Wednesday, 11 July 2007

do we REALLY know how to be happy?

Photo from Webshots.

Just about everyone wants to be happy. Just enter "happiness" or "how to be happy" into Google and see how many people are writing about it. But I'm not sure how many people are taking notice. And there are so many ideas out there, and some people selling them, that it is hard to know who to trust.

I have researched scores of sources, and I'm not selling anything, so maybe you'd be interested in this quick summary.

what is happiness?

Pleasure is not the same as happiness, and seeking pleasure will not always make you happy. Pleasure is a sensation that is generally short-lived. It is part of happiness, but happiness also includes the longer term states of contentment and wellbeing.

self esteem and motivation

Many people suggest the path to happiness involves self examination, positive thinking, self fulfilment and improving self esteem. Examples include Michael Anthony, eHow, Depression-helper and wikiHow. This approach can help people and can improve self esteem and achievement of goals. One of the better examples suggests the following 4 core components of happiness:

  • knowing your purpose and place;
  • good health via diet and exercise;
  • managing your life and emotions to keep balance;
  • spiritual fulfilment.

However expert psychologists say that looking inside oneself and building self esteem are not the ways to achieve long term happiness. It may be significant that many people giving this advice are not academically qualified to give it.

what makes people happy?

We can be more confident of the answers when they are based on research by qualified experts, and the results of this research indicate that if there is a single key to being happy, it is to look outside yourself. Here are some of the summaries I have found:

Economist Ross Gittins summarises the best expert advice

  • concentrate on the human, not the material,
  • make others happy rather than indulge yourself,
  • look for the intrinsic benefits in activities more than the financial ones,
  • balance work, family, pleasure, etc,
  • be optimistic and content with what you have - count your blessings,
  • get back to natural things.

An ABC Science show, quoted experts on the importance of spirituality and meditation, and quality relationships.

A Harvard University study of happiness that lasts into old age suggested the following were important

  • health (exercise, not smoking, sensible alcohol use & right weight);
  • education (more important than wealth and prestige);
  • happy marriage;
  • ingenuity and coping mechanisms;
  • altruism.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, says you only find happiness by seeking something else, namely the virtuous life.

Positive psychology, as presented by Dr Martin Seligman, emphasises:

  • The Pleasant Life, with pleasure and positive emotion.
  • The Engaged Life, absorbed in work, love, friendship & leisure.
  • The Meaningful Life. Going beyond our own pleasures and using our strengths and virtues in the service of something we believe is more important than we are.

a summary

Summarising all this, research indicates that there are 5 keys to a happy life:

  • Don’t be fooled by advertising or envy into thinking that wealth, health or popularity will bring lasting happiness. Their impact is likely to be small and fleeting. Take opportunities to improve your standard of living if you have real needs, but it is important to learn to be happy with what you have.
  • Develop good relationships with a circle of friends. Join a group where you can share your interests, and your life. Maintain a loving marriage if you can.
  • Get involved in interesting and challenging activities that enrich your life. Enjoy your paid work, and do some voluntary work.
  • Don't focus on yourself. Go easy on others - forgive, offer support, show gratitude.
  • Think about what you believe. Spiritual and ethical beliefs, hope and purpose, are very important for well-being. Investing your life in a cause greater than yourself is one of the keys to satisfaction in life.

For more detail on these summary points, see what makes people happy?, and a list of 25 supporting references based on research and expert conclusions.

The amazing thing is, the truth about happiness is quite clear, yet so many times we swallow the lie of advertising, and keep on looking to pleasure and possessions to give what is actually beyond them.

Disclaimer: These comments relate to people who don't have a medical condition that affects their mood. Those who need medical treatment should seek it.


  1. wonderful synopsis. i think about these factors a lot more now that your blog has brought them to light. i must say it is very difficult to make the change and put something new into action.

    for example, my husband and i have been talking about volunteering together since we met but have never done it. some things are not so simple, but this is something i just have to get up and DO.

    i thought it was especially interesting that the research shows education to be more important to long term happiness than wealth and prestige. not that i would know;)

  2. Thanks for your interest. Yes, making changes is often difficult for all sorts of reasons. But even knowing and having a slightly different attitude must help I think.

    Re education vs wealth & prestige: I have been fortunate to have had a "good" education, but not much wealth and prestige! : ) I would say it isn't the education of itself that makes the difference, but the expanded job opportunities that can bring.

    Some people aim to do university courses that give entry to lucrative jobs such as doctors, lawyers and accountants, but I was fortunate to obtain qualifications that allowed me to work in environmental areas such as river health, and water & catchment (= watershed) management, which were not so highly paid but very interesting and rewarding. I never regretted that outcome.

  3. i believe it. my father always told me to chose a career i was passionate about because i would spend most of my life at work. he was absolutely right, although i'm in more of a "take what i can get" stage of my life at the moment..

  4. Yeah, unfortunately, as the Rolling Stones (remember them?) once sang: "You can't always get what you want."

    But the "happiness" research indicates that we can all (mostly) gradually adjust our minds to look outside ourselves, and that will generally make us happier. Even in a job that is not exactly what we want, we can usually take an interest in people (fellow slaves, customers) and develop all sorts of interesting friendships and offer some joy and support to others.

    Hope that doesn't sound too twee!

  5. High. I foundan interesting quote I just want to tell you.

    "The most satisfying lives belong to those with insatiable curiosity based on deep rooted cultural interests."
    Found in: Crumb, Robert: Sketchbook November 1983 to April 1987, Frankfurt a.M. 2.Aufl. 1990, 217.

    If R.C. cites it there is no source.. I find it worth a thought. Sorry, too tired for anything now.

  6. I had not heard of Robert Crumb, but I looked him up and he sounds an interesting person (to say the least!). I guess an "insatiable curiosity" takes one's attention away from oneself, and so is a somewhat similar idea to what the psychologists say. Thanks for the thought.

  7. Interesting. I hadn't heard of Frank Furedi. I'd also like to add that if you're a child abuse survivor, cognitive-behavioral therapy can really help you in alleviating depression and finding happiness, and it's backed up by research in this article on Why Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Can Be One Of The Best Cures For Depression For Child Abuse Survivors.


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