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What Makes People Happy?

What makes people want to clap their hands? What makes someone feel like a room without a roof?

If that doesn’t sound familiar, then you haven’t heard the Pharrell Williams song “Happy”. The upbeat melody is addictive, and just hearing it will lift your spirits. It’s the perfect mood music for an article about what makes people happy! If you want to listen while you read, here’s the official version:

The experts say, not surprisingly, that we derive more happiness from what we experience than from the material gain we rack up. One study lists these as the three most important factors:

  1. the quality of our close relationships with family and others
  2. having work or a hobby that is meaningful, enjoyable, and/or challenging
  3. charity and helping others

That first one tops just about every list you’ll find. The relationships in our lives have the biggest influence on our level of happiness. One of our basic human needs is for strong connections with family and friends. We need the face-to-face interaction, the hugs and pats on the back, and knowing that we have a social support group in good times and bad.

Very closely related to this is charity. You’ve probably heard that if you want to cheer yourself up, go do something for someone else, and it works.

Charitable giving, volunteering, and even random acts of kindness can go a long way toward boosting our own state of happiness.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” The Dalai Lama

What else affects our happiness?

Some of the other factors that show up in various order on different lists include:

  • positive thinking and attitude
  • gratefulness and appreciation
  • the ability to forgive, and to let go of the past
  • personal freedom in making individual life choices
  • belief systems, whether religious beliefs or a personal creed

What about good health and youth? Don’t those affect our happiness? Yes, but maybe not the way you might think.

Poor health can definitely have a negative effect on our happiness level. Even something as simple as a head cold can make us too miserable to feel very happy about anything. Yet at the same time, good health doesn’t necessarily make us happier because we take it for granted.

Age doesn’t matter either. Younger people often assume that the elderly are unhappier, but studies of older people indicate otherwise. It seems to be more a matter of perception.

SkijumpOlder Couple

Younger people more often glean happiness from extraordinary experiences, while older people tend to derive happiness from very ordinary experiences.

What Makes People Happy is Getting In Flow

That difference in how individuals perceive their own happiness might well be explained by flow, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He describes it as being so absorbed in an activity that we forget about ourselves and our worries and even lose track of time.

You might be in a state of flow while playing the piano, or while doing brain surgery, or while racing skillfully down a difficult ski slope, or while on the job when you’re doing work that is truly meaningful to you. It’s completely individual, so it can be anything. It can even involve watching TV. Mindless entertainment doesn’t count, of course, but if you choose a program you really want to watch and you get feedback from it, you can be in flow.

Most of us can identify certain activities that put us in that state, or somewhere very close to it. We know because we’ve been there.

Do You Know What Will Make You Happy?

Apparently, though, we humans aren’t terribly good at figuring out in advance what will make us happy. Researchers tell us that there is usually quite a difference between:

what we think is going to make us happy
what actually does make us happy

This brings to mind the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun”. [Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know the ending, skip the next paragraph.]

Stephen Sobhi - Under the Tuscan sun - 144DC “Under the Tuscan Sun”
Photo by Stephen Sobhi on flickr, CC License

In the movie, the main character has a very clear vision of exactly what she wants her ideal life to be. She’s pretty specific about certain things she wants to occur in her future, in the lovely Tuscan villa she has made her home. In the end, she gets everything she wanted, but none of it in the way she expected. Everything that was important in her original dreams does come true. The details are just quite different from what she had imagined.

That’s a very good lesson in trying to understand and predict what makes people happy. These two quotes sum it up well:

If you knew exactly what the future held, you still wouldn’t know how much you would like it when you got there. We should have more trust in our own resilience and less confidence in our predictions about how we’ll feel.” ~ Dr. Daniel Gilbert
A very good career choice would be to gravitate toward those activities and to embrace those desires that harmonize with your core intentions, which are freedom and growth – and joy. Make a ‘career’ of living a happy life rather than trying to find work that will produce enough income that you can do things with your money that will then make you happy.” ~ Abraham Hicks

Another way to say it is, be completely invested in the process, and remain completely unattached to the outcome.

You might not get exactly what you expect.
You might get something better!

Happiness Quote, Emerson - Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful...

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