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Happiness. What Will Really Make You Happy?

Updated on May 5, 2014

"The purpose of our lives is to be happy."
Dalai Lama

You want to be happy, right? Of course, you want to be happy. Everybody wants to be happy. Well, you have to wonder sometimes, when you take a look around. It doesn't always look that way. People do not necessarily do what would seem to make them happy.

Why do people do things that don't make them happy?

Consider parents with young children. Also, the wealthy man, who is nonetheless a workaholic, relentlessly pursuing the next big deal. And the chess player sitting for hours in deep concentration. These people do not appear to be that happy. Yet they continue to do these things.

As for parents with small children, research shows them to be less happy than people without children. But on closer examination this turns about to be that people raising children are less happy than those without children.

It’s easy to see why. While I am largely footloose and fancy free, able to take off on a trip, go shopping, or laze around reading a book, I have a friend with a 2-year-old and a 4-month-old, who is at a run, gasping for breath all day long. And at the end of the day what has she accomplished? X number of diaper changes, feedings, no-nos, tantrums, and potty practices. Asked how her day went, she often says, “It was pretty grueling.”

Do you really want children?


Still, people have children despite the overwhelming amount of research that show that they are generally much less happy than people without children. The child-rearing years can be fraught with drudge work, exhaustion, and limited money and time.

Couples could surely be having a better time spending that money on themselves for new cars, clothes or travel.

So why do it? Why do intelligent, educated, thoughtful people continue to have children? And after having one, they often have another?

Apparently, it pays off long term. After the kids go off to college or out on their own, the level of parental happiness rises. And not just because of relief of seeing them go, the happiness level remains higher.

And what about the wealthy man laboring away? The chess player lost in his game?

Why do you play?


Beyond Positive Thinking

Dr. Martin Seligman, the influential psychologist who founded the “Positive Psychology” movement” has been studying what makes up authentic happiness for quite some time and has had a major impact on psychological research around the world.

At first he focused on how people were feeling in the present moment. He thought that happiness was along the lines of thinking positively, looking on the bright side of things. Further, he reasoned that if people could figure out what would make them happy, they would do that, and then they would be happy.

But he kept noticing that real people didn’t necessarily do what would immediately make them happy.

He saw, for example, that some people played chess or bridge that obviously did not enjoy the game. They didn't smile. They didn't act happy. They didn't seem to be enjoying themselves or the company they were with. All they cared about was winning the game. But it brought no sense of happiness. It was winning alone that mattered. They would even cheat to win.

Something besides feeling happy was creating some kind of satisfaction for the game player, the wealthy workaholic and for the parent.

He now believes that real happiness is more akin to well being or flourishing, which he calls “Perma”, than how a person feels. By studying certain contradictions observed in real people’s behavior, he identified aspects of happiness beyond immediate pleasure

In his book “Flourish” Dr Seligman defines five critical elements of well being, each pursued for its own sake.

The experience may be more important than winning.


The Big 5

1. Positive emotions

2. Engagement (the feeling of being lost in a task)

3. Relationships

4. Meaning

5. Accomplishment.


Won't buy me love...or happiness.


It just might be that the things we think will make us happy, will really only give us a short-term rush of pleasure. Which isn’t a bad thing, but probably really isn’t happiness, as we’re talking about it, which is a longer-term state of mind.

So the wealthy man may pursues moneymaking for the sense of accomplishment in and of itself. And the bridge and chess players pursue their games for the experience of engagement. The young parents may be investing in relationships and a meaning beyond their own two lives.

So, what would make you happier?

What makes you feel engaged? What you feel truly engaged with or committed to can lead to a sense of deep involvement, also called flow, with a sense of accomplishment.

What relationships are important to you? These relationships can lead to an experience of satisfaction and a sense of deeper meaning to your life.

Dr. Seligman found that happiness has to do with meaning, the meaning people find in their sense of the success earned in their lives.

Real happiness has a lot less to do with how cheerful you feel and a lot more to do with a sense of having created value in your life or in others, a sense of accomplishment.

“Well being cannot exist just in your own head, Dr. Seligman writes. “”Well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment.”

Have you ever thought, "If only I had more money (or if only I had a better job), THEN I would be happy?"

See results

The most important thing in life ... relationships.


Focus on Relationships and Experiences

Other psychological research on happiness has revealed some important things to remember about happiness. You can control about half your level of happiness. About 50% is determined by genetics and our environment, like a “set point. But that leaves a full 50% that we can control. If you think about it, that is a lot.

Also, maybe you find it hard to believe, but money really doesn’t buy happiness. Win the lottery and you will enjoy a surge of pleasure that can last for many months, but eventually, research shows, winners grow accustomed to their new state and soon return to their standard level of happiness. In the long run, people who have won the lottery appear to be no happier than those who haven’t.

So, the bottom line: there are two things you can control that significantly contribute to happiness:

Invest in experiences and adventures, not things.

Travel in an RV.
Travel in an RV. | Source

1. Relationships may be the leading component, to long-term happiness. A strong, healthy marriage relationship or similar committed relationship is directly correlated to happiness, as are all strong social connections, the more the better.

2. Experience, not stuff, is the other leading component to happiness. People who spend time and money doing things – a vacation to an unfamiliar place or just a day at the zoo or art museum – report higher levels of happiness than those who buy a new car, or a bigger house, or more stuff. The brain is affected by memories especially associated with emotion, whereas material things don’t make a big imprint on our brains.

Focus on these two areas, and you may have solved the riddle to “What will make me happy?”


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    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      7 years ago from Chicago

      In general, your article is very good. I voted it up and "interesting." I agree with your larger conclusions. But this question you asked points up a far deeper problem than it might seem at first glance:

      "Why do intelligent, educated, thoughtful people continue to have children?"

      The very question reminds me of how narcissistic and nihilistic we have become in America. It is all about ME and NOW. This has not been the way of human life around the world throughout history, except at rare times such as in the later stages of the Roman Empire.

      For most human beings through time, it has been proper to feel a debt to your ancestors—and they had children or you wouldn't be here. And to feel that posterity is very important.

      Having children has long been in all societies considered a great blessing. In the West today, it is almost looked at as a curse. This leads to a decline in birth rates and is really demographic suicide. The urge to procreate exists in all creatures and rightfully so.

    • profile image

      Aka Professor M 

      7 years ago

      @JSParker: This was an excellent hub, my friend and a topic which needs to be addressed more often. Far Too Often we read about all the ills, woes and tragedies that plague people constantly.

      I sometimes wonder if after childhood we forget how to enjoy the simplier things that life has to offer. Only after we have a life shattering experience and survive do we see the world in a whole different light as if we were reborn.

      Thanks for sharing this hub with us and asking your very pertinent question, in so timely a fashion, JSParker!

      Voted it up and pushed all the relevant buttons as well!

      Regards Mike! (Aka Professor M!)

    • BakerRambles profile image


      7 years ago from Baltimore, MD

      Thank you, that means alot.

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Happyboomernurse - Sorry for the long delay in responding to your thoughtful comment! I read it at the time and I think what you said sent my mind in other directions. Since I wrote the article, I've become more mindful of making choices (including how I feel about a situation or person) that can lead to a sense of satisfaction. That sense of satisfaction - from accomplishing a goal, or completing a task, or enjoying an experience - is where the juice in life is for me.

      Thelma - Thanks for your comment and for stopping by to read!

      Coolmon - Thank you!

      BakerRambles - I'm honored to have you as a follower! And thank you for those coveted votes. I had a feeling as I was reading your comment, that you are a candidate for long term satisfaction on a number of fronts! I think when we value an outcome and we commit our time and resources to it, the accomplishment of it is so much more satisfying and fulfilling. Sounds to me like you're on the right track. But I do hope you also create moments in your life for the little satisfactions that don't take much time, but are worth it! Smell a rose? Watch a bird?

      Best wishes to you in your endeavors!

    • BakerRambles profile image


      7 years ago from Baltimore, MD

      Thank you very much for publishing this. I myself have a one year old and a fiance, am in college for the long run, and run constantly between both my job as a chef and freelance writer. These all have compiled into a very strenuous race to finish with the highest regard, and I am excessive at everything i do, so your article really stood out. I would defiantly be the unhappy subject in a study, but I truly feel as though long term satisfaction will most likely occur, although i could be wrong. Thank you and this is a wonderful article, voted up and useful, and I'm following you now.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image


      7 years ago from Texas, USA

      I enjoyed reading your article, thanks for sharing :)

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Well, thank you so very much, Miss Paula. I appreciate your endorsement of kid satisfaction, a focus in this article. I never had children, myself, but I can totally understand the argument of why they ultimately make people happier. I think I drove my mother so crazy, I just decided I better not.

      Best wishes!

    • Miss Paula profile image

      Miss Paula 

      7 years ago

      This hub was awesome, the part about having kids, well it does pay off in the long run because I don't know what I would do with out mine, Yes they drive me crazy, so what yes they make me made,so what, but I love them and their the best, and they love me back. Like I said this hub was awesome so I rated you up. Thanks

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Delighted to hear you enjoyed it, Danette. I think it's a challenge to keep focused on what is really important, there are so many demands and distractions in life. I have to keep reminding myself.

      Thanks Eiddwen! I appreciate your lovely comment. Best wishes.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      7 years ago from Wales

      A brilliant read and I vote up without a doubt. I am also glad that we now have the 'interesting'button too.

      Here's to many more hubs to share.

      Take care


    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 

      7 years ago from Illinois

      I totally agree with the two things we can control to be happy - our relationships and experiences. Well-written hub and I enjoyed reading it.

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Gerg, what a nice comment!

      Since our culture does not place high value on happiness, it can take almost a lifetime to realize how important it is! Fortunate those who do. I used to be a workaholic. No longer. I'm thrilled with my life now, filled with people I cherish and things I love to do. Still, it's a never ending process and commitment.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.

      I agree, cathylynn99, what fun the video is. You are the first to mention it. It may be a "cartoon" but there's a lot of truth therein. Thanks for your comment.

    • cathylynn99 profile image


      7 years ago from northeastern US

      love the charlie brown video. sang that song in school choir 36 yrs. ago. it's still great. thanks.

    • Gerg profile image


      7 years ago from California

      Nicely articulated discussion. Especially, "Real happiness has a lot less to do with how cheerful you feel and a lot more to do with a sense of having created value in your life or in others, a sense of accomplishment."

      There are many cultures that place happiness as a societal value; unfortunately, ours is not one of them. That doesn't prevent us from paying attention to what we truly value and creating congruency between what we truly want and how we go about living it.

      Great job!

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Hey, Simone - how true, how true. It takes discipline and mindfulness to stay awake to what is really important in life. With all that marketing around us, we can easily be distracted by what's not really so important in the grand scheme of things. Your comment is such a nice compliment. Thank you so much.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      Isn't it funny that the key things you've outlined are not the things that are marketed to us day in and day out? Fabulous Hub. It brought some healthy perspective back into my life.

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      applecsmith - Thank you for stopping by to read and comment. I really appreciate those votes!

      Hey, clintonb, nice to hear from you.

      Happyboomernurse, you make a good point about first the basic survival needs have to be met which requires a minimum income. There are so many people in the world who are just trying to survive, so worrying about happiness is out of their reach. It's sobering when we realize how much we have in this country. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.

      nicred - Living in the present moment is part of many religious and spiritual traditions and even of some clinical psychology approaches. Thanks for bringing it up, I think you are right on. I appreciate your positive comments, they mean a lot to me.

      savoir faire - Nice to see you again!! I'm so pleased you liked this piece; I know you have spent a lot of your professional life dealing with issues of happiness.

    • profile image

      savoir faire 

      7 years ago

      I loved your piece on happiness. Very good advice, and good to be reminded of

      these simple steps to happiness.

    • nicred profile image


      7 years ago from Cape Town South Africa

      Great Hub and I enjoyed the read .... Happiness is something we as a human race live for, it moulds and shapes our lives -- I believe in the present moment - when you arent feeling happy, you simply have to come back to the present moment.

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 

      7 years ago from Germany

      An Awesome hub! Thanks for sharing.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 

      7 years ago from South Carolina

      Great hub,

      I agree that, "Real happiness has a lot less to do with how cheerful you feel and a lot more to do with a sense of having created value in your life or in others, a sense of accomplishment."

      I think that basic needs for survival such as shelter, food and living in a place we percieve as safe must be met before one can feel happy, and to that end money is vitally important, but I think that once one has enough money to cover the basics and live within ones means, then money is no longer a factor in level of happiness.

      This was a well written thought provoking article and I thank you for publishing it. We do have much control over our level of happiness and once we realize that, it becomes easier to make the attitude and behavior adjustments that will greatly increase our feeling of well being and happiness. It's all in the choices we make.

      btw: Love the crying baby photo, I just had to read this hub to find out what its connection was to happiness.

    • clintonb profile image


      7 years ago from Adelaide, Australia

      This is such an amazing hub! good writing!

    • applecsmith profile image

      Carrie Smith 

      7 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Really enjoyed reading this hub. Thank you for sharing - Voted up and awesome!


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