Do We Even Know What Makes People Happy?

Do We Even Know What Makes People Happy?

Well, come to find out we do!  Even though this may seem like a nebulous science, psychologists of course study these things.  Quantitatively.

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And have been studying happiness for long enough to give us rock-solid insights.

I just love when science proves theories.  It tweaks me. 

The things we once thought created happiness, most of us found, didn’t.  Those have been proven as well.  Money doesn’t buy it (although try being truly poor—it does consume you).  Even health doesn’t, as was a common wisdom up ‘til now.  Unless you’re terribly ill and suffering, of course, health doesn’t have much effect on happiness.

Funny enough, no extrinsic motivation plays a part in what makes people happy.  You know, engaging in something in order to win a medal, a promotion, a gold star.

We talk a lot here about how happiness is an inside job.  And studies  have now born that out, finding, in part, that once you’ve been externally rewarded for performing, you assign too much importance to that.  And then you need more of it to sustain the feeling.  So that the thing you perhaps once loved to do becomes a chore or an obligation, as it’s now tied to the external reward, rather than just engaging in it because you love it.

I allowed this to happen recently.  I absolutely adore Labrador Retrievers.  Love everything about them, and love showing, competing, testing in obedience and field, and just the joy of being with them.

So then my competitive nature took hold, and titles became really important.  I mean they are—that’s why we do all this training!  LOL.  But I started to feel pressure to earn titles.  And you guessed it—the training ceased being fun.  Once I realized that, I backed off, loved my dogs, and now compete for the fun of it again.

So, in scientific terms, what makes people happy?


Everyone has things they’re naturally good at.  And other things that, well, maybe you’re not so good at.  And while working on weaknesses helps you to improve, come to find out, when you play up those strengths, you’re happier.  Not rocket science, but people often have to be reminded to do so!  Especially when you’re going against the flow of common wisdom.

Martin D. Seligman, PH.D.’s work bears this out. His studies showed how the happiest people play to their signature strengths.  And that while doing so may lead to choices that baffle or shock others, they lead to lasting personal satisfaction.  (You can take his test for free, and find yours!)


You know that feeling—when you’re so immersed in something, the world around you disappears and time stands still.  Claremont Graduate University psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the phrase to describe this phenomenon, and has studied it extensively.

It doesn’t matter what the activity is, only that you lose yourself when doing so.  That’s what writing is for me.  Especially when immersed in writing fiction, I’m in that world—the place, with the people, going through the course of a story.  The outside Earth fades completely away, and I’m one with my fictional landscape.  It’s my way of prayer.  As Csikszentmihalyi says, a life of activities in flow is likely to be one of great satisfaction.

It really is the journey.


So many studies have borne this out.  One that tweaked me showed that Olympic bronze medalists who felt lucky to get a medal are happier than silver medalists who thought they missed the gold!  Makes sense, no?  Although that seems like a no-brainer, how often have you marred your own happiness by negating a nice placement by wishing you’d have won?  I know I have.

Then I think how silly that is. If I did my best, enjoyed the process, then I’m happy with the recognition.

How we think about events is much more important to our well-being than the event itself. 


Of course, something I talk about a lot!  Psychologists have studied this for decades now, and spiritual teachings have always shown it.  Keeping a gratitude journal, can change your life. 

Because you literally cannot be in gratitude and fear at the same time.  And as A Course in Miracles teaches, there are only 2 feelings in this world: Love and Fear.

Gratitude is Grace.  It’s the quickest and surest way I’ve ever known to lead you to being happy. 

And it takes the entire extrinsic motivation out of the process.

And finally:


Another no-brainer, right?  But talk about the coolest proving of anything ever!  The Grant Study followed a group of men throughout their entire lives.  Detailed in Triumphs of Experience by George E. Valliant, the study found that “The capacity to live and be loved was the single strength most clearly associated with subjective well-being at age eighty.”  


Only one characteristic distinguished the happiest 10% from everybody else: The strength of their social relationships.  The more social support you have, the happier you are. 

I can vouch for this ‘til the Sun loops around the Universe.  And I’m grateful every single day for those closest to me.

So, play to your strengths.  Get in the flow.  Think Positive.  Be grateful.  Hug your friends and family. 

Enjoy your life.

How do you find happiness?


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