what makes us happy according to science

Ask any parent what their hopes are for their children as they grow and ‘happiness’ will feature highly in their reply. We all want to be happy. But do we know what actually makes us happy? Neuroscientists and psychologists are often involved in the pursuit of happiness – or, more accurately, what makes us happy. Is there scientific knowledge we could be using to chase the happiness dream?

Before we get stuck into the scientific nitty gritty, there are a couple of points to note. Firstly, happiness isn’t a permanent state of affairs. It’s not a destination. Life isn’t all about the highs. Put simply, the highs wouldn’t be ‘high’ if it weren’t for a smattering of lows. Secondly, we need to know what elements of our own ‘happiness’ we can control. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, the author of the How of Happiness, suggests that 50% of our happiness is determined by our genes, 10% due to what’s going on around us, leaving 40% down to our own control.

Let’s take a look at what science tells us about what makes us happy.

1. Relationships should be a priority

We know it on some level – we’re a social species and that contributes to our wellbeing and happiness. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which tracked a study group for over 70 years, discovered that the happiest were those who had strong positive relationships. They operated in a world of trust and support.
Cultivating positive relationships is crucial to our happiness. So take the time to invest in those around you and build your support network of friends and family.

2. Altruism pays

Closely linked to cultivating relationships, we should realise that caring for others can in fact make us happier. Psychologists have shown how caring behaviour can help us fare better psychologically and physiologically. Interestingly, several studies such as those by Morrow-Howell et al (2003) and Wheeler et al (1998) show this correlation between altruism and wellbeing is even more marked as we get older.

You can engage in volunteering as a way of doing good, and hopefully making yourself feel better in the bargain.

3. Time is more important than money

We’re quite good at spouting this one, but are we any good at truly following it? In fact, research shows it’s not even about achieving this balance, but simply approaching life with this understanding which is important: Hershfield et al (2016) state that people who choose time over money are happier. However, we can’t ignore money altogether. A famous study by Princeton University showed how money does help – up to a certain point ($75,000 to be precise). At that point, additional income doesn’t equate to higher happiness.

4. Exercising your way to happiness is not a myth

Exercising releases endorphins which help us feel good. A complex 11-year study from Harvard University shows that older adults who are ‘happier’ are more likely to be physically active. However, delve a little deeper and it’s not quite so clear-cut. It appears there is a ‘synergistic feedback loop’. This means the happier you are, the more you exercise. So it’s a bit chicken and egg, which comes first – exercise or happiness?

Whatever the actual case, get exercising and see for yourself the positive effects it can have.

5. Keeping learning – it’s good for you

Learning is not just for your school years but should be a lifelong focus. This study explains how studying or learning something new may appear to be stressful in the short term, but in the long term it makes you happier. It increases your sense of wellbeing, possibly due to building self-efficacy and confidence.

Sign up for an online course or attend an evening class knowing you’re filling your happiness reserves.

6. Be creative

Despite the Van Gogh stereotype that creative types are less happy, this study, more recently backed up by another, shows that creativity is associated with, and a driver of, happiness. Short bursts of creativity lead to feelings of happiness, well-being and energy.

Even if you feel you’re not naturally creative, you should take a little time every day to find your creative niche. Learn a new art, sew, craft, or even simply colour your way to happiness.

7. Green is good

A study that was actually focused on wellbeing at work looked at the science of natural elements being important to our wellbeing. It looked at such things as plants and sunlight exposure on employee mental health. The outcome was that the more exposure to natural elements, the greater the sense of wellbeing. Conversely, less exposure was linked to depression and anxiety.
Aim to get some natural light every day, and pop some natural plants in your living space.

8. Practice mindfulness

MRI scans show that mindfulness can both make you happier and reduce stress. That’s right: the process of slowing down, focusing on the breath, and meditating can make you happier. In fact, it brings other benefits such as improved physical health and a stronger immune system, even less pain. The psychologist, Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book, the How of Happiness that we mentioned earlier, states:

“A series of studies conducted at the University of Rochester focused on people ‘high in mindfulness’, that is, those who are prone to be mindfully attentive to the here and now and keenly aware of their surroundings. It turns out that such individuals are models of flourishing mental health. Relative to the average person, they are more likely to be happy, optimistic, self-confident and satisfied with their lives, and less likely to be depressed, angry, anxious, hostile, self-conscious, impulsive or neurotic.”What’s great is that mindfulness isn’t tricky or the reserve of Buddhist meditators. You can incorporate the mindful practice into the here and now, and learn this skill easily using online tools, apps and books.

The science of happiness can help us determine how we should live to increase our own happiness. It’s good to know how we can positively affect our mental state.