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What Does It Take to Be Happy?

Lessons from positive psychology.

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In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson claims that we all have certain “unalienable” rights, among which he counts “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Philosophers have long debated how to find happiness in life—seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, achieving tranquility, accepting nothingness. Now, researchers in the field of positive psychology—the so-called “science of happiness”—think they’ve found the keys.

When people are asked about what makes them happy in life, we find there are three keys:

The first is sufficient material resources. This means no worries about meeting our basic biological needs—food, clothing, shelter, health, and so on. It also includes the means to do things in life that are enjoyable. In modern Western society, this translates into money. It comes as no surprise, then, that income is positively correlated with happiness—but only if the other two keys are in hand.

The second key is sufficient social resources. We all need to have meaningful relationships with family members and friends. Our social needs vary according to our personality. Extraverts need a lot more social interaction than introverts, but none of us can be happy unless our baseline social needs are met.

This also explains why pursuing money doesn’t always lead to increased happiness. When we work long hours for big bucks, we may end up sacrificing our social relationships. What’s the sense of holding down a second job to pay off that boat if you never have time to take your family on it? Further, whether you’re rich or poor depends more on your attitude than your paycheck. Millionaires can get depressed because they’re not billionaires.

The third key is living in a stable environment. All of us have a need to make sense of the world and to understand our place in it. Faith fills that role for many. Religion provides us with a belief system that brings order to our chaotic world, and it helps us understand that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

There's no doubt that our need to perceive order in the world drove the rise of religion with the dawn of humans. It’s important to understand that we’re not talking about a particular religion, or even any established faith. Rather, to be happy we need to have some sort of spirituality—a sense that we somehow fit into the larger scheme of things. Whether that belief system has any basis in fact is irrelevant when it comes to achieving happiness in life.

You can have all three keys—material resources, social resources, and a stable environment—and still be unhappy. These three keys represent the external causes of happiness. There are internal causes as well, the most important being the possession of a positive attitude.

Even if you’re grumpy by nature, you can still put a smile on your face and some cheer in your voice. Moods are actually quite easy to manipulate, and this “fake it till you make it” approach works because of a pair of feedback loops: One loop is in your nervous system—if your brain detects that your smile muscles are engaged, it assumes you must be happy. The other loop is in your social environment—when you’re nice to other people, they tend to be nice back to you.

But a positive attitude involves more than just thinking happy thoughts. As University of Missouri psychologist Laura King and her colleagues point out, happiness also depends on a sense that life has meaning. We need to pursue goals and have the sense that we're making a contribution to society. While experiencing meaning in life doesn’t necessarily make us happy, the sense that our lives are meaningless can have devastating consequences: People who feel their lives have no meaning are at greater risk for stroke, heart attack, and Alzheimer’s disease, compared to those who report that their lives are meaningful.

As King and her colleagues point out, tragedy occurs when people lose the sense that life has meaning. A feeling that life is pointless is a typical symptom of depression and a driver of suicide. (Meanwhile, family and friends wonder how the deceased loved one couldn’t have known how much he or she had meant to all of them.) Further, when people sense that their lives have no meaning, they may seek meaning in death instead. Such thinking is at least part of what drives mass shooters and suicide bombers to commit their heinous acts.

Happiness isn't a luxury for a privileged few; it’s an essential ingredient of a healthy and productive life. As Jefferson wrote, each of us has the right to pursue happiness. The science of positive psychology shows us the way.

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).

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King, L. A., Heintzelman, S. J., & Ward, S. J. (2016). Beyond the search for meaning: A contemporary science of the experience of meaning in life. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 211-216.

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