The biggest factors in feeling successful are social - the result of humans being a social species. Or, in other words, if you're helping your kith, you're happy.
Social science research makes it clear that to be happy and content you have to have certain minimums: enough basic resources in order to feel safe and secure in body, family, and career and enough money to take some chances and explore. But beyond these minimums, the biggest factors in feeling successful are social, the result of our being a social species.
Over and over in my research group's studies of social signaling, we see evidence that people are ruled by common sense: the habits our circle of peers - our kith - have in common. In many everyday situations, people often let the attitudes and actions of their kithmates, rather than logic or argument, be the dominant guide for their beliefs and actions. Not only do these kithmates serve to modify our attitudes and beliefs, but they are also fundamental to our happiness.
We see this link between kith and contentment in several of our research studies in business settings. In each of these office situations, we outfitted workers with specially designed badges that allow us to track and record information such as the wearers' location, direction, as well as interactions between badge wearers. We used these badges to track the activities of employees in a call center, as well as IT workers in a separate office setting. In each study, employees answered a short set of daily questions to gauge their workplace stress; these included questions such as "How stressed were you today?" and "How well managed was your group today?" and "How well did your group perform today?"
When employees' answers indicated more stress, the result was an increase in their kith index the following week. A kith index is a measure Ben Waber and I have developed to give a quick sense of the cohesion of a group. Cohesion in these situations is a measure of how interconnected the social network is; in other words, do the people you talk to also talk to one another? That is, when stressed, people tend to turn to their kithmates for support and form a more tightly knit group. And the result of this increased cohesion? Lower stress and increased contentment.
These findings echo work from other social scientists. For example, in recent years the work of Robert Putman (Bowling Alone, and Better Together) has generated much public discussion through its many examples of how Americans have become increasingly disconnected from one another. His data also show a strong link between connectedness and happiness; when we are socially connected, we are happier.
Evolution seems to have stamped these keys to happiness and contentment into our genes - we feel good today when we are behaving in ways that made our ancestors successful. Mastery over life skills, curiosity and learning, social support, and shared goals were keys to the survival and prosperity of early humans. If you think of humans as a social species (which we are, undeniably) then it makes sense to think of us as tuned to do things to help the group.
Putman, Robert D. (2000) Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of the American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Putman, Robert D. & Feldstein, Lewis M. (2003) Better together: Restoring the American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.