The Most Important Contributor to Happiness

In our search for happiness and its close cousins, well-being and life satisfaction, we’ve seen that it’s complex. In a previous post, we noted 20 research-based practices that lead to happiness.

Which are the most important? Which have the most influence on our enduring happiness?



Happiness and Relationships

“No man is an island.” -John Donne

Connecting with others gives us a sense of worth, meaning, and belonging. When we’re in close relationship with others, we’re more likely to receive support when we need it most (and to provide it when others need it).

According to many researchers, strong social relationships are the most important contributor to enduring happiness for most people. Those who are happiest generally devote a great amount of time to their family, friends, and colleagues, nurturing and enjoying those relationships.

In her book, The How of Happiness, professor Sonja Lyubomirsky writes:

“The centrality of social connections to our health and well-being cannot be overstated…. One of the strongest findings in the literature on happiness is that happy people have better relationships than do their less happy peers. It’s no surprise, then, that investing in social relationships is a potent strategy on the path to becoming happier…. Happier people are exceptionally good at their friendships, families, and intimate relationships…. people with strong social support are healthier and live longer.”

What’s going on here? Are people with close relationships happier? Or does being happy make us more likely to have close relationships with lovers, family, friends, and colleagues?

Both, it turns out. “The causal relationship between social relationships and happiness is clearly bidirectional,” Lyubomirsky writes. “If you begin today to improve and cultivate your relationships, you will reap the gift of positive emotions. In turn, the enhanced feelings of happiness will help you attract more and higher-quality relationships, which will make you even happier… a continuous positive feedback loop… an upward spiral.”

There’s more: social relationships give us a positive experience in the moment, but they can also strengthen and deepen relationships over time, further increasing our happiness and sense of life satisfaction.


The Happiness of a Lifetime

A remarkable collection of studies of mental and physical well-being has been going on for many decades, tracking people over their entire adult lives. The Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School is a longitudinal study—started more than 80 years ago—of 268 physically and mentally healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939–1944. It has run in tandem with a study called the Glueck Study, which included a second cohort of 456 disadvantaged inner-city youths who grew up in Boston neighborhoods between 1940 and 1945.

Writing about the Harvard Study of Adult Development in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

The subjects have been evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their doctors, and in many cases personal interviews. Researchers gather information about their mental and physical health, marital quality, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and more. The study and its results are described in several books by George Vaillant (a psychiatrist and professor who led the study for decades).

What were the main findings? That the people who were happiest and healthier reported strong interpersonal relationships. When asked what he learned from the study, Vaillant wrote:

“Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”


Learning from the Happiest People

In another study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. This was the first-ever study of the behavioral and personality correlates of high happiness in people. What did they find? Wealth? Beauty? Fame? Health?

No, the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest 10 percent was the strength of their social relationships. The findings:

“The very happy group differed substantially from the average and the very unhappy groups in their fulsome and satisfying interpersonal lives. The very happy group spent the least time alone and the most time socializing, and was rated highest on good relationships…. All members of the very happy group reported good-quality social relationships…. Our findings suggest that very happy people have rich and satisfying social relationships and spend little time alone relative to average people…. We do not know if rich social lives caused happiness, or if happiness caused rich social lives, or if both were caused by some third variable…. Social relationships form a necessary but not sufficient condition for high happiness—that is, they do not guarantee high happiness, but it does not appear to occur without them…. there appears to be no single key to high happiness that automatically produces this state…. High happiness seems to be like beautiful symphonic music—necessitating many instruments, without any one being sufficient for the beautiful quality.”


More Evidence about Happiness and Relationships

In his book, The Happiness Curve, award-winning journalist Jonathan Rauch wrote:

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life…. The truest form of wealth is social, not material.”

The finding that happiness is sweeter when shared isn’t only known by researchers. Many of us have an intuitive sense of this. According to a Charles Schwab 2020 survey of 1,000 Americans aged 21 to 75, Americans indicated that relationships are the most important factor for their overall happiness. According to the survey, 39% of respondents ranked relationships as the top driver of overall happiness, compared to 27% reporting health, 17% saying money, 14% saying money, and 3% saying career.

This makes sense from a biological perspective. Most scientists who study happiness agree that there’s an evolutionary basis for our desire to form and preserve social connections. Social bonds, of course, help us survive and reproduce.

“…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener


Happiness and Relationships during the Pandemic

Given that we’re now about two years into a global pandemic that has resulted in lockdowns, social distancing, and tectonic changes to our lives at home and work, what do we know about happiness and relationships during the time of covid-19?

The World Happiness Report 2021 included a chapter on “Social Connection and Well-Being during COVID-19,” by Karynna Okabe-Miyamoto and Sonja Lyubomirsky. Highlights from that chapter:

  • “over a century of research has proven how crucial social connection is for well-being.”
  • “…social factors and social behaviors—including the quality and quantity of people’s social relationships—have also been shown to protect well-being during the pandemic.”
  • a 2020 survey in Austria found that those who had larger social networks (more social connections) reported less worry and stress during the pandemic lockdown.
  • the greater perceived threat of the covid-19 virus was linked to greater everyday acts of kindness in response.
  • a 2000 U.K. study of more than 50,000 adults found that having poor social support was associated with severe depressive symptoms.

According to this research, protective factors for psychological well-being included: feelings of connectedness, quality of relationships, positivity resonance (shared feelings of positivity and caring for one another), quantity of relationships, and prosocial (helping) behaviors such as volunteering and charitable giving.

“Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the flip side, risk factors for distress and unhappiness included: engaging in distancing, loneliness, poor social support, and abuse.


Social Support at Work

Since work comprises a large portion of our waking hours for many of us, what do we know about work and relationships?

In his book, The Happiness Advantage, author and researcher Shawn Achor calls social support “your single greatest asset.” He points to research on more than a thousand highly successful professional people who were interviewed as they approached retirement.

When asked what motivated them the most throughout their careers, the top response was work friendships—above the responses about financial gain and individual status.


The Problem with a Lack of Social Connections

A lack of social connections is harmful to our health, can lead to depression, and can be just as deadly as certain diseases, according to researchers. Also, social support has as big an effect on life expectancy as things like smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, and regular physical activity.

And as we look back on our lives, we may come to regret not honoring and valuing our relationships. Three of the top 5 “regrets of the dying” that Australian palliative nurse Bronnie Ware famously identified in her work with people in the final weeks and months of their lives are directly related to social connections:

Regret #2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret…. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

 Regret #3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others…. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

 Regret #4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying…. It all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.”

“…there is much more to life than your career…. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work—and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families—starving one of the most important parts of our life.”Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?

We should also recognize that close relationships can also be a source of great pain in our lives. Pain from hurtful encounters. From broken trust. Pain from disappointment, and from loss.

Sometimes the pain is redeemable and can be folded back into love. Other times not.

But still relationships are a powerful source of meaning, growth, and love for us.


The Problem of Loneliness

Loneliness is a big problem these days—and not just in our time of social distancing and remote work.

According to a Guardian article, about 20% of people report that loneliness is a “major source of unhappiness in their lives,” and about a third of Americans 45 and older report being lonely.

The problem is aggravated by workaholism and the increasing prevalence of screen time in our lives, from streaming services to email and social media. The evidence is disturbing. Average daily digital content consumption is now just under seven hours (six hours and 59 minutes), according to a recent Forbes report.


Actions for Nurturing Our Relationships

Since relationships are so important, and since loneliness is such a big problem, we’re wise to reflect on what we can do to nurture our relationships at home and work. Here’s a punch list:

  • Making time for relationships and investing in them. Avoiding the traps of perpetual busyness or workaholism that pull us away from family and friends.
  • Being vulnerable and sharing our inner life, including our hopes and fears, with close family and friends we trust.
  • Showing support for our family, friends, and colleagues during their times of need.
  • Being loyal to them.
  • Expressing support and positive emotions, including appreciation, affection, and admiration.
  • Celebrating good news with family, friends, and colleagues.
  • Managing conflict appropriately, including raising important concerns or disagreements (instead of letting them fester) while handling them appropriately (i.e., with empathy, genuine interest in their perspective, and avoiding triggers like contempt and stonewalling).
  • Sharing physical affection, including hugs and pats on the back.

Life and work are all about relationships. Are you doing enough to maintain your close connections with the people you love, care about, and work with?



 Postscript: Quotations on Relationships and Happiness

  • “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.” -Brene Brown
  • “You can spend a lifetime being curious about the inner world of your partner, and being brave enough to share your own inner world, and never be done discovering all there is to know about each other. It’s exciting.” -John Gottman, Eight Dates: A Plan for Making Love Last Forever
  • “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.” -Dorothy Day
  • “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls… work, family, health, friends, and spirit. Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will never be the same.”- Brian Dyson
  • “Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others.” -Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago)
  • “I’ve had a wonderful and successful career. But next to my family, it really hasn’t mattered at all.” -Lee Iacocca
  • “The home is the ultimate career. All other careers exist to support the ultimate career.” -C.S. Lewis
  • “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it.” -George Moore
  • “Family is a way of holding hands with forever.” -Noah benShea
  • “Invest in friends. There is no other instrument that pays such high returns…. We need each other, but perversely we neglect each other. Every day we have an opportunity to exercise friendship, to make huge returns on a tiny investment, but foolishly we relapse into sleep and forgetting. Please take my advice to heart—forget bonds, forget stocks, forget gold—invest in friendship.” -Ronald Gottesman
  • “The worst solitude is to be destitute of sincere friendship.” -Sir Francis Bacon
  • “A Friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of Nature.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.” -Abraham Lincoln
  • “Some friends leave footprints in your heart.” Eleanor Roosevelt
  • “A society of genuine loving friends, set free from the self-seeking struggle for personal prestige and from all unreality, would be something unutterably priceless and powerful. A wise person would travel any distance to join it.” -Elton Trueblood
  • “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” -Winnie the Pooh
  • “Research has shown that among the benefits that come with being in a relationship or a group, a sense of belonging clocks in as the most important driver of meaning.” –Emily Esfahani Smith, in The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters



Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). He co-founded the Vail Alliance for Purposeful Living. Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: happiness, life satisfaction, wellbeing, relationships, social connectedness, personal growth, personal development, positive psychology, Harvard Study of Adult Development, loneliness

What Leads to Happiness?

We all want to be happy—and for those we care about to be happy.

Here’s the problem: we’re unclear and often badly mistaken about what will bring us happiness.

We’re inundated with messages from family, friends, ads, and social media about what will make us happy. Most of these messages are wrong.

The result:

What we think will make us happy is different from what actually makes us happy.


What Is Happiness?

To understand what’s going on here, we should back up and clarify what we’re talking about. What is happiness?

Turns out it’s not so simple to define. Why? It’s complex, and there are many related factors: wellbeing (a good condition of existence with health, happiness, and prosperity), life satisfaction (how we feel about our lives overall and our future), pleasure, and more.

There are even different types of happiness:

  • Hedonic happiness: happiness achieved through experiences of pleasure and enjoyment
  • Eudaimonic happiness: happiness through virtuous action, habits of moral excellence, and a full flourishing of self in the world.

 My favorite definition of happiness (because it’s so comprehensive) comes from University of California, Riverside psychologist and happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky:

Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

 Don’t stop there, though. Decide for yourself what happiness is for you. And then turn your attention to the next step: what leads to it?


Determinants of Happiness

The question of what leads to happiness presumes that we have agency over it. That’s actually the source of some debate.

Enter “happiness set-point theory,” the notion that our happiness level is determined primarily by our genes and personality traits. According to this theory, our happiness remains relatively constant throughout our lives and we inevitably return to a relatively stable “happiness set point,” regardless of circumstances. (Note also the related notion of hedonic adaptation, in which we become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline as if nothing had occurred.)


Many researchers have questioned this happiness set-point theory. Some have noted that it really speaks to a fixed range of potential happiness and wellbeing, not a single set point.

In their prominent article, researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon, and David Schkade developed the “sustainable happiness model” (SHM), which posits that we have more agency over our happiness levels. They noted that happiness is “governed by three major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and practices.”

They went on to give preliminary estimates for the “approximate percentage of the variance that each of the three factors accounts for in cross-sectional well-being, as suggested by past research”:

  • genetics account for about 50% of the population variance in happiness
  • circumstances account for about 10%
  • activities and practices account for about 40%

This “happiness pie chart,” as it was dubbed, had important implications:

“Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky

This was encouraging for those of us seeking to influence our happiness (which is, well, all of us).

But then the plot thickened. Some researchers critiqued the paper. In response, two of the original researchers, Lyubormirsky and Sheldon, revisited the “happiness pie chart” in a response via a 2019 follow-up paper.

They stood by their main findings but recognized that the 40% estimate for activities may have been an overestimate and noted some important nuances. First, the three factors mentioned (genes, circumstances, and activities) aren’t isolated factors. Clearly, they influence each other. For example, our genes can influence our tendency to engage in certain activities, like exercise, that influence our happiness. And our circumstances and activities can influence whether genes are expressed, depending on the context of our lives.

Also, the percentages given were preliminary estimates—never meant to represent precise numbers for individuals but rather how much of the differences in happiness among people generally come from different sources. Individual results and factors will vary. “Like all pie charts,” Lyubomirsky noted, “ours was a gross oversimplification.”

But let’s not lose the forest for the trees. Here’s the bottom line:

“Although the pie chart part may have outlived its usefulness, we stand behind the central premise of the SHM, and the supportive research it spawned. Happiness can be successfully pursued, but it is not ‘easy.’” -Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky in their 2019 follow-up article

It shouldn’t surprise us that there are nuances, given the complexity of happiness and all its influences. So how does this speak to how we should live?


Different Types of Lives

In his book, Authentic Happiness, influential psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman notes different types of lives we can aspire to:

  1. The pleasant life: the successful pursuit of positive feelings
  2. The good life: using our “signature strengths”—those character strengths (like courage, diligence, and teamwork, with each person having their own unique set) that are most essential to who we are—to obtain “abundant and authentic gratification,” which comes when we invoke our strengths and virtues, as when we achieve “flow.”
  3. The meaningful life: using our strengths to serve a larger purpose, such as raising our children, contributing to our community, or fighting for an important cause.



Most of Western society is organized around pursuing the pleasant life. But of the three, Seligman reports, pleasure is the most fleeting.

“For centuries, traditional wisdom has been that simply seeking pleasure for its own sake doesn’t really make you happy in the long run.”Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology, Florida State University

Seligman notes that to live all three types of lives—pleasant, good, and meaningful—is to lead a “full life,” which he describes as “experiencing positive emotions about the past and future, savoring positive feelings from the pleasures, deriving abundant gratification from your signature strengths, and using these strengths in the service of something larger to obtain meaning.”

Helpful stuff. But we’re still back to the question: What leads to happiness (and a full life)?


Actions that Boost Happiness

According to an ever-growing body of research, there are many things we can do to bring happiness to our lives—and to increase our sense of life satisfaction. Here are 20 effective ones:

  1. Regular exercise and physical activity: moving our bodies regularly, ideally with some vigor. Since our mind and body are connected, our physical activity can have powerful effects on our moods. Exercise has several spillover benefits:
    • helping us unplug from our devices
    • getting us outside more
    • helping us sleep better, which is essential for everything we do
    • releasing endorphins, which give us pleasure
    • reducing anxiety and stress
    • giving us feelings of mastery or motivation, and sometimes getting us into a state of flow
  1. Acts of kindness, caring, service, and generosity: caring for others can help us be happier and healthier, as long as we also engage in self-care and don’t overcommit, burn ourselves out, or care so much that we get lost in the problems or despair of others.
  2. Purpose and meaning: having a sense of why we’re here and what gives us a sense of deeper significance and connection with something larger than ourselves. This doesn’t have to be grand or complicated. It can begin with worthy activities: engaging in activities that feel meaningful and based on virtues like character and generosity. When we show up as a good person living purposefully—serving others, forgiving people, giving back, being grateful for what we have, and contributing to something larger than ourselves—we end up feeling happier and more fulfilled. It can be parenting or grandparenting—or volunteering, mentoring, or day-to-day acts of service. And it can entail meaningful work, community building, religious worship, or spiritual connection and growth.
  3. Relationships with others: connecting with others helps us feel love. It gives us a sense of meaning, self-worth, significance, and belonging. It also means we’re more likely to receive support when we need it most (and to provide it when others need it most). According to many researchers, strong social relationships are the most important contributor to enduring happiness for most people. Those who are happiest generally devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships.
  4. Goals and Aspirations: having a deep commitment to lifelong goals and ambitions (like parents teaching children their values), ideally “self-concordant goals” (ones that are intrinsically interesting and congruent with our identity). This gives us things to work toward and look forward to. It’s highly motivating, especially with intrinsic aspirations, not extrinsic ones (where the motivation is to seek rewards or avoid punishments). Note: Goals should be challenging, but not too challenging (lest we get deflated for failing to achieve unrealistic goals).
  5. Authentic expression of self: being true to who we really are and avoiding the traps of wearing a mask, people pleasing, or caring too much about what others think.
  1. Anticipation: having something to look forward to (e.g., a vacation, date nights, wedding).

“We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.” -Albert Camus

  1. Gratitude: being thankful for what we have can have powerful effects on our quality of life, including improved wellbeing, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and health. Activities such as daily gratitude journaling or writing gratitude letters to those who’ve helped us can have surprisingly strong and lasting effects, according to the research.
  2. Experiences: enjoying encounters and activities that are engaging and fun. Tip: consider spending money more on activities (e.g., live shows or social dinners), not so much on things (clothes or gadgets).
  3. Learning and developing: learning new things and boosting our skills and capacities engages our curiosity, challenges us, helps our brains make connections across domains, and gives us a sense of confidence and accomplishment.
  4. Meditation and mindfulness practices: activities that help us experience focused attention and achieve a heightened state of awareness can contribute significantly to our happiness and wellbeing. This includes stopping and noticing what’s going on around and within us. It helps us get in touch with our feelings and experience them (which is much better than avoiding or suppressing them, which can be toxic). And it helps us focus on the present instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
  5. Person-activity fit”: engaging in activities that feel enjoyable and natural to us, and that are aligned with our personality, goals, interests, and values. It also means not doing things out of guilt or due to outside pressures or expectations.
  6. Seeing the positive and reframing the negative: look for the good in things and practice optimism when imagining our future. According to researchers, humans have a negativity bias—over-focusing on negatives and underappreciating positives. It’s important to reframe things from setbacks or defeats to challenges or opportunities (e.g., for learning and growth).
  7. Journaling: Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help us create meaning from them. (The same can be true for talking through our feelings with others.)
  8. Resilience in the face of adversity: invoking our ability to withstand challenges and bounce back from difficult events, showing poise and strength in the process. Since suffering is part of life, we must learn how to deal with it—and ideally grow and learn in the process.
  9. Savoring: fully feeling and enjoying positive experiences, thereby extending them. Living in the present moment and appreciating what we have.
  10. Self-care: taking actions to preserve or improve our health and wellbeing, including during periods of stress. We neglect this at our peril, as it’s foundational to the other things.
  11. Strengths: knowing and doing the things that we’re good at, including knowledge, talents, and skills. Ideally, we design our lives and work around them (and working with others who have different strengths), as opposed to harping on our weaknesses.
  12. Intentional and effective use of time: intentional planning and deployment of our time, such that our actual use of time approaches our ideal use of time. How much of our precious time are we wasting?

“Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing.” -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

  1. Variety: mixing things up and breaking old patterns. Even with good things that we enjoy, we can fall into ruts and lose motivation. Our brains enjoy new stimuli. As the saying goes, “Variety is the spice of life.”

“…the pursuit of happiness requires selecting self-appropriate and eudaimonic-type activities (rather than chasing after positive emotions directly); investing sustained (rather than desultory) effort in those activities; and also, practicing them in a varied and changing manner (rather than doing them the same way each time). By such means, people can create for themselves a steady inflow of engaging, satisfying, connecting, and uplifting positive experiences, thereby increasing the likelihood that they remain in the upper range of their happiness potentials.” -Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky

Here’s the good news: there’s much we can do to boost our happiness and wellbeing. The point isn’t that we have to do all of these happiness-generating activities. Why not try some new ones? And why not design your days more intentionally?

In the end, our happiness is up to us.



Postscript: Relevant Theories

  • Eudaimonic Activity Model: suggests that engaging in growth-promoting (eudaimonic) goals and intentional behaviors helps people satisfy their basic psychological needs, which results in elevated happiness and wellbeing.
  • Hedonic Adaptation Prevention (HAP) Model: describes the different ways we tend to become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and settle into our happiness baseline as if nothing had occurred. (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2012)
  • Sustainable Happiness Model (SHM): a framework for research on how to boost and maintain happiness over time via intentional behaviors and other interventions.



Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). He co-founded the Vail Alliance for Purposeful Living. Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: happiness, sources of happiness, sustainable happiness, happiness set point, eudaimonia, life satisfaction, wellbeing, personal growth, personal development, positive psychology, good life, purpose, meaning

Why Happiness Is the Wrong Goal

Let’s face it. We’re obsessed with happiness:

Am I happy?

I just want to be happy.

I want my kids to be happy.

Why doesn’t my job make me happy?

Why doesn’t my relationship make me happy?

We tend to view happiness as the point of life.

Sounds reasonable. But it turns out to be counterproductive.

Happiness is the wrong goal.

To understand why and how, let’s back up and examine what we’re talking about.

There are many ways to think about happiness. We often think of it as feeling contentment or pleasure. But there’s more to it.

An excellent definition comes from happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky (also a psychology professor):

Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky

Here we see that happiness can include two important elements:

  • the current experience of positive emotions like pleasure and joy
  • an overall sense of life satisfaction, with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose

In the U.S., we have a long tradition of reverence for happiness. Even the Declaration of Independence noted our unalienable right not only to life and liberty but also to “the pursuit of happiness.”

This isn’t only an American phenomenon. The World Happiness Report has been published for a decade now. The United Kingdom began measuring national wellbeing ten years ago, following the Kingdom of Bhutan in Asia, which had already been measuring not only gross domestic product but also “gross national happiness.”


The Larger Context of Happiness

One of the challenges with achieving happiness is that there’s a lot to it. It comes with many associated feelings and related notions, including: circumstances (positive or negative), contentment, flourishing, fulfillment, joy, life satisfaction, meaning, mood, quality of life, self-actualization, self-evaluation, success, and wellbeing. Phew!

To understand happiness, we also need to think about unpleasant feelings like sadness, disappointment, anxiety, depression, neuroticism, rumination, and more. That brings up the related issues of adversity, adaptation, and resilience. Clearly, happiness isn’t just about beaches, butterflies, and rainbows.

What’s more, how we think about happiness has changed dramatically over time. Nowadays, we seem to have lost important ideas from ancient times. Enter “eudaimonia.”


Eudaimonia—A Deeper Form of Happiness

Many ancient Greek philosophers focused on what they called “eudaimonia.” It’s commonly translated as “happiness” (and sometimes as “wellbeing” or “human flourishing”), but the roots of the word literally mean the condition of “good spirit.”

What they meant by eudaimonia goes well beyond our modern notion of happiness. They meant happiness through virtuous action, habits of moral excellence, and a full flourishing of self in the world. For Aristotle, eudaimonia was the term for the highest human good. It included fulfillment of human nature in an excellent way. He wrote that eudaimonia entails “doing and living well.” In other words, living a good life.

Here we encounter an important difference: eudaimonia is about habits and actions, whereas the way we think about happiness today is about feelings and mental states. This is actually a long-running debate between the hedonistic tradition (seeking pleasant experiences and avoiding unpleasant ones) and the eudaimonic tradition (living life in a full and deeply satisfying way, in accordance with virtue and excellence).

To the ancients in the eudaimonic tradition, a good life is the quest of a lifetime. It’s something you work toward every day, through your actions, mindsets, and relationships. Today, must of that seems lost.


Stoicism and Happiness

In Stoic philosophy, achieving eudaimonia requires the practice of virtue (rightful action in the world).

The idea is that we can only flourish by living an ethical life, practicing certain virtues (like courage, wisdom, justice, and moderation), and living in accordance with nature. Through right thinking and virtuous action, we can become emotionally resilient to negative events and misfortune.

We can develop self-control and mental strength to overcome harmful emotions that result from errors of judgment. This can help us be free from unproductive emotions like anger and envy.


Buddhism and Happiness

Buddhism focuses on liberation from suffering, including overcoming craving and helping us accept life’s irrefutable truths. It encourages compassion, loving kindness, and a desire for the welfare of all beings.

Buddhist practice includes cultivation of attention and fostering a state of awareness, nonstriving, and detachment (or nonattachment).

A higher aspiration is nirvana, a state of everlasting peace through the release of worldly suffering.

Clearly, there are many paths and practices, old and new, related to happiness.


Happiness amidst Difficult Circumstances

While some view happiness as a pleasant state free from suffering, pain, or negative circumstances, a closer look reveals that happiness can sometimes depend on such things.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche urged us to recognize the value of difficulties in life, including suffering and unhappiness, since things of great worth can sometimes only be earned through difficulty and struggle.

A 2012 study by Jonathan Adler and Hal Hershfield found that mixed emotional experience (that is, concurrent positive and negative emotional experience, like happiness and sadness) is associated with and precedes improvements in psychological wellbeing.

The issue here is whether to express or suppress negative emotions (like sadness or grief) when things are difficult. One model (called a “co-activation model”) recommends “taking the good with the bad”: “when experiencing the loss of a loved one, allowing positive memories to be experienced alongside sadness could potentially lead to a healthier bereavement process.”

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” -Kahlil Gibran

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about the “adversity hypothesis,” which holds that people need adversity and setbacks to reach the heights of personal development, strength, and fulfillment.

Most people have heard about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but not as many know about “post-traumatic growth”: positive psychological change after struggling with stressful and challenging circumstances. This can occur when we cope well with adversity and turn it into something valuable (such as life lessons, wisdom, or serenity).

Adversity can strengthen relationships by invoking vulnerability and opening our hearts to each other. And it can lead to feelings of love, connection, and gratitude for the help and caring provided. Haidt notes that it can also reorder our priorities (away from the future and toward the present, and away from ourselves and toward others).

It turns out that happiness isn’t about having positive experiences and circumstances and avoiding negative ones (though it’s hard to fault people for striving for that).

Are we really going to cede our happiness to the fickle Fates and precarious fortune, according to whether things happen to be going well in our life?

Some of the things that bring us deeper happiness, wellbeing, and an overall sense of life satisfaction include adversity, pain, and suffering, as long as they include avenues of deeper meaning or connection.


The Wrong Goal, The Right Goal

Happiness is the wrong goal. And so is success. And wealth. Beauty. Fame. Power. Prestige. Comfort. Pleasure.

These aren’t bad. They’re just destined to disappoint. They won’t make us happy.

A better goal, I think, is to live a good life. A life of vitality, connection, and contribution, as Jonathan Fields advises in his book, How to Live a Good Life.

A life of purpose, close relationships, and serving others. A life in which we learn, grow, and develop integrity, wisdom, and resilience.

A life of joy and savoring. A life of caring and action in the world to make things better, with others.

What does a good life mean for you?


Postscript: Quotations on Happiness

  • “You must try to generate happiness within yourself. If you aren’t happy in one place, chances are you won’t be happy anyplace.” -Ernie Banks
  • “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “Plenty of people miss their share of happiness, not because they never found it, but because they didn’t stop to enjoy it.” -William Feather
  • “Happiness is the indication that man has found the answer to the problem of human existence: the productive realization of his potentialities and thus, simultaneously, being one with the world and preserving the integrity of his self.” -Erich Fromm
  • “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “Many people have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” -Helen Keller
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” -John Milton (from Paradise Lost)
  • “The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance. The wise grows it under his feet.” -James Oppenheim
  • “A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.” -Lucius Annaeus Seneca
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.” -Dennis Waitley


Definitions of Key Terms

  • Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky
  • Subjective wellbeing: how we experience and evaluate the quality of our lives, including frequent positive affect (the extent to which we experience positive moods), infrequent negative affect, and cognitive evaluations such as life satisfaction. Sometimes distinctions are made between different types (e.g., mental, physical, economic, and emotional wellbeing).
  • Life satisfaction: how we feel about our lives overall and our future. It’s a measure of wellbeing assessed in terms of mood, satisfaction (with relationships and achieved goals), and our perceived ability to cope with the challenges of daily life. Here, researchers note the difference between “affective happiness” (felt in our momentary emotions) and “evaluative happiness” (our sense of our entire life).


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: happiness, fulfillment, life satisfaction, subjective wellbeing, eudaimonia, Stoicism, Buddhism, personal growth, personal development, positive psychology