What Makes People Happy? The Top 10 List

The one thing most studies on happiness agree on is this: family and relationships are the surest way to happiness.

Close behind are meaningful work, positive thinking, and the ability to forgive.

What does not seem to make people happy are money, material possessions, intelligence, education, age, gender or attractiveness.

In rough order of importance, here are the factors that make us happy and what you can do to increase happiness in your life.


1. Family and relationships

The happiest people spend time with those they love including family, partners or friends. Intimacy with others fulfils two basic human needs – the need for social connections with others of our kind, and the need for personal growth which makes us feel fully alive.

A simple strategy for happiness is to accept social invitations whenever possible, or to initiate social gatherings with family and friends. Face-to-face meetings make us more happy than online networking, especially because hugging and other forms of physical touch releases endorphins. So use technology to set up meetings, but get out there and hobnob the old-fashioned way.

2. Meaningful work

We are happiest when engaged in activities that make us forget ourselves and lose track of time. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the the “flow” experience. Flow can be achieved when making music, gardening, playing with children, practising sports, writing, or even pouring over a spreadsheet. According to Csikszentmihalyi, doing what you do best is the best way to achieve flow.

Abraham Maslow defines “self-actualisation” as the innate human motivation that each of us has to achieve our potential. We experience a sense of fulfilment when using and developing our skills, talents and abilities. When we complete a challenge or task that we are pleased with, we achieve a peak experience of self-realisation and are happy with our achievement. For that short time we have achieved self-actualisation.

3. Positive thinking

One attitude contributing to happiness is the refusal to compare yourself with others. Be content that the house you have is “enough house” instead of envying your neighbour’s bigger house. If you really have to compare, compare down and not up. For example, Olympic bronze medallists who consider themselves lucky to get a medal are happier than silver medallists who feel that they missed the gold medal.

Another useful attitude is to choose to believe the better option. For example, if your partner often works late, accept that he is overwhelmed with deadlines instead of telling yourself that he just doesn’t care enough to spend time with you.


4. Gratitude

Perhaps this is a subset of positive thinking, yet it is such an important aspect that it deserves a place all by itself. Grateful people are happy people. Gratitude is best expressed in writing or talking. Keeping a gratitude journal or saying prayers aloud every night is a surefire way to increase your happiness.

Further reading: Keep a gratitude journal

5. Forgiveness

Those who cannot forgive become angry and depressed over time, and suffer poorer health due to the physical reactions to these negative emotions. Let go of these toxic feelings, and you increase your happiness.

Further reading: The gift of forgiveness

6. Giving to others

Many people testify that what lifted them from depression was helping others. Whether by volunteering at a homeless shelter, holding the hand of a terminally ill patient, raising funds for charity, or tutoring children from poor families, all forms of giving take us out of ourselves and set us back on the path to normalcy and happiness.

7. Religion

A person’s specific religions belief or denomination does not seem to matter as much as the fact that she beliefs in something. Religion provides a personal creed, a direction in life, and this sense of purpose contributes to a person’s well-being and happiness.

Further reading: Have a personal creed

8. Personal freedom

While everybody needs freedom to varying degrees, some people simply cannot be happy unless they determine their own fate and are left to make their own choices. For such people, choosing to quit a job in order to freelance or start their own business is a great contributor to happiness.

9. Good health

Surprisingly, health does not contribute much to happiness. Health, like money, is a hygiene factor. This means that its absence makes us unhappy but its presence tends to be taken for granted without any further increase in happiness. So keep yourself in reasonably good health so that you can enjoy life, but do not obsess over it thinking that more health brings more happiness.

10. Watching TV

This one goes against conventional wisdom. Yet studies by psychologists and economists confirm that this simple activity increases our enjoyment and happiness in the moment. While excessive TV may reduce our quality of life by taking away time from other important things, a little TV is harmless and may even be good for you 🙂


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