues that it’s indeed possible to achieve the balance that makes people happy. Various studies have shown that certain habits like perfectionism can prevent people from being truly happy.
The good news is research shows that people can take steps in order to feel happy. There are various steps like gratitude, mindfulness, kindness, and forgiveness. These various actions are ones that help to connect with people in our lives like friends and family.
Here are historical perspectives from famous philosophers about finding happiness:
What did the famous Chinese philosopher say about happiness? He argued people’s personal world and the whole Earth would be improved if they focus on good thoughts. This was an early version of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) that tries to connect people’s thoughts/feelings/behaviors.
Confucius argued that if we find reasons for happiness to exist then it will exist in our lives. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
Buddhism is founded on the teaching of the sage Gautama Buddha. It’s believed Buddha lived in the NE region of ancient India.
Buddha interestingly wrote that “There is no path to happiness.” Instead, he argued that happiness itself is the path. In a sense, it’s a version of the old saying “Half the fun is getting there.”
Buddha argued that we should focus on finding happiness during our journey during life. This is more important than trying to reach some sort of end goal.
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates wrote that the secret of happiness isn’t found in “seeking more” but instead the ability to “enjoy less.” He argued that we don’t become happy by getting things like rewards.
It instead results from internal success people give themselves. When we reduce how much we need to can appreciate basic pleasures better.
Plato was Socrates’ student. He wrote that people could live happily if they depend on themselves instead of other people, in order to achieve happiness.
The main difference is Plato focuses on personal growth. He argued people are happy/satisfied based on their personal achievements instead of the stuff you can get from them.
Aristotle was Plato’s student. He argued that happiness was something we could develop on our own. It’s not something people give us. Instead, we create happiness within ourselves, and we are responsible for protecting it.
The Danish philosopher wrote that life isn’t a “problem” we have to solve. It’s instead a reality that we should experience. This was basically his version of “seize the day.” Kierkegaard believed that we could get satisfaction from our situations/problems if we consider them as experiences.
The American transcendentalist wrote that happiness is like a butterfly. In other words, it gets away when we chase it, but if we focus on other things, it will “sit on your shoulder.” It seems Thoreau believed that randomness could help him achieve happiness.
The German philosopher and nihilist have had a major impact on Western philosophy. He argued happiness is a type of control a person has over their environment.
Nietzsche often wrote on how power affects people’s experiences. For example, when someone resists they get back their agency, which can result in happiness.
If you want to learn how to be happy you can get some clues from some of the world’s happiest countries. What’s it all about? Every year the United Nations (UN) conducts a happiness survey that includes 150+ countries around the world. It’s based on various factors including life expectancy, social support, and life choices.
What were the results? The happiest countries were in Scandinavian countries including Finland, Norway, Switzerland, and Iceland. While America scored high at 18th it’s interesting Canada was 7th. Let’s take a closer look at the results of the UN survey.
Developed countries above the equator tend to be happier. The authors of the World Happiness Report explain that the top spots aren’t held by the world’s wealthiest countries per se. However, they have decent incomes, social programs, and community trust.
Developed countries generally lack many of the problems of developing/under-developed countries including over-population and corruption.
So, does this result in the citizens being happier? They’re major factors but don’t automatically result in happiness. For example, a strong economy and social programs can certainly make your life easier, but it doesn’t mean you’ll be happy.
Here’s a list of the Top 10 happiest countries based on the UN survey:
Meik Wiking works at Happiness Research Institute (Denmark). He notes that Finland is at the top of the rankings is “remarkable.” The reason is the per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the Scandinavian country is lower than the other Nordic countries.
In other words, it’s not about how much money Finnish people make. It’s about how they improve their health/wellbeing with that wealth. Nordic countries have high tax rates, but that translates into investments like an outstanding public transport system, free healthcare/collect, and so on.
It’s also worth noting that while the top 5 spots in the rankings included the same Northern European countries in 2017 and 2018 Finland made the biggest jump from #5 last year to the top spot in 2018.
An X-factor to Finland’s 2018 ranking in the UN happiness survey could ironically be related to an old saying that happiness is about having your own “red summer cottage” and “potato field.”
Factors like free health care and education make it easier for Finnish people to find a work-life balance. This results in a small difference in the lifestyles of wealthy and poor people. The country has also been ranked as one of the top countries for working women and mothers.
There’s also a high degree of happiness for immigrants. That’s greatly due to many immigrants being from countries with similar cultures including Russia and Estonia. Finland also has solid integration policies and support network.
People become happy for a wide range of different triggers. However, studies show that certain things tend to make people happy:
Comfort food includes our go-to foods/dishes we love to eat. Even if you’re on a diet, you’re sometimes allowed “cheat meals” that can include these types of items. Whether it’s pizza, popcorn, or chips & dip such items can make people happy.
How can having less make you happier? Studies show that giving, e.g. to charities is related to the part of the brain related to pleasure/reward. The reason for giving shouldn’t be to make you feel better about yourself, but it’s a benefit you can enjoy.
The main point here is that giving can make you happier. Think about this fact: Nearly half the world lives on $2.50/day. It's highly unlikely humans will ever wipe out poverty but donating to legit/registered charities could certainly help to make the world a better place.
This could involve things ranging from your PC desktop to your home or workstation. This can provide various benefits.
For example, you can think faster because your work environment is clutter-free. On the other hand, if your home or office is a mess, it can cause stress and even sadness.
“Money can’t buy you happiness” is an old saying but most people wouldn’t complain about having more of it. In addition, it really depends on how you spend the money. Some people are happy by buying lots of material possessions, but that’s because they’re materialistic.
A “better” use of money is to create experiences. That’s through activities like traveling, hobbies, events, etc. Decades from now you’ll be more likely to remember climbing Mt. Everest vs. the smartphone you used to snap a photo from the apex.
Sometimes you just need some time to unwind and get away from your day-to-day life. It’s good to spend some time every day to clear your mind through activities like meditation, yoga, etc. Sometimes it’s good to be alone and especially if you don’t have enough “me time” in your life.
Exercise and sports can provide several physical and mental benefits. They include ones for your heart, lungs, and muscles. Exercise can release feel-good hormones known as endorphins that produce a “runner’s high.”
Just like physical activity rest/sleep can also make people happy. Most sleep experts recommend adults get 7-9 hours of sleep/night.
Being thankful for specific things can actually make you happier. One option is to keep a gratitude journal. This creates a written record of what you’re thankful about. It’s good to have such a record since you can review it from time to time and determine if you want to add anything.
Another option is to think about what you’re thankful when you wake up every morning. This could be basic things like having food, clothes, and shelter. We often take such items for granted, but many people in the world don’t’ have them.
You could also be thankful for other things. They include achievements you’ve made, people who are important to you, etc. Sometimes we don’t consider how important these things/people are in our lives.
Whether it’s photography, gaming, or bottle cap collecting, starting and developing a hobby can make you a happy camper. Keep searching until you find a hobby that you truly enjoy doing.
You’ve probably heard of the saying that “Laughter is the best medicine.” Now we know why that’s the case. When we laugh we release a “happy hormone” known as oxytocin. The hormone lifts our spirits when we share good experiences with other people.
In fact, just smiling can help boost the mood of the smiler and people around them. Yes, it’s also true that smiling is contagious.
If you’re looking for methods about how to make yourself happy here are some of the top tips:
When figuring out how to be happier, it’s important to learn your strengths/weaknesses.
When you focus on your strengths, you’ll have a better chance at success, and that, in turn, will help to boost your mood and contentment. We all have fortes, but we can’t be good at everything.
In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie shares the tip that we should never criticize, condemn, or complain. The main reason is people will usually think they’re right (even when they’re wrong).
If you stop nagging you’ll put out good vibes and boost happiness. This doesn’t mean you can’t have high expectations for people. However, people don’t want to hear complaints about the same thing 100x/day.
Some options are to take on more responsibilities yourself and using one-word reminders instead of long-winded speeches. If you stop nagging you not only will make others happier but also yourself.
As basic as these steps are many of us aren’t taking them. In the US alone one-third of adults aren’t regularly getting 7-8 hours of sleep. Catching enough Z’s can provide several health benefits including your mood.
Meanwhile, about 40% of the world’s adult population is overweight (2016). While eating too much fast/junk food provides short-term happiness it can result in various physical and mental issues including high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, and depression.
While genetics are a factor, studies show that we can control about 40% of our happiness. Even if you’re naturally a serious or melancholy person, you can be active in improving your mood.
Exercise can boost your energy levels and mood. You can take a walk in the park or do some bicep curls if you’re not ready to run a marathon.
Studies show these activities can provide several mental and physical benefits. They include lowering stress, controlling anxiety, boosting attention span, treat addiction, and maybe lower age-related memory loss.
In the digital age, we’re bombarded with information 24/7. So, it’s important to unplug daily and clear your mind. Meditation and yoga give you the chance to slow down, shut out the world, and focus on the basics like breathing. This, in turn, can help to make you a happier person.
The famous playwright Williams Shakespeare once wrote that “Thinking makes it so.” If you want to feel happier, it starts with your mind. If you have a bad day try to think happy thoughts. If you’re feeling anger at someone do something kind for them. These techniques can help to turn a frown upside-down.
The happiest countries in the world are as such mostly because they reinvest money back into the country. When spending money make sure you’re investing in things that will improve your health and wellbeing.
It could be a gym membership, healthy food, digital camera, etc. These investments can improve your quality of life and thus your happiness.
In one Seinfeld episode, George’s father learns an anger management technique that requires him to say “serenity now” whenever he feels stressed. Does it work? At the end of the episode, Jerry’s friend Kramer ends up destroying several computers as a result of bottled-up anger.
There’s some debate about what the best anger management techniques are. Before bedtime, you should try to rid your mind of petty issues that are causing anger. This will not only help to make you happier but also prevent you from tossing and turning all night.
“Satisficers” (yes, it’s a thing) make decisions once they meet their criteria (e.g., food or hotel) while maximizers consider all options before making a decision. Satisficers tend to be happier.
We often think that treating ourselves to comfort food, wine, a pair of jeans, etc. will help to get rid of the blues. The problem with this approach is it’s only a short-term fix. You can help cheer yourself up with these treats but remember it doesn’t deal with the root cause of the sadness/depression.
Studies show that new experiences and challenging tasks are important to the pursuit of happiness. While some people dislike surprises, they can actually stimulate the brain and produce a sense of satisfaction.
People who try new stuff are generally happier than others who do the same activities day after day. It could include traveling to a new place or learning a new board game. Even early failure can be fun until you achieve success.
So, what’s the secret to happiness? It depends who you ask.
For some people, it’s short-term pleasure while others look for long-term contentment. Happiness can be based on our own consciousness or external factors including situations and relationships. Some people are happy when their basic needs are met, while others strive to be the world’s richest person.
The key is to figure out how you define happiness then take steps about how to be happy. It might involve achieving decades-long goals or eating some tasty comfort food when you’re having a bad day. What’s important is to constantly take steps to do whatever makes you a happy camper-maybe literally.