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The Science of Happiness

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Although happiness can feel like an amorphous concept, science has explored key pieces of the experience, such as which choices, activities, and mindsets lead to fulfillment, common misunderstandings of happiness, and theories that may explain the origin and attainment of well-being.

What Makes People Happy?

Finding satisfaction and contentment is a continual process. Psychologists have now identified many of the tenets that help individuals along that journey.

Happiness incorporates curiosity, and the ability to tolerate risk and anxiety to discover new passions and facets of identity. It involves a balance between momentary pleasure and longer-term striving toward goals. It is abetted by friends and family who can both celebrate accomplishments and provide support after failures. Happiness includes the ability to acknowledge and embrace every emotion, even the unpleasant ones. It involves seeing the big picture, rather than getting stuck in the details. Overall, being happy is to live with mindfulness, meaning, and purpose.

Is it possible to find lasting happiness?

The key to lifelong happiness is taking time to cultivate small tweaks on a regular basis. Incorporating habits into your daily life such as keeping a gratitude journal, practicing kindness, nurturing optimism, learning to forgive, investing in relationships, finding flow activities, avoiding overthinking, savoring life’s joys, and committing to goals can make happiness a permanent fixture.

Are people born happy?

Some people are naturally more optimistic, positive, and content. Although genetics is, in fact, a key determinant of happiness, people who gravitate toward pessimism are able to change their outlook (to an extent) by reframing negative thoughts and preventing self-criticism.

Myths About Happiness

People often want to avoid difficult emotions, so they reach for quick fixes like tasty treats or luxurious purchases. Those indulgences provide happiness, but only momentarily. Yet pinning all hopes of happiness on milestones like getting married, gaining fame, or becoming wealthy is also misleading. Lasting happiness occurs when we invest in meaningful goals, relationships, and values and develop skills to overcome distress.

What are the biggest myths about happiness?

People often believe that accomplishments like marriage and wealth will bring lasting happiness, and adverse experiences such as divorce or disease will bring unremitting sadness. But research reveals that bursts of happiness or sadness tied to specific life events are fairly short. Thoughts like “I’ll be happy when I get married” or “I’ll never recover from this diagnosis” turn out to be misperceptions.

Can people predict what will make them happy?

People are surprisingly bad at anticipating their future happiness. They tend to overestimate how joyous or upsetting events will be: A promotion will not provide unending fulfillment and a breakup will not be hopelessly tragic. People also recall experiences by the beginning, end, and intense or “peak” moments, rather than by the experience as a whole.

Theories of Happiness

Positive psychology is a school of thought devoted to understanding what leads people and communities to flourish. Five agreed-upon factors boost well-being: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Beyond those overarching principles, specific models and concepts have emerged as well.

What is a happiness set point?

Every individual is born with a particular “happiness set point” or a baseline level of happiness, research suggests. After experiencing triumphs or tragedies, people adapt to their new circumstances and their emotions generally return to this genetically-determined level of well-being.

Can you change your set point?

Commitment to compassion and altruism may help reset your happiness set point, as the trait most connected to long-term increases in life satisfaction. Helping others leads a person to be happier—perhaps due to higher self-esteem, a sense of self-worth, or a deeper sense of purpose, feeling that lives are important.

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