Friday, 19 July 2013 14:20

How to Be Happy – in 3 Proven Steps

Why do some people always seem happy, and others not? Is it really a question of life circumstances? Are they happy because their life is better, because they have more luck, and they just don’t have as many worries and upsets?

Or is it more a question of disposition, their nature, and character? Since luck happens to us all, just as taxes, health and family problems do, could it be that some people are genetically wired to be happy no matter what?

People who are highly satisfied with their lives are less likely to have psychological or social problems, less likely to get sick or be stressed out, and more likely to do well at work.

Hard-wired for Happiness?

Current research reveals that mood and temperament have a large genetic component. In a 1996 study, University of Minnesota psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen surveyed 732 pairs of identical twins and found them closely matched for adult happiness, regardless of whether they’d grown up together or apart. Such findings suggest that while we all experience ups and downs, our moods revolve around the emotional baselines or “set points” we’re born with.

But even if we have an inherited range of happiness, are there some tools that we can learn in order to become happier and more satisfied with life?

In an attempt to understand and quantify the state of “subjective well-being” (lab-speak for happiness), a new question emerges: How many positive vs. negative experiences must people have before they can call themselves genuinely “happy”?

The Little Things that Count

The general consensus of current research is that happiness is greatest when we combine frequent numbers of good experiences with a few very intense ones.  To feel happy, focus on the frequency, not the intensity, of positive events in our lives.

Learning how to take pleasure in little victories, recognizing their importance in our lives, and working hard to minimise negatives will accomplish more than waiting around for a burst of intense pleasure.

The Control Factor

Happiness also means that you believe you contribute to events– that you play a major role in the things that happen to you. Such a sense of mastery over both the good and bad events in your life is essential to an overall sense of well-being (Reich, J., & Diener, E., Psychology Today, “The Road to Happiness”, July 1994).

Scientists have been studying what makes people happy for several decades now, however, the internet has made possible even more studies, as people all over the world can access and complete surveys. Many surveys can be found for free at

Positive psychology researchers Dr. Nansook Park, Dr. Christopher Peterson and Dr. Martin Seligman have been studying 24 character strengths in depth, and are looking at the role of individual strengths in creating subjective feelings of happiness.

Five Key Strengths

A study with more than 4000 participants revealed that five key strengths–gratitude, optimism, zest, curiosity, and the ability to love and be loved– are more closely and consistently related to life satisfaction than the other strengths.

A very compelling reason to give special attention to these five key strengths is that each strength on the list is, by definition, mutable and can be learned. We can all become more grateful, optimistic, zestful, curious, and loving if we are willing to make a concerted effort to do so.

Dr. Seligman, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, did a controlled experiment in which 575 participants were given either an exercise or a placebo (an innocuous task having no affect). They were measured on their perceived feelings of happiness and life satisfaction after one week, one month and three months.

There is now good scientific evidence that three specific interventions can make people lastingly happier and can lastingly reduce depressive symptoms.  Here are the interventions that successfully raised levels of happiness in participants:

Intervention 1: The Gratitude Visit

Volunteers were asked to write and present a letter of gratitude to someone they have never properly thanked.

Intervention 2: Three Good Things

Those who received this exercise were asked to write down three good things (big or small) that happened during the day every night for one week. Next to each, individuals addressed the question, “Why did this good thing happen?”

Intervention 3: Using Your Top Strengths

Individuals were asked to take the Values in Action Signature Strengths Survey, (, write down their top five strengths. In addition, volunteers received detailed instruction about how to use these strengths in new ways every day for one week.

One month (for all) and three months later (for Three Good Things and Using Your Top Strengths), people were significantly happier and less depressed.

Coaching for Happiness

Online happiness surveys can create self-awareness and enhance your ability to experience more happiness and life satisfaction. Even more effective is using these tools with a professional coach. Your coach can help you to develop gratitude, and awareness of strengths. With your coach, you can discover ways to effectively use your strengths in new ways.

These three keys are essential tools in achieving lasting happiness, and ultimately greater health and life success.

Resources on Happiness

Frisch, M. B. (2000). Improving mental and physical health care through quality of life therapy and assessment. In E. Diener & D. R. Rahtz (Eds.), Advances in quality of life: Theory and Research (pp. 207-241). Great Britain: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Furr, R. M., & Funder, D. C. (1998). A multimodal analysis of personal negativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1580-1591.

Lewinsohn, P., Redner, J., & Seeley, J. (1991). The relationship between  life satisfaction and psychosocial variables: New perspectives. In F. Strack, M. Argyle, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Subjective well-being: An interdisciplinary perspective (pp. 141-172). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Park, N., Peterson, C., and Seligman, M.E.P.  (in press). Strengths of character and well being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

Seligman, E.P.M (2002) Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment; New York: Simon & Schuster.

Veenhoven, R. (1989). How harmful is happiness? Rotterdam: Universitaire Pers Rotterdam.


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