The Happiness Issue
FEATURE | The habits of happy people

   The habits of
happy people


Americans feel a certain pressure to be happy. How could we not when the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the Constitution? The problem for many of us, though, given this mandate, is that true happiness always seems to be just beyond the rainbow: “When I have X (a spouse, a child, a job, a house, a car)I’ll be happy.” But academic experts in this burgeoning field say chasing happiness doesn’t work. Happiness is more of an attitude. And the happier you are, the likelier you are to be successful in all spheres of life.


What makes us happy?

Let’s get money out of the way first. It does have an influence. David Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College and author of The Pursuit of Happiness: Who is Happy, and Why? says, “There is some correlation [between money and happiness], but it tapers off once you reach a middle income standard of living that affords some control over your life circumstances.” In other words, as soon as we have enough money to take care of our basic needs such as food, clothing and housing, the amount of money we have no longer affects our happiness levels.

“We’re twice as rich as we were 50 years ago, but we’re not happier at all,” he continues. That said, a 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center showed half of the wealthiest respondents described themselves as “very happy” compared to 30 percent of those with family incomes of less than $30,000 a year.

The most important influencer of happiness, Myers says, is other people. “We’re social animals,” he says. “We come with a deep need to belong. So people who have close, supportive, intimate relationships with others are more likely to report themselves as really happy people.”

12 tips for a happier life

Happy people tend to pay attention to the things they can control and not worry about the rest. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, shares the following tips about how to become happier.

1 Count your blessings. Be aware of all the good things in your life and express gratitude for what you have.

2 Cultivate optimism. Make an effort to see the upside of a situation and surround yourself with positive people.

3 Avoid social comparison. This is a tough one in our aspirational culture, but Lyubomirsky says it’s well worth cutting down on how often you dwell on your problems and compare yourself to others.

4 Practice acts of kindness toward friends and strangers.

5 Nurture your relationships. Don’t take your friends and family for granted.

6 Do more activities that really engage you. This increases what psychologists call the “flow” state where you’re totally absorbed in what you’re doing.


7 Savor life’s joys. Go over them either by writing them down or thinking and talking about them.

8 Commit to your goals. Pick at least one significant goal and devote time and effort to pursuing it.

9 Develop coping strategies. Practice ways to get through or get over stress or trauma.

10 Learn to forgive. Letting go of old hurts and resentments frees your mind and heart.

11 Practice religion or spirituality. Research shows people who do so are happier.

12 Take care of your body. Exercise, meditation and laughing all count.

The Happiness Issue
FEATURE | The habits of happy people

Then there’s the matter of goals. Michael B. Frisch is a professor of psychology at Baylor University and co-author of Creating Your Best Life. “All the research shows having some over-arching goals, meaning and purpose in your life is essential to human happiness,” he says. “People without a sense of purpose or meaning aren’t as happy.”

How to find happiness

Frisch says it’s important to have quite specific goals, including within your relationships. “High functioning couples have time every day for each other, and [happy] people in the work world tend to be very focused and hard working.” He says both sets of people tend to be happier and more successful at marriage or work because they’ve committed to set objectives within each arena.

But David Myers has a caveat: goals must be realistic. “Frustration and unhappiness are partly defined by the gap between expectations and attainments,” he says. And that big dream, such as landing a longed-for job or buying a car you’ve coveted for years? Sure, achieving it will bring a surge of happiness, but it won’t last because, Myers says, we are wired to adapt to the new situation. “The other thing is social comparison. As you achieve your dream, the comparison standards you’re using change—you begin to compare yourself to people who have a little more than you do.” Envy starts creeping in, and happiness levels dip.

The habits of happy people


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Happiness examined: A four-part feature
- The habits of happy people
- What are the happiest countries?
- Happiness through the years
- Is happiness genetic or a choice?

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managers can boost morale

On the cover: A champion for children
Michael Johnson, MBA/GM ’04

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