What makes you happy? How can you expand happiness in your life? Humans have long contemplated these questions and in recent years psychologists have attempted to find data-based answers.

I want to look at some of the conclusions that psychology is offering, but first here are a few general conclusions of my own on happiness that I have drawn from my contemplation of the subject.

First (and it’s almost a cliché), happiness is not a destination. Although we can desire more happiness, such an emotional state is not our end goal. We cannot “will ourselves to be more happy”.

Second, we can expand our happiness in our lives. We can make choices to live our lives in such a way that we experience more joy each day. Happiness comes as a byproduct of these other choices.

Third, we can learn from others which choices in these other aspects of our lives will lead to increased happiness as a byproduct. We can study happy people and see what they do differently from us. We can learn from the studies of psychology. It’s up to us to then make any needed course corrections in how were living our lives.

There are a lot of resources available online summarizing psychological research on happiness – simply go Google the topic. Many psychologists say that our level of happiness is determined by three factors – genetic predispositions, life circumstances, and our intentions (i.e., our choices). One can debate the degree that each of these areas controls our happiness, but there is no debate regarding the fact that we have some control.

The cover of a recent issue of Psychology Today magazine had the bold headline “What Happy People Do Differently”. Inside were a series of short articles summarizing some recent research – here’s a link to the online version.  What follows are a few points and quotes from the articles that caught my eye.

A Key to Happiness: A dynamic tension between comfort and growth

“Truly happy people seem to have an intuitive grasp of the fact that sustained happiness is not just about doing things that you like. It also requires growth and adventuring beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. Happy people, are, simply put, curious.” In other words, we create an interesting tension between being comfortable and in creating an anxious state where we are not sure what’s going to happen.

This tension reminds me of a couple of plant-based metaphors frequently used in self-help literature. It’s often mentioned that we need “strong roots” so that when the winds of change blow at our lives, we bend and sway but don’t break. Yet, we are encouraged to seek the “growing edge” of our life – just like the leaves of a plant – where we push into newness.  The point: both are important.

Obviously, one can be out of balance in this dynamic tension. You can play it too safe and always stay in your comfort zone. You can be too risky and always pushing the envelope on curiosity. Where are you in this balance?

A Key to Happiness: Don’t sweat the small stuff

The happiest people “were less conscientious about their performance; to them, sacrificing some degree of achievement seems to be a small price to pay for not having to sweat the small stuff.”

Again, we see another balancing act. One can be so consumed about success at whatever task is at hand that they stress over minor details to ensure “quality control” over the outcome. At the other extreme, one could care less about the outcome and frequently not succeed. Psychology appears to be saying that the happier people are the ones who seek a healthy balance in their lives around achievement.

A Key to Happiness: Celebrating others

“The happiest people are the ones our present when things go right for others – and whose own wins are regularly celebrated by their friends as well.” The article also adds, “when partners celebrate each other’s accomplishments, they’re more likely to be satisfied and committed to their relationship, enjoying greater love and happiness.”

We all want success. We all want to be acknowledged for our success. So does everyone else we know! The more we give – in celebrating others and what they have done – the more we receive. Yes, others may acknowledge us more when we acknowledge them more. However, the real gift is in the giving of the acknowledgment – when I celebrate you and see you happy, I get happy.

A Key to Happiness: Using emotions positively

“Happy, flourishing people don’t hide from negative emotions. They acknowledge that life is full of disappointments and confront them head on, often using feelings of anger effectively to stick up for themselves or those of guilt as motivation to change their own behavior.” It adds, “the ability to shift mental states as circumstances demand turns out to be a fundamental aspect of well-being.”

Again, it’s easy to get out of balance with our emotions. We can dwell on the negative and wallow in self-pity. We can deny the negative, pushing it away until it explodes in the most inappropriate way. Happy people find a healthy balance and learn from the lessons of life.

A Key to Happiness: Balancing pleasure and purpose

“People who are the happiest tend to be superior at sacrificing short-term pleasures when there is an opportunity to make progress toward what they aspire to become in life.”

Here is probably my favorite quote from the article – “if you want to envision a happy person’s stance, managing one foot rooted in the present with the mindful appreciation of what one has – and the other foot reaching toward the future for yet to be uncovered sources of meaning.”  Again, happiness appears to be tied to creating a healthy balance and navigating a dynamic tension between what appear to be opposing forces.


So are you generally happy? Do you see areas in your life where you could be happier?  Most of us would  answer that although we are generally happy, there is always room for improvement and growth.  The question then becomes how to generate that enhanced joy.

We are each at choice in our lives.  Much of our lives are experienced as a tension between opposites.  Whenever we “get out of balance”, we tend to have less happiness.  Where are you out of balance?


Mark Gilbert


Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!