Scientists have been making immense developments in our understanding of the concept of happiness in recent years.

Yet a lot of people still have trouble identifying and applying what can make them truly happy, and many more remain anxious, stressed, unsatisfied, or even depressed! How come? Why aren’t there more happy people?

Here are a few ways science allows you to better understand yourself so that you and your loved ones can feel happy!

1. Happiness Is About Embracing Your Emotions

No doubt, there will always be situations in life where everything seems bleak despite people around us telling us to cheer up, stay positive and think of better times ahead.

A broken heart, a problem in school or another challenge you might be facing right now can make you wonder how you could have felt happy in the past. The negative thoughts in your head may also make it a greater struggle to imagine a happier future!

Our Outlook on Life Reflects Our Perceptions

This means that emotions and feelings, much like time, are felt as a comparison to previous or future feelings and emotions.

When you compare how you are feeling at the moment to feelings of happiness in the past or feelings of joyful anticipation of the future and realise that you are not feeling as happy as before, you conclude you are feeling sad.

How to Be Happy and Positive

Knowing this allows you to face reality in a whole different way; not only are you able to objectively assess a situation ("that was then and this is now"), you are also able to let go of the past and prevent lingering doubts that paralyse you from taking action to improve the current situation. ("OK, I really screwed up on that one and I feel bad, now what do I do to make it better?").

This is how you can make a conscious effort to graciously accept failures and disappointments and move forward by having positive thoughts. Improve your outlook by focusing on the good things that can be done right now, not the ones you could have, should have, or would have done.

Smiling balloon in a hallway.

2. Happiness Produces Success, Not the Other Way Round.

Advances in neuroscience and psychology have shown that success has more chances of taking form when you focus on being happy.

More specifically, when you do things that make you happy - be it a hobby, a sport, or just a distraction - your brain becomes more creative, motivated, energetic, and productive!

When We Spend Time Doing Things We Enjoy

According to psychologist M. Csikszentmihalyi's research, the happy state of mind comes from what he calls the "flow".

The flow is basically the feeling of complete engagement in a creative or playful activity, which is why athletes, musicians, video-game enthusiasts, and other people who lose themselves in a favourite pursuit are most familiar with it.

When the effects of the flow are transferred onto the many other tasks you accomplish in your daily life (homework, projects, volunteering, etc.), success is generated almost automatically since you don't even realise their difficulty or their repetitiveness.

A Happier Life Is About the Journey, Not the Results

Csikszentmihalyi highlights an important point in the theory of the flow that what really counts for happiness is achieving the flow when completing tasks, not necessarily the material or emotional product of the tasks themselves.

So for instance, while a good grade, a higher salary, or a bigger car/house are nice things to have, they don't always lead to true happiness, since all the joy disappears as soon as you've achieved what you wanted or as soon as one little obstacle comes your way.

That's why it's better to define success as "the satisfaction of knowing that you've put in your very best and that you were happy to do it" rather than "getting everything I want"!

3. Happiness Is Measured by What Matters to Us Most

Many economists agree with R. Kennedy that the problem with measuring happiness, success, and social progress in economic terms only (i.e. how much money you have or how fancy your job is) is that it "measures everything except what makes life worthwhile".

Indeed, most people see happiness as wealth and everything it can buy, a point of view that inevitably leads to sadness and disappointment, as there will always be newer, bigger, and shinier things to buy and not enough money or time to acquire it all.

Long-Term Happiness

Diener, a psychologist specialising in life satisfaction, has confirmed that once your basic needs are met (housing, food, clothes), additional income does little to raise your sense of satisfaction with life.

His studies show many factors have little effect on how good people feel about their overall life: good education, a high IQ, youth, a big house, and a new car are some of the factors that people mistakenly think will improve their lives when in fact these create new "wants" or "priorities" (more education means more responsibility and more stress, bigger house, and car mean more worrying about things being damaged or stolen, etc.).

The Secrets of Happy People

It's no surprise then that his extensive research shows that the happiest people in the world are those that put the following elements at the centre of their lives: marriage, religious faith and/or community, significant friendships, and time with family.

As you can see, all these elements have two things in common: they cannot be bought or sold, and they cannot be physically touched or packaged.

Of course, measuring people's changing moods and priorities and life is a tough science to master, but the general trend seems to be that happiness is not an end in itself. The experience of creating and sharing positive emotions holds numerous social, intellectual and physical benefits for the individual.

If none of this has helped you get closer to your own personal happiness, you could always just dance your worries away or read more on how to feel good about yourself!

Visit MindSG for more tools to take care of your mental well-being.

Download the HealthHub app on Google Play or Apple Store to access more health and wellness advice at your fingertips.

Read these next:

  1. Stanmore, E., Stubbs, B., Vancampfort, D., de Bruin, E. D., & Firth, J. (2017). The effect of active video games on cognitive functioning in clinical and non-clinical populations: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 78, 34–43.
  2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). If we are so rich, why aren't we happy? American Psychologist, 54(10), 821–827.
  4. Diener, E., Sandvik, E., Seidlitz, L. et al. The relationship between income and subjective well-being: Relative or absolute?. Soc Indic Res 28, 195–223 (1993).