Finding true happiness & satisfaction


Previously I wrote about recent research on Ways we can try to find happiness, but in the end they don’t seem to work.

So psychologists have found that pleasure seeking and materialism may provide short term pleasure but they don’t make for a happy or satisfied life. So what does?

It turns out that lasting happiness comes from two main things – relationships and meaning in life.


It seems to be really true that we were made for each other. Different experts express it in different ways, but they all come to the same thing:

  • “Love people, use things” – be a giver, not a taker.
  • “Love is really all that matters” – “happiness is only the cart; love is the horse.”
  • “The more areas in your life you can make connection, the better” – a growing body of research links social ties with longevity, lower stress levels and improved overall well-being.
  • “the happiest people spend the least time alone” – good relationships act as a buffer to other adverse circumstances such as illness or unemployment.

What sort of relationships?

Studies show that a stable marriage (or equivalent long-term relationship) is one of the main contributors to long term satisfaction in life. Other close relationships are also important and all our good social relationships are helpful.

Surprisingly, good relationships with our parents seem to have some positive effects even later in life.

The bottom line

If we want a happy and satisfying life, it is important that we cultivate good relationships, and work on being the sorts of peope who can maintain good relationships. “Ideal is one close relationship and a network of friends.”


You might think that wealthier countries would generally have happier citizens, but it isn’t always the case. Selfishly seeking our own happiness only works in the short term – in the long run, it dissatisfies.

Wealthy countries generally have higher rates of suicide and their citizens tend to have a lesser sense of meaning in life. Meaning is found in looking outside ourselves – in helping others and investing in a cause “bigger” than ourselves.

Having meaning in life tends to improve our mental and emotional health and makes us more resilient when facing tough times.

The role of religion

Wealthy countries tend to have lower levels of religious belief, possibly because they are more materialistic and hence self focused. Research has shown that religious belief is the primary factor in meaning in life, because it provides a cause “bigger” than ourselves and helps us to be less self-focused.

A double whammy

So if we want to have lasting satisfaction in life, we need both relationships and meaning. We need to look outside ourselves. We need to invest in helping others, build relationships with others, maintain a healthy marriage or equivalent. And altruistic religious belief will be a big help in all of these.

This may seem like a sermon from a religious moralist, but in fact it is all based on the findings of psychological researchers.

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Photo Credit: mynameisharsha via Compfight cc.


  1. Research also shows that some of the happiest countries in the world are also some of the most atheistic. That is the Scandinavian countries. However, their happiness is not related to their low religiosity and indeed both are related to their prosperity and their comprehensive social safety net.
    Low existential anxiety leads to low religiosity and the ability to concentrate efforts on what is important in life. Good education means the Scandinavians are not bewitched by consumerism but seek more meaningful goals. As the tax rates are so high they wouldn’t make great ostentatious thrill seekers anyway.

  2. Hi Gordon, what you are saying is somewhat supportive of what I have reported here. But you need to remember that there is more than one way to define happiness. On one definition, richer countries are happier, but on others not so much – for example, this OECD report shows that there is a trend for greater suicide in wealthier countries, especially ones with greater wealth imbalance. And a sense of meaning in life is a strong buffer against suicide and depression. And of course religion is known to be a strong provider of meaning, so that irreligious countries generally have higher suicide rates.

    So Scandinavians are well off and with moderate levels of wealth imbalance, happy in the short term sense, but less happy in the longer term sense, have low levels of religious belief but relatively high levels of suicide and alcoholism, but lower levels of depression. Its a mixed picture though more good than bad, I think because of a more equal and democratic socialist culture.

  3. @unkleE
    Suicide rates are not a good measure of lack of happiness. If you examine the Danish suicide figures in detail you will find that most of those who commit suicide are old and infirm. Not being religious they have no taboo against suicide. Indeed much of the unhappiness in the more religious first world countries is caused by too much emphasis on the value of life rather than its quality.

  4. I suggest they are well correlated with lack of religious dogma characterising suicide as a sin rather than a sensible option when life becomes too much to bear.

  5. …and because religious people find suicide to be taboo, they will do anything they can to hide the suicide of a family member, thus artificially reducing the numbers on suicide in more religious countries. and regarding happiness, this has nothing to do with the religion in question being true or false. it could well be that when you do understand that gods are unlikely hypothesis you do feel less happy and find life meaningless, so what, it doesn’t make the belief right/wrong. just like kids who find out that santa clauss is fake; are they more or less happy after the discovery… don’t ask unklee to ‘think’ about that one… ignorance is bliss.

  6. Maybe Gordon, but I guess that’s just speculation unless you have some data. The correlations I have mentioned are based on data.

  7. Hi Bob, welcome to this blog. I’ll ignore the little barb at the end as it is meaningless, but I hope you can omit such things if you comment again. 🙂

    It may be that taboos are a factor, I haven’t seen any data on that, have you? Without data, we don’t know how much that might be a factor.

    But I certainly agree that the fact that religion seems to confer some advantages doesn’t necessarily make it true. But it is interesting, which is why I sometimes write about it.

  8. I wont omit certain things because you asked me too, thats not my style, and what i commented on does relate to yours (your style) which you will not change either. Remove my comments if you are not happy, i don’t care, you blog “pseudo-rules” are clear, you don’t want comments that are not friendly enough, but i read some of the things you write around blogs you like to sound all nice and open minded, but you are not, even if probably not on purpose…

    Your response shows an example when you say “It may be that taboos are a factor, I haven’t seen any data on that, have you? Without data, we don’t know how much that might be a factor.” …well duhhhh, no, i have not explicitly seen data, I am just stating a principle, something you agree is true, and is mentioned in the article you linked to… “In addition suicide may be under-reported because of a societal stigma attached to it. This socio-cultural norm may vary across countries and over time.” so you agree with my point, but you “play dumb” and ask a meaningless question instead, using your fake open mind…

    What you could point out is that the article also states “Studies assessing the reliability of suicide statistics suggest that sources of error are random. Thus they have little impact on comparing rates between countries, between demographic groups or over time” which goes to show that it’s complex…

    You also say “But I certainly agree that the fact that religion seems to confer some advantages doesnt necessarily make it true.” but it is not a “fact”… again with the soft hypocrisy where you pretend you agree, but you don’t, and try to find some common ground, pretending to be open minded, sweet, when you just don’t care… you spout your opinion as if it was fact just like any other religious fundamentalists, putting smileys is fooling nobody…

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