Happiness is an emotional state experienced when a person is satisfied with the life they have. Decades of research has improved our understanding of happiness and identified factors that can make a person happier or unhappier. Highlights of these findings are explored here, followed by a list of specific, actionable steps that have been proven to help people become happier.
A multitude of individual factors can cause or contribute to unhappiness, and for this reason there is no rubric everyone can follow to become happier. However, while everyone is different, research has identified specific habits, routines, and circumstances that happy people are more likely to report.
Key takeaways from this research are explored below, along with 15 recommendations for those looking to be happier:
1. Look for the Good
Optimism and happiness go hand-in-hand.1,2,4 While working to have a more positive outlook might not change your circumstances, it can change how you experience them. Confirmation biases, or the human tendency to find evidence to support existing beliefs, are often unconsciously shaping how you perceive and experience events, interactions, and circumstances.
Pessimists may be inadvertently finding confirmation that things that are wrong, bad or missing in their lives, but optimism can help people become more aware of what is going well.
2. Prioritize People
There is extensive evidence that strong, close relationships are the key to happiness, having more of an effect than any other circumstance or habit. Not all relationships are created equal, and quality of relationships matters much more than quantity, helping to explain why strong romantic relationships have the most important effect on happiness.
Feeling understood and accepted by a few people, for instance, is more impactful than having hundreds of people like your Facebook posts.1,2,7
3. Practice Being Present With Mindfulness Exercises
You may not realize how much time you spend dwelling on the past, worrying about the future, or analyzing the present, but these mental habits are often primary sources of unhappiness.1 Mindfulness exercises can help you break these habits, teaching you how to untether from unhappy thoughts and spend more time in your life than you do in your head.
Even dedicating 15-20 minutes a day to a mindfulness routine can help relieve stress and anxiety, reduce rumination, improve focus, and boost your mood and energy levels.4
4. Make a Contribution of Your Time or Resources
Generously giving away your time, talent or money is more likely to bring happiness than being the beneficiary of these contributions. Consider how you can make a positive difference by volunteering, giving to charity, or helping others. This logic extends to your career as well, with people being happier in jobs where they feel like they are helping make a positive impact. Even small, random acts of kindness like giving a compliment or offering to help someone can generate positive feelings and over time, can even create a lasting emotional shift.5
5. Find Things to be Grateful For
Like many, you might think of happiness as something you will experience “if” or “when” you achieve a goal or get something you want. In reality, this kind of thinking keeps you focused on what you lack, leading you to feel dissatisfied. Gratitude reverses this mental habit, teaching you to find things to be grateful for right now. Identifying and writing down three things you are grateful for each day can deepen your appreciation for the life you have right now, instead of one you hope to have in the future.4,11
6. Be Kind to Yourself
Research has found that self-compassion has several positive impacts on psychological health, correlating with higher levels of optimism, initiative, and happiness.6 Work on interrupting toxic self-criticism and practice finding and using a more compassionate inner voice during times when you are insecure or have made a mistake.
Also, self-kindness involves being more attuned and attentive to your own self-care—especially if you tend to ignore, neglect and override your wants and needs. Self-care is something that needs to be a consistent priority, and not just something you do in reaction to stress or unhappiness.4,6
7. Have Flexible Expectations
When you pay attention, you may be surprised at just how many expectations you have of yourself, other people, your work, and specific outcomes you want to occur. Unknowingly, you are probably comparing your reality with these expectations, which can lead to the negative evaluations that are known to cause unhappiness.1,4 Interrupt this mental habit by having more flexible expectations and be willing to abandon what you want to happen when you need to accept what actually is happening.
8. Never Stop Improving by Working Toward New Goals
Happy people are continuously working to learn, grow, and improve themselves and their circumstances, but they are not just in it for the outcome. While meaningful goals are a component of happiness, the experience inherent in striving towards a goal can be just as rewarding as actually realizing a goal.1,4 Energy devoted towards goals boosts happiness from both internal and external channels, improving your self-confidence while also bettering your circumstances.7
9. Learn to Let Go of Mental Clutter
Channel Marie Condo by letting go of anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” While she uses this in reference to the actual things in your closet, you can apply this same logic to any old fear, resentment, or limiting belief you continue to ruminate about. This kind of mental clutter creates an environment that isn’t conducive to happiness, and instead is cluttering your mind, blocking your view of what is good, and causing toxic stress.4
10. Use Your Imagination & Tap Into Your Creativity
Most people think of creativity as a trait or talent that some people have and others lack but this idea tends to come when creativity is defined too narrowly. Art, music, and writing are creative tasks, but redecorating, making a playlist, building a website, and perfecting your apple pie recipe are creative tasks, too. These activities all stimulate the creative brain, allowing you to turn your ideas into reality, and using this part of your brain improves your psychological well-being. Research shows that daily creativity can create an “upward spiral” that makes you more energetic, motivated, and happy.8
11. Wander Outside of Your Comfort Zone
While some fears are healthy, others are unhealthy, and unhealthy fears could be limiting your potential and your happiness. You might have let fear hold you back from talking to people, visiting new places, trying new things or chasing dreams that seemed too big or unattainable. There is truth to the notion that people’s greatest regrets are usually the things they didn’t do, and fear is often the culprit that held them back. Stepping outside of your comfort zone when there is something you deeply want on the other side will help you avoid these future regrets, build confidence, and sometimes, unexpectedly enrich and expand your life.
12. Begin Within & Learn More About Your Personality & Values
While many people search outside of themselves for happiness, research suggests they account for only 8%-15% of your happiness.4 Internal circumstances like positive self-image and high self-esteem have a more substantial effect on happiness because it’s difficult to like your life if you do not like being you.1 If you have a negative view of yourself, take a personality test, identify your core values, or identify your strengths to get a different, more positive perspective on yourself. This growing self-awareness can help you develop a new, more accurate and positive understanding of who you are and what you want and need to be happy.
13. Make a Happy Home With New Decorations or Improvements
While “things” don’t make you happy, decorations, DIY projects or other improvements that make your home more enjoyable may be an exception to the rule. Research from over 13,000 people in Europe found a high correlation between happy homes and happy people, estimating that 15% of happiness is influenced by their feelings about where they live. People who reported feeling comfortable, safe, and proud of their home were happiest, as were people who felt that their home reflected their personal style and identity.9
14. Stay Active
People are spending the majority of their days in front of screens, and in America, this has led people to become less healthy and less happy. Reducing screen time and replacing it with physical activity is good for all aspects of your physical and psychological health. Mood-enhancing brain chemicals are released during exercise and people who develop a regular exercise routine are less prone to mental health conditions like depression, and also report feeling more confident, healthy, and happy.1
15. Remember What Matters
It is all too easy to get distracted by the endless deadlines, chores, work, errands, and other distractions that disconnect you from the people, things and activities that matter most to you. Remember that your life is happening right now, in each moment, and it is up to you to decide how to best live it. The more intentional you can be with your time, attention and energy, directing it towards what matters most to you, the happier and more fulfilled you will feel.1,2
Top Rated Online Therapy Services for 2023
BetterHelp – Best Overall
BetterHelp “quickly connects you with a licensed counselor or therapist and earned 4 out of 5 stars” Visit BetterHelp
Online-Therapy.com – Honorable Mention
“CBT program is included with all of the subscriptions and one of its strongest features” Visit Online-Therapy.com
Read our full article Best Online Therapy Services For 2023
Choosing Therapy partners with leading mental health companies and is compensated for marketing by BetterHelp and Online-Therapy
What Is Happiness?
The definition of happiness has been such a source of controversy that many researchers have abandoned the term in favor of terms like, “life satisfaction,” “subjective well-being,” or “well-being.”1,4 The reason these terms are preferred is because they are more specific concepts that can be qualified and quantified into research.
To most, happiness is a sense of both well-being and satisfaction, and the more a person appreciates and enjoys their life, the “happier” they are. Happiness is the emotional result of having a positive opinion of their life and circumstances, while unhappiness usually results from negative evaluations.1 The propensity to form either positive or negative opinions about one’s life is influenced by many factors including genetics, circumstances, and habits. Individually and combined, these factors can make a person more or less likely to be happy.4
While it may seem strange to think of happiness as genetic, research estimates that about 50% of a person’s happiness is dependent on their genes, and that genes form a blueprint of personality and psychological make-up that determines a “happiness set point.” Experiences, circumstances and habits can cause temporary fluctuations in happiness but this set point is a baseline that a person usually returns to.1,4 Recent research, however, does suggest that certain intentional changes in mental habits and behavior can influence happiness, possibly even changing the happiness set point.2,4,5
Abrupt changes in circumstances influence individual happiness either during or after the event, but this levels out, having little or no long-term influence. For example, research indicates that winning the lottery doesn’t cause long-term changes in happiness, and neither do tragic accidents that result in paralysis. There are certain chronic stressors that appear to have a more lasting impact on happiness, including employment, chronic illness, mental health conditions and marital satisfaction.1,10
Throughout the lifespan, environment, culture and society impact the individual happiness of people. Adverse circumstances like social isolation, poor health, unemployment, poverty and exposure to discrimination and crime all lower happiness and well-being while social and institutional support and personal freedoms positively affect happiness. Interestingly, in countries with high rates of inequality, happiness scores are lower even in those unaffected by these inequities, offering further proof that individual happiness is affected by the collective happiness of a society.10
Habits can also affect happiness, and include all of the activities and tasks people devote their time, energy and attention to, including behaviors and also mental habits like optimism or self-criticism. People with habits that involve more social interaction, kindness to others, striving towards goals or finding meaningful activities tend to be happiest, as do people with more positive mindsets.2,4,5,7 The effect a person’s environment and circumstances have on their happiness seems to be mediated by these individual habits and traits, with people who are more extraverted, open-minded, and less neurotic being less affected by external stress and problems.1,4
Signs That You’re Unhappy
Happiness, like all emotions, occurs on a spectrum that ranges from despair to joy. Most people have a happiness setpoint that describes their “normal” emotional state. Different internal and external experiences can trigger changes in this baseline, which is normally when people notice they feel unhappy. The further that they get from this setpoint, the more likely they are to notice substantial changes in the way they feel, think and behave. These changes will be individualized and depend on what their normal patterns are.
Some of the more common signs of unhappiness include:
- Feeling sad, down or empty
- Being more sensitive or emotionally reactive
- Feeling apathetic or disinterested
- Frustration, irritability or feeling on edge
- Loss of energy or motivation
- Inability to feel positive emotions like excitement or joy
- Feeling more stressed out or overwhelmed
- Dreading a routine activity or task
- Resentment, envy or sadness about what others have
- Thinking more negatively or cynically about self, life or future
- Ruminating on past mistakes, choices, or missed opportunities
- Fantasizing about having a different life or circumstances
- Being less active or social that normal
- Changes in sleep, appetite or self-care
- Changes in mood or demeanor that others are concerned about
- Going through the motions without feeling present
- Becoming more rigid or controlling
- Feeling trapped or suffocated by responsibilities, roles and routines
- Feeling disconnected from people, activities, and experiences
- Avoiding some aspect of life by staying distracted or busy
- Being more tempted by destructive impulses or urges
- Self-medicating with substances to quiet thoughts or numb emotions
Notably, unhappiness and sadness are different than depression. People suffering from depression struggle with persistent and debilitating sadness, fatigue or disinterest in activities. Depression is a chronic mental health condition, but it can be treated with therapy, sometimes in combination with medication.
Therapy for Unhappiness
Therapy can be beneficial for anyone feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or unhappy with some aspect of their life, but is especially important for anyone who suspects they have an underlying mental health condition like depression. Therapy is typically provided in office settings (or online) in one-hour weekly sessions with a licensed counselor. Therapy can provide more insight about the root causes of unhappiness as well as teaching more effective methods of coping and supporting changes that can help improve life satisfaction.
Types of Therapy
Licensed counselors and therapists have different styles and theories of counseling that they use, and finding a suitable match is important in getting the most out of therapy. Some of the following types of therapy are commonly used to help people struggling with feelings of unhappiness.
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy
A practical, short-term form of therapy that focuses on addressing the most pressing problems in a pragmatic, structured manner. This approach may be helpful to people with known stressors or problems causing their unhappiness.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Also called ACT, this kind of therapy teaches people to accept difficult thoughts and feelings instead of trying to avoid or control them, freeing up time and energy to invest in activities that align with core values.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Also called CBT, this kind of therapy helps people interrupt and change unhelpful thoughts that feed unhappiness, and can help those whose unhappiness stems from anxiety, depression, or negative thoughts.
These therapies help people tap into the inner resources needed to architect a life based on learning, personal growth, and fulfillment and may be helpful for people searching for direction, meaning or purpose.
A style of coaching that involves structured conversations about making a change, and can help people who need to change but haven’t been able to do so on their own.
How to Find a Therapist
Those looking for a therapist often begin their search online by conducting a search or by using an online therapist directory, which allows people to narrow their search using several filters. People who have insurance or EAP benefits through their employer may be able to access counseling for free or for a nominal copay, depending on their plan. Those looking to use insurance benefits can find a therapist or counselor by contacting the insurer or EAP and request a list of in-network therapists.
Finding a therapist whose style and approach is a good fit and who has experience in the issues you need help with is important. People can have very different experiences depending on the specific therapist that they work with, so the best way to find a therapist is to contact several and request a consultation, which many therapists offer for free. During a consultation, you can ask questions about the therapist’s background, experience, and approach, which will help you make a determination of which would be a good match for you.
For Further Reading
Those who are interested in learning and reading more about happiness and how to find it may be interested in the following resources:
Popular Apps for happiness:
Popular TED talks on happiness:
- Dan Gilbert: The Surprising Science of Happiness
- Robert Waldiner: What Makes a Good Life? Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness
- Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce
Popular books on happiness:
- 15 Best Books About Mental Illness
- 15 Best Self Improvement Books
- The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
- 10% Happier by Dan Harris
- The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris
Organizations conducting ongoing research on happiness:
- Happiness Research Institute
- International Positive Psychology Association
- Harvard Study of Adult Development
- World Database of Happiness
Free courses on happiness:
- Yale’s free online Science of Well-being course
- Berkeley’s Science of Happiness course
How to Be Happy Again Infographics