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What makes people happy?

Success, money, power and love. What else?

Happiness is now a well-established topic in the scientific and social research community.  Some of the research is investigating the ancient traditions of wellbeing.

A lot has been found about happiness. The best news from researchers is that happiness can be ‘cultivated’. Here are some ways to live happier, as suggested by research and traditional wisdom.


It is probably uniquely human to hope. Optimistic people are found to enjoy better health and deal with setbacks without great damage to their self-identity or wellbeing. 

Dr. Martin Seligman, father of Positive Psychology movement, concluded from his decades of research that: Optimism is one of the top cognitive skills essential for wellbeing and it can be learned. Equally important is unlearning those cognitive habits that hold us back from authentic happiness, as he mentions in his book, ‘Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.’

Purpose and Meaning

Commitment to meaningful goals has shown to increase happiness.

“Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy. Once the reason is found, however, one becomes automatically happy,” wrote Viktor Frankl, motivational speaker and author of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’

Frankl speaks from personal experience; he was a Holocaust survivor and a psychiatrist. Having endured brutal experiences in the concentration camp, he concluded that once you find a purpose to live, you can live any ‘how’.


Holding grudges against others creates havoc in our minds and bodies. Psychoneuroimmunology research has found links between lack of forgiveness and increased levels of cortisol and adrenaline, heart rate, blood pressure, lower immunity and a heightened risk for stroke, heart disease, cancer and depression.

Hence, forgiveness is a gift to oneself.  “Holding anger against someone else is like holding a piece of hot coal in your hands, you are the one burning,” said Gautama Buddha.

Some religions observe forgiveness festivals such as Christian Lent, Muslim Ramazan and the Jain Paryushan, as an acknowledgement of the universal human ability to make mistakes.


When we celebrate our successes, we seal it with the positive energy of fulfillment. Celebrations mark the happiness of what has been achieved and provide fuel for future effort.

Without celebrating our successes we run the danger of feeling trapped on a joyless treadmill of effort.  We are taught how to strive, but we also must learn how to celebrate.


Contentment is important not only with reference to the big stuff in life, it also pertains to small things, such as how satisfied you feel at the end of the day.

Do you feel satisfied at the end of a day when you have checked most items off your list? Or do you feel annoyed for failing to complete your task list? If you fret about a few incomplete tasks, you may need to learn how to be content at the end of each day.


To be grateful for what you have - people, possessions and experiences - tints your perception with the glow of good cheer. Gratitude is shown to be an effective antidote to the stress of striving and disappointment of setbacks. 

Gratitude Journaling is the simple act of writing down what we feel grateful for. Studies show this is beneficial in terms of better sleep, fewer symptoms of illness, higher immunity, better relationships and more happiness among children and adults alike.


Compassion is a feeling of empathy towards another person, which impels you to act in ways to reduce their suffering. Compassionate behavior has been found to benefit at physiological, emotional and social levels.

Studies at the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at University of Stanford, a leader compassion research, indicate that our brains may indeed be hard-wired to feel compassion, altruism and empathy as evolutionary mechanisms that ensure the survival and success of the human species.


“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy, practice compassion,” exhorts XIV Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, in the book The Art of Happiness.


Loneliness is on the rise in many countries and so is depression. 

Social researchers have found that the need for connection is a fundamental human need, as vital for survival as food and water. Strong social connectedness has been found to lower anxiety and depression.

One reason why pro-social behaviours, such as gratitude and compassion, are observed to increase happiness is because it fulfills our need for connection with our fellow beings.


To be mindful is simply to be present in the present. Mindfulness practices aim to develop our awareness of the mind-body connection, and of the ways in which our unconscious feelings and thoughts adversely affect our wellbeing.

Practicing mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and improve physiological and emotional health and wellbeing. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBSR) is widely used to treat stress and depression.

Happiness Menu

According to Dr. Seligman, there are three different forms happiness we can pursue:

“For the ‘Pleasant Life,’ you aim to have as much positive emotion as possible and learn the skills to amplify positive emotion.

For the ‘Engaged Life,’ you identify your highest strengths and talents and re-craft your life to use them as much as you can in work, love, friendship, parenting, and leisure.

For the ‘Meaningful Life,’ you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”


The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by 2020, depression (an inability to be happy) will become the number two cause of disability around the world. 

Fortunately, happiness is within reach for all of us if we diligently cultivate these Happiness Habits. This is the teaching of all wisdom traditions, and now of the sciences.

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