What Makes People Happy?

Happiness is something we like to believe we know and know well, but in practice it can become quite a difficult and elusive thing to obtain. Recently, positive psychologists and other researchers have begun to ask the question, “What is it that makes an individual truly happy?” These researchers hope to explain not just what makes a person happy in a single moment, but how habits of good living can create a life of fulfillment and satisfaction. Television documentaries like 20/20’s “Happiness,” and ABC’s “Mysteries of Happiness” went on a search to answer this golden question.

Society and happiness

Social scientists and pollsters have spent their time giving questionnaires to thousands of people all over the globe to try and discover where the happiest places on earth are. According to the research on 20/20’s “Happiness”, Denmark was ranked at the top. But why is this so? Researchers say that it is Denmark’s government that plays such a large role in the nation’s level of happiness, a vast welfare state where citizens are taxed about 60% of their income. Despite the high taxes however citizens are secure. Things like healthcare and education are taken care of so individuals have a greater flexibility in choosing a career they will love and enjoy, rather than needing to worry so much about how to maintain a healthy living.

Singapore, despite the huge difference between its government compared to Denmark’s, ranked as the happiest country in Asia. Despite the incredible amount of government regulations and censorship in Singapore, the citizens there remain happy. Researchers say this is due to the sense of loyalty, security, and community within the nation. Individuals who break the law risk getting beaten with a bamboo cane, but this kind of incentive not to commit a crime is perhaps the kind of system of rules that can lead to a more obedient, safe and cleaner society. A similar sense of community is shown in Asheville, North Carolina where the streets are packed with coffee shops, art, and a rich culture. Even in the poverty-ridden India, and in Amish communities who reject to live in the industrialized world, these people have shown to be happier than those in a more “materialistic” society such as the state California. This is largely due to the strong sense of community that unites these particular societies to recognize themselves as a single family.

Individuals and happiness

So far what has been discussed only accounts for a small fraction of the happiness level of an individual. Researchers claim that “life circumstances” – the environments we are born and live in only include about 10% of our capacity for happiness. But what happens to the other 90%?

One of the biggest subjects of research, not only in psychology but biology, is genetics. Positive psychologists like Martin Seligman claim that over 50% of our capacity of happiness is actually dependent on genetics. Therefore, it is predetermined. One great example of this fact was portrayed in ABC’s “Mysteries of Happiness,” where researchers studied a set of twins who were separated at birth. Cases where identical twins have been separated – meaning they were born with the same set of genes but grew up in different environments – are great opportunities to see the effects that our genes play in our behavior.

Upon seeing these two twins who grew up in completely different life circumstances, it is evident to even a non-scientist that they both share an inclination towards happiness and mental well being. They literally laugh at everything, and they act as though they have been buddies all their life. Perhaps this is because their genes dispose each to a healthier and happier brain. For example, neuroscientists found that the left frontal cortex is an area in the brain that is highly correlated to happiness – meaning it becomes more active in happy individuals then those who are less happy.

The idea that genes may play such a large role in our happiness can sometimes seem daunting to those who are unhappy. Could it be that some of us are born to be depressed? Perhaps this is true to some extent, but researchers also claim that the remaining 40% of our happiness capacity is actually all up to us – we control it intentionally.

In what ways can we exercise this control of our mental well being? In 20/20s “Happiness,” positive psychologists describe a state of being called flow – where one is completely absorbed in the action they are partaking in. It is believed that skillful artists, musicians and athletes enter into this state of flow (sometimes called “in the zone”) when they are acting out their favorite hobbies. It is said to be a state of being that is not only skillful, but something that can lead to a greater satisfaction with life. When we can find our passions and pursue them we add more meaning to our lives and we give our self a greater purpose.

ABC’s “Mysteries of Happiness” depicts other ways for individuals to add a greater purpose and meaning to their life through religion. It has been shown that many of the happiest regions in the world are also deeply spiritual, and it is this ability to identify with a higher being that gives some the extra enthusiasm and motivation to embrace life to the fullest. The meaningful life is certainly not something to be ignored when cultivating happiness. In fact, it often allows the individual to perceive a stronger sense of control over one’s life. Some positive psychologists call this learned optimism (contrary to the popular psychology term “learned helplessness” where individuals obtain the sense that no matter what they do they cannot change anything).

The takeaway message is that happiness is something that can be cultivated from the inside; it is not something solely dependent on external conditions. Through our behaviors, and even how we perceive life, we can make serious changes. One psychology experiment described in “Mysteries of Happiness,” had one set of participants hold a pen in their mouth which mimicked a smile while the other half held the pen in their mouth so that it mimicked a frown (the participants were not away of the nature of the experiment). Results showed that those who were in the smile group were actually happier than those who were in the frown group. This creative study shows us that even by simply planting a smile on our face we are allowing ourselves to become more pleased with life, even if it is a fake smile – wow!

But the masters of cultivating happiness from the inside are Buddhist monks. They spend years and years meditating to relinquish their life suffering and to cultivate long-lasting, unconditional happiness and mental well-being. A study described in 20/20’s “Happiness” showed that even participants who only meditated for two weeks showed significant signs of improvement in their life satisfaction. It reduces stress, has physical benefits, and cultivates a greater appreciation and love towards life – and it’s all accomplished by sitting still and training the mind.


Both of these documentaries, 20/20’s “Happiness” and ABC’s “Mysteries of Happiness,” do a great job at covering all the different factors that affect our capacity to be happy. As shown, we can separate these factors into three main categories: life circumstances (10%), genes (50%), and intentional control (40%). Life circumstances entail the society we grow up in, institutions that affect our environment (especially government), and our family background. Genes are the factors that are determined by our biological make-up. Some of us get stuck with worse genes than others and therefore are more prone to mental disorders or depression.

These first two factors are essentially out of our control, but the final factor is that we have the ability to make decisions and pick up good habits of living that allow us to be happier. This is our intentional control over our life affairs, and it plays a great chunk in how happy we can really become. Whether it is engaging life through our own unique sense of flow, seeking meaning through a spiritual deity, meditating, or even just smiling more often: we have the power to make long-lasting changes that can lead to better living and, most importantly, true happiness.

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