What makes people happy?

This page last updated October 11th, 2020

I suppose anyone reading this wants to be happy, to feel that their life is worthwhile. But what if most of us are looking in the wrong places to find happiness?

Psychologists have studied this question and now know the things which really lead to lasting happiness, and those that don’t.

Many things that are often sold to us on the promise they will make us happy don’t actually deliver. Sometimes the simpler things of life give us more satisfaction in the long run.

Read on to find out what you can do to be happier.

We now know what makes people happy

Each person is an individual, and different things make each person happy. But many studies and surveys give us some good clues about what makes most people happy, and what doesn’t. (Some surveys relate only to Australia, Britain or the US, but worldwide surveys suggests their conclusions would apply more widely.)

Happiness, wellbeing, satisfaction and pleasure

Let’s get clear on the words.

  • Pleasure = a short term positive sensation or feeling.
  • Happiness = a longer term positive feeling.
  • Life satisfaction = a sense of purpose in life.
  • Wellbeing = happiness, satisfaction and health.

Both the literature nor I have not been strict in our use of these terms, and happiness and life satisfaction are often used interchangeably.

How happy are people?

Worldwide, people in most countries are generally happy with life (worldwide it appears that about three quarters of people are satsified with their lives). This is the case in Australia, even though most of us have anxieties about world events, especially terrorism, in recent years, and we tend to feel that our quality of life is getting worse.

However, people in the west are not generally any happier than they were half a century ago, despite the enormous increase in living standards, and in Great Britain and Australia they may be less happy now. Many students experience depression and thoughts of suicide – experts say students are often too goal-oriented to care about many of the things which generally make people happy.

Surprisingly (to me, at any rate) studies show that wonderful or catastrophic events have less of a long term effect on our happiness than we might imagine. People who win the lottery or have a serious accident experience an immediate emotional response, but 12 months later this has generally evened out. If we’re happy now, we’ll likely stay reasonably happy, come what may.

So what makes people happy?

The studies tell us some things that are amusing or almost trivial:

  • people gardening are, on average, happier than people power boating
  • chatting with friends gives more pleasure to most people than watching TV
  • over or under sleeping both make us less happy
  • spending significant time on social media tends to make us less happy

I’m sure you wanted to know that! 🙂 But what about the big picture?

Some things are hard to change

There are some things that you just can’t change, like your genes and the country you grew up in. Experts say that your happiness is about half determined by these things.

Genes: Extroverts, conscientious, agreeable and healthy people (qualities significantly affected by genetics) tend to be happier.

Country and Government: It helps to be born into a moderately wealthy country. People tend to be happier in a country with a stable democratic government, civil liberties and freedoms, low levels of crime and corruption, and readily available healthcare and social security. Growing up in a relatively rich western nation with a protestant democratic heritage is likely to make a person happier with their life than growing up in a former communist country from eastern Europe, or in a poorer country in Africa.

So, if half of it is determined already, we’d better make sure we work on the other half, to make the best of life that we can.

Money can’t buy me ..?

Many of us think that being rich, able to afford to buy what we want, live in a good house and drive a flash car, would makes us happy. But we’d only be partly right.

People in the more affluent countries are generally happier than those in poorer countries, although there are many variations and anomalies. It is significant that in many of the wealthier countries (notably English-speaking and northern European countries) improving lifestyle has become generally more important than increasing wealth.

Within a country, wealthy people tend to be happier than poor people, other things being equal. Low income and unemployment (along with poor relationships) are the greatest causes of low wellbeing. Perhaps most important here is the sense of financial control, which can be a significant assistance to happiness. But once a person has enough money to purchase the necessities of life, their happiness doesn’t increase much even if they have a lot more money.

Significantly, studies show that people almost always overestimate the impact that increased or reduced wealth will have on their wellbeing. And despite Britain being one of the world’s richest countries, with incomes almost three times higher than in 1950, 61% overall, and 46% of the richest households, say that they cannot afford to buy what they “really need”! Yet almost 90% believe British society has become too materialistic.

Worse, for the more materialistic among us, wanting to have more quite definitely leads to being less happy. Psychologist Ed Diener: “Materialism is toxic to happiness.”

Moreover, people tend to be happier when they gain intrinsic rewards (those that come as part of another experience), not external ones (where the rewards are sought for their own sake). Thus, people who spend their resources (time and money) on experiences and relationships are generally happier than those who spend on possessions.

“We want to understand the meaning of life, and create meaning in our lives and money can’t do that for us.” Clinical psychologist, Amanda Gordon

So if you want to be happy, seek enough money to provide the essentials, then be content with what you have. Enjoy it when you can increase your wealth, but don’t worry or be competitive about it.

Health & beauty

Healthier people are generally happier. And as we age, health becomes more important to happiness, so exercise, not smoking and sensible alcohol use, become more important then.

But the effects are not strong, and sometimes being happy helps you stay healthy rather than the other way round. If you are really sick, getting well will probably make you happier. But if you are well, or only mildly ill, getting healthier will not increase your happiness much, and worrying about it will have an adverse effect.

But some detailed findings are interesting. Smokers are generally far less happy than non-smokers and those who exercise a lot tend to be happier than those who don’t. Drinkers tend to be happier than non-drinkers, with “risky” drinkers feeling the most happy, but this may be only short term – one study found that alcohol abuse was one of the greatest causes of unhappiness with life.

Likewise, being attractive or popular brings a small degree of happiness, but worrying about it is a downer. So being content with who you are is generally the best approach.

Work – a 4-letter word?

People are generally happier when they are successfully doing something that absorbs them and challenges their skills. Thus, those who have meaningful work are generally happier than those who are stressed from over-work and those who have little to do. In particular, unemployment is one of the greatest causes of low wellbeing.

People doing volunteer work tend to be happier than those in paid work, perhaps because they are more connected to their community, or their work is more fulfilling. And people who are more educated seem to be happier, on the whole, than those who are not.

There is a growing trend in Australia and Britain for people to downshift – to reduce long working hours, and salary, to spend more time with family and friends, or in activities which they find more meaningful. Most report later that they are indeed happier.


Meaningful relationships are one of the two most important factors in being happy. People who love, and those who are socially engaged, are happier. People need good social support to be happy. “The happiest people spend the least time alone”. Ideal is “one close relationship and a network of friends”. Good relationships act as a buffer to other adverse circumstances such as illness or unemployment.

Living happily with a partner is one of the greatest sources of wellbeing. Married people (and surprisingly, those who have been widowed) tend to be the happiest of all. Those who live alone, especially those who have been divorced or are separated, tend to be the least happy.A good marriage is very helpful in giving happiness, comfort, companionship in old age, and is a buffer when times get tough.

Studies show that, on average, married people have more sex than single people, and that, for happiness, the optimum number of sexual partners in a year was one. Those in long term relationships other than marriage also tend to be happy, but not as much as those who are married – one source suggests that it is the commitment that makes the difference. Some studies suggest single women may be happier in old age than married women, but married men tend to be happier. Thus, “marriage is a gamble”.

Children are a mixed blessing in their impact on wellbeing. If our income is sufficient, children do not significantly impact on wellbeing, but if our income is low, or we are a single parent, the stress of raising children increases and wellbeing is reduced.

People in groups such as sporting teams or interest groups tend to be happier than others, because of the network of friends such groups provide.

So if you are not in a stable relationship, being part of a supportive community of common purpose and values becomes even more important.

Fear and safety

A few years ago, more than half Australians thought a terrorism attack was likely in this country, despite a reduction in anxiety about this. Those who most fear for their personal safety and are anxious about crime or terrorism generally tend to be the least happy. We are happier if we can feel that friends and society generally can be trusted.

A sense of purpose

A sense of purpose is one of the two most important contributors to happiness in life (the other being good relationships). This is expressed in many ways (mostly already noted here):

  • being altruistic – we’re happier when we’re helping others
  • being committed to a “big cause”
  • doing meaningful, preferably voluntary, work
  • a deep sense of the purpose of life
  • useful things to do
  • something to look forward to

What do you believe?

People with “deep religious faith” or involved with a faith community tend to be happier than the average – this is especially true for youth. Economist Richard Lanyard (in ‘Religion & Society Research’): “People who believe in God are happier.”

Religious and spiritual practices (meditation, prayer, corporate worship) are important in addition to faith.

Studies show that religious people have higher self esteem, are less vulnerable to depression, substance abuse and delinquency, and are less likely to experience mental illnesses, divorce or to attempt suicide.

There may be a number of reasons for this.

  • Believers tend to be part of groups with strong relationships, and may be committed to more altruistic behaviour.
  • Generally, religious faith gives people peace, hope and a sense of purpose, all of which are very important for happiness.
  • Studies show that one of the greatest keys to long term happiness is going beyond ourselves and our pleasures to give ourselves in the service of something that we believe is more important than we are.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic

Most studies find that intrinsic motivations and rewards are much more likely to make us happy than extrinsic ones.

Intrinsic rewards and goals, such as personal growth, close relationships, and physical health, are an integral part of our lives and ourselves, and so meet deep psychological needs. But extrinsic goals, like money, status, or fame, don’t meet deep psychological needs, and are therefore not so helpful to happiness, and may even be harmful.

Thus it often turns out that seeking happiness or pleasure is self defeating, but looking outward and seeking a “higher purpose” will make us happy.

Hang loose!

Our character and attitude to life also make a big difference to our overall happiness. People who are happiest tend to be those who:

  • enjoy “small pleasures” and have a zest for living,
  • are altruistic (altruism is linked with a sense of purpose in life),
  • show gratitude,
  • are ready to forgive, and
  • are easy to live with.

It is reassuring to think that behaviour we tend to admire, while it may not lead to material success, does generally lead to happiness. These are qualities we can develop with commitment and practice.

You can change

Studies show that we tend to become happier as we age, probably because we are more at peace with ourselves and our lives. So if we feel unhappy, we can hope that things will improve.

But there are also things we can do to be more happy. This can include:

  • Setting intrinsic goals that will meet our deepest needs rather than simply giving us short term extrinsic pleasure. Ed Diener: “we may need to sacrifice to some extent to ensure we have intimate, loving relationships.”
  • Being more active and purposeful.
  • Learning how to cope with difficulty is a significant help in being happy.
  • Becoming more altruistic, developing better relationships and finding something important, a cause, to live for.
  • Psychologists have found we can actually “re-wire” our brains, to change the way we think and be happier.

The snowball effect

The various aspects of happiness and wellbeing tend to reinforce each other. People who are happy on one measure are more likely to be happy on other measures. And when we suffer from several problems (for example divorce, unemployment, a single parent), remaining happy is much tougher.

And the winner is ….

There is a lot of information out there, and a lot of conclusions could be drawn. These seem to be the main ones:

  • Intrinsic rewards make us happier than extrinsic rewards.
  • Don’t be fooled into thinking that wealth, health or popularity will bring lasting happiness. Their impact is likely to be small and fleeting. If you have real needs, improving your standard of living will be beneficial, but otherwise it is best to learn to be happy with what you have.
  • Develop good relationships with a circle of friends – join a group. Maintain a loving marriage or equivalent long term relationship if you can.
  • Get involved in interesting and challenging activities that enrich your life – enjoy your paid work, and do some voluntary work.
  • Look outside yourself. Go easy on others, forgive, offer support, show gratitude.
  • Think about what you believe. Spiritual and ethical beliefs, hope and purpose are very important for well-being, and investing your life in a cause greater than yourself is one of the biggest keys to satisfaction in life.
  • You can probably improve your happiness if you apply these findings.

Positive psychology

Positive psychology sums up all this information by identifying three areas (or “domains”) of life which are keys to happiness:

  • The Pleasant Life. Having as much pleasure and positive emotion as possible. However our capacity for positive emotion is largely determined genetically, so the following are more important for most of us.
  • The Engaged Life. Being absorbed and immersed in our work, love, friendship and leisure. This requires us to identify our strengths and virtues and build our lives around them. This allows us to be more absorbed in our life, have a greater zest for living and be more positive about what we are doing.
  • The Meaningful Life. This requires us to go beyond ourselves and our pleasures and use our strengths and virtues in the service of something that we believe is more important than we are.

What do you think?

It appears that old fashioned values and the simple things of life, such as family, religious and ethical beliefs, and thinking of others, have more going for them than our consumer-driven culture leads us to think. However if you choose to build your life on these values, you should be prepared to be challenged by jokes, advertising and your own envy. Western culture tends to push the view that money, possessions, pleasure and power give happiness, even though these studies, and experience, show that this is often illusory.

Taking it further

It is surprising to me how people may research in detail the specification of a new car or computer they plan to buy, yet they appear to come to decisions and attitudes on major life issues without much consideration.

But if we wish to consider further what will make our lives more satisfying, what basis will we choose? Can we just decide one way or another, on the basis of what we find most attractive, or do we really need to be convinced about whether these values are “true” or not? Can we live our life for a cause we don’t actually believe is ‘true’?

Read more

I have listed most of the references I have used to compile this information at What makes people happy references. There is some good and interesting reading there.

Photo: MorgueFile.

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