We all generally want to live happy, meaningful lives, and we also share a general understanding of what happiness means: financial stability, fulfilling relationships, and meaningful work. However, people’s ultimate happiness goals and the methods they use to achieve them can vary from person to person.
There are many ways to nurture happiness in our lives. Pushing ourselves too hard to be happy, though — especially to the extent that our pursuit becomes stressful — can be a barrier to personal well-being and has shown mixed outcomes in studies.¹
So, what does it take to be happy? In this guide, we’ll explore potential answers by identifying various methods to cultivate happiness and examining the science behind subjective well-being.
If there were a definitive definition for happiness, we would likely have an easier time attaining it. But, without one, we’re left to rely on our intuitions and any information available. There’s a sense that we should just know what happiness is, but if that were the case, we wouldn’t need so many words to describe emotions and states that coincide with happiness: joy, contentment, satisfaction, well-being, amusement, and so on.²
Without a solid definition, it can be challenging to understand the causes and effects of happiness. This difficulty is why the experience of subjective well-being and happiness, in terms of research, are mostly interchangeable.² To determine how happy study participants are, researchers ask them about life satisfaction, positive and negative emotions, and their overall sense of meaning and purpose.²
Cultural factors often influence our perception of happiness.³ For example, people living in more collectivist cultures tend to place a higher value on group harmony and contentment in terms of their contribution to overall happiness levels. In contrast, those in more individualistic cultures often attribute their happiness to personal feelings of joy or satisfaction.³
Despite the many definitions for happiness and the untold number of ways to achieve it, some elements of subjective well-being appear to be universal across most cultures.³ These widespread ideas are why measuring a given culture’s values, goals, and experiences can be a more accurate way of determining happiness levels overall, primarily when the benchmarks of happiness for one culture differ widely from another. Special attention to cultural-specific nuances and evolving methods for evaluating subjective well-being will become necessary as identities become more dynamic and diverse.³
The people we spend the most time with (typically our families and friends) can also affect our happiness. Essentially, the happier the people around you are, the happier you will be.³
Our sense of happiness and life satisfaction appear to fluctuate as we age, a 2020 study published in the Journal of Population Economics concluded.⁴ To support the common notion of the “midlife crisis,” researchers discovered a U-shaped happiness curve over our lifespans for people in 145 countries.
Reaching its lowest point at 48.3 years, researchers found this midlife dip in contentment in:⁴
Factoring in events such as the 2008 housing crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers concluded that being in your 40s and 50s likely comes with increased vulnerability to certain disadvantages.⁴ These difficult circumstances, such as physical disability, parenting, aging parents, lack of education, divorce, and unemployment, might be more exacerbated in midlife, which could explain the consistency of the curve they discovered.
As difficult as it can be to pin down a concrete formula for happiness, we can, with relative certainty, point to a few things that do not equal joy. Materialism has three common features:⁵
Despite the continued rise of materialism, especially in developed nations, studies have repeatedly produced a clear correlation between materialistic thinking and lower levels of life satisfaction.⁵ On top of a general sense of dissatisfaction, materialism can also diminish the contentment we feel for our standard of living, our relationships, and our notions of fun and enjoyment.
In an attempt to maintain positive emotions, materialistic individuals will often make new purchases and acquire more possessions, but this cycle usually leads to chronic dissatisfaction. Psychological states related to well-being — such as gratitude or focusing primarily on the well-being of other people — are also diminished.⁵
Nearly everything we do as individuals and as a society, from socializing to working and even voting, ultimately aims to improve our happiness and well-being.⁶ And although some happiness researchers suggest that valuing happiness is self-defeating and requires further research, most people can likely agree that living in a state of joy and prosperity is the goal.
It’s important to note that having a relatively solid understanding of happiness only allows us to visualize our goal; our actions and intentions are what truly lead to higher states of happiness.
Gratefulness, as both a temporary state of mind and a more ingrained personality trait, was found to enhance well-being, decrease depression, enhance meaning, and improve life satisfaction.⁵ This result was found in self-reported scenarios and other studies, including those that controlled for personality variables, such as the “Big Five” (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism).¹²
According to one study, individuals who regularly kept a gratitude journal felt more positive about their lives and were more optimistic compared to those who wrote about daily hassles instead.⁶
As an example of gratitude in action, the Veterans Health Administration (VA) encourages former service members to use gratitude as a buffer against negative emotions and as a way to enhance overall well-being.⁷ Besides keeping a regular gratitude journal, which means simply taking time each day to reflect and write down a few things you’re grateful for, other informal practices recommended by the VA include ideas such as:⁷
On top of increasing happiness, incorporating a regular gratitude practice into your life can benefit your physical health, too.
Prioritizing self-centered values over collective-centered ones can lead to an unhealthy work-life balance that negatively impacts our happiness and overall quality of life. This finding emerged from a study investigating personal values and happiness among South Korean adults.⁸ The study revealed that the more we prioritize our interpersonal relationships over material wealth and personal achievement, the happier we will be.
The study also found that our commitment to specific personal values over others can produce higher happiness levels. Of those who valued social relationships most, 70.7% said they were happy in their lives overall. Coming in second only to religion (81.2%), a commitment to personal relationships generated more happiness than focusing on physical health (65%) or extrinsic achievements (54.7%).⁸
It can be challenging to form solid, healthy bonds with others. Some ways to build and invest in strong relationships include:¹³
Since the inception of positive psychology more than 20 years ago, and with new research on the science of optimism appearing all the time, optimism as a tool for enhancing well-being continues to be both praised and criticized.⁹ An optimistic outlook may not guarantee happiness, but it's associated with more resilience, engagement, hope, and obtaining goals.
One promising study that included female bank employees and school teachers working in India found that optimism significantly correlated with happiness.¹⁰ Essentially, those who held more positive cognitions (thought more optimistically) experienced higher happiness levels regardless of circumstance. Of the two groups, however, the bank employees were found to have higher levels of happiness and optimism overall.¹⁰ The participants in both groups were in their chosen professions, but variables such as unexpected demands, chances of promotion, and public relations must also be considered.
Believing that everything will work out, that good things will come our way, and that we can control the direction of our lives will likely not hurt anyone. Trying our best to see the glass as half-full, to make lemons into lemonade, or to believe that every cloud has a silver lining, means using positive thinking to transform a bad situation into a tolerable one. Essentially, a healthy sense of optimism encourages us to look for meaning in times of grief and hardship.
Mindfulness, or being aware of the present moment, is generally defined as maintaining a non-judgmental, passive awareness of our internal experience as it unfolds. A range of studies have shown that even a short mindfulness meditation practice can significantly affect levels of self-reported happiness.¹¹
Participants in a 2011 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology both felt and looked happier after attending a nine-day mindfulness meditation retreat. Study observers, who did not know the study was about the effects of meditation, were shown 15-second video clips of individuals who had completed the retreat and of a control group who did not. After reviewing the videos, they concluded that the retreat attendees appeared noticeably happier.¹¹
Even though all participants reported increased happiness, the novice meditators looked only marginally happier compared to long-term meditators, who looked significantly happier.¹¹ An explanation for this might be that more meditation experience eventually leads to higher levels of sustainable happiness through repeated activation of the left prefrontal cortex, a section of the brain typically associated with positive emotional experience.¹¹
According to the study authors, appearing happier can profoundly impact your social success, which could benefit your psychological well-being — people tend to avoid or respond more negatively to those who appear unhappy.¹¹
We all have the desire to lead happy, healthy lives, complete with financial security, fulfilling relationships, and meaningful work. However, our individual perceptions of happiness and what it truly means can vary wildly. The pursuit of happiness can be difficult, and it’s easy to become anxious over it, but fretting over happiness only pushes it further away.
Factors such as age, geography, culture, and personal values can all play a role in our sense of well-being. While there’s no universal formula for achieving happiness, a few proven methods can help you cultivate it, such as expressing gratitude, practicing mindfulness, and nurturing relationships.
Occasionally, the most effective way to achieve happiness involves avoiding situations and behaviors that can get in the way of feeling content in our lives. For example, pursuing material possessions in the hope of finding happiness in objects (materialism) often leads to chronic dissatisfaction rather than contentment. In reality, the concept that more is better is a myth — one we should be cautious about buying into.
 Kämpfe, N., Bastian, B., Catalino, L. I., Cooper, H., Diener, E., Döring, N., Eid, M., Fabrigar, L. R., Ford, B. Q., Higgins, E. T., Horn, J. L., & King, L. A. (2015, November 17). Is valuing happiness associated with lower well-being? A factor-level analysis using the valuing happiness scale. Journal of Research in Personality. Retrieved February 27, 2023, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0092656615300258
 Greater Good Magazine. (n.d.). Happiness definition: What is happiness. greatergood.berkeley.edu. Retrieved February 27, 2023, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/happiness/definition
 Tov, W., Diener, E. (2007). Culture and Subjective Well-being. University of Illinois and the Gallup Organization. researchgate.net. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226677037_Culture_and_Subjective_Well-Being
 Blanchflower, D. G. (2020, September 9). Is happiness U-shaped everywhere? age and subjective well-being in 145 countries - journal of population economics. SpringerLink. Retrieved February 27, 2023, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00148-020-00797-z#Sec27
 Roberts, J., Manolis, C., & Tsang, J.-A. (2015, January). Looking for happiness in all the wrong places: The moderating role of ... researchgate.net. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276304630_Looking_for_happiness_in_all_the_wrong_places_The_moderating_role_of_gratitude_and_affect_in_the_materialism-life_satisfaction_relationship
 Jain, M., Sharma, G. D., & Mahendru, M. (2019, November 13). Can I sustain my happiness? A review, Critique and Research Agenda for Economics of Happiness. MDPI. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/11/22/6375#B13-sustainability-11-06375
 Veterans Health Administration. (2018, August 15). Creating a Gratitude Practice. VA.gov. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from https://www.va.gov/WHOLEHEALTHLIBRARY/tools/creating-gratitude-practice.asp
 Lee, M.-A., & Kawachi, I. (2019, January 9). The keys to happiness: Associations between personal values regarding core life domains and happiness in South Korea. PLOS ONE. Retrieved March 1, 2023, from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0209821
 Donaldson, S. I., Dollwet, M., & Rao, M. A. (2014, June 27). Happiness, excellence, and optimal human functioning revisited: Examining the peer-reviewed literature linked to positive psychology. researchgate.net. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264558612_Happiness_excellence_and_optimal_human_functioning_revisited_Examining_the_peer-reviewed_literature_linked_to_positive_psychology
 Gorsy, C., & Panwar, N. (2016, March). Optimism as a correlate of happiness among working women. researchgate.net. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Chanderkant-Gorsy/publication/322924503_Optimism_as_a_Correlate_of_Happiness_among_Working_Women/links/5a76b25345851541ce58bdf1/Optimism-as-a-Correlate-of-Happiness-among-Working-Women.pdf
 Choia, Y., Karremans, J. C., & Barendregta, H. (2011, September 15). The happy face of mindfulness: Mindfulness meditation is associated with perceptions of happiness as rated by outside observers. researchgate.net. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/254336612_The_happy_face_of_mindfulness_Mindfulness_meditation_is_associated_with_perceptions_of_happiness_as_rated_by_outside_observers
 McCrae, R. R., & John, O. P. (1992). An introduction to the five-factor model and its applications. Journal of personality, 60(2), 175–215. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1635039/.
 The University of Kansas. (n.d.). Section 7. Building and Sustaining Relationships. The Community Tool Box. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/leadership/leadership-functions/build-sustain-relationships/main.