How to Live a Happy Life

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We all want to be happy. But we sometimes think of happiness as a thing that happens to us — something we have no control over. It’s easy to link the idea of happiness with the situation we’re in. We might tell ourselves, “If only things were different, then I’d be happy.”

But that’s not really how happiness works. Research shows that just a small portion of happiness (only about 10%) depends on a person’s situation. So where does most of our happiness come from?

Born Happy?

Part of happiness depends on personality. Some people have a naturally happy nature. We all know people who are cheerful and optimistic most of the time. Their upbeat personalities make it easier for them to be happy.

So what does that mean for people who are born with a personality that’s on the grumpy side? They might see the faults in people and situations instead of the good. Their mood might be glum more often than it’s cheerful. But if they’d like to be happier (and who wouldn’t?), it is possible to get there.

Happiness Is Up to Us

Researchers have found that more than half of happiness depends on things that are actually under our control. That’s really good news because it means everyone can be happier.

A big part of how happy we are depends on our mindset, the habits we practice, and the way we live each day. By learning the key ingredients of happiness, we can use them to become happier.

Why Happiness Matters

Happiness is more than a good feeling or a yellow smiley face. It’s the feeling of truly enjoying your life, and the desire to make the very best of it. Happiness is the “secret sauce” that can help us be and do our best.

Here’s what researchers found when they studied happy people:

  • Happy people are more successful.
  • Happy people are better at reaching goals.
  • Happy people are healthier.
  • Happy people live longer.
  • Happy people have better relationships.
  • Happy people learn better.

Ingredients for a Happy Life

Happiness is so important in our lives that it has it’s own field of research called positive psychology. Experts in this field have found that there are key things that make people happier:

Positive Emotions

Joy. Gratitude. Love. Amazement. Delight. Playfulness. Humor. Inspiration. Compassion. Hope. Creativity. Interest. Excitement. Enjoyment. Calm. We all like to have these positive feelings.

Besides feeling good, positive emotions do good things for our brains and bodies. They lower stress hormones, help ease anxiety and depression, and improve our immune system.

Feeling some positive emotions every day has a big effect on our happiness and well-being. That’s why it’s so important to do things that give us positive feelings. Even simple actions like playing with a child or a pet or going for a walk outdoors can inspire these feelings.

Knowing how to manage our negative emotions is also key to happiness. Difficult emotions are a fact of life. But the way we handle them makes all the difference.

Strengths and Interests

The things we’re good at, and like to do, are our strengths. We all have strengths, even if we haven’t discovered them yet.

Strengths include:

  • the things we’re interested in — for example, music, art, science, building things, cooking, reading
  • any skills we have — like painting, playing an instrument, or playing a sport
  • our good qualities — such as kindness, humor, or leadership

Happiness increases when we discover a strength and practice it. The more we practice a strength, the better we get until we really master it.

When we get really good at doing something we enjoy, we can get lost in it. That’s called flow. Experiencing flow helps boost happiness. Finding daily ways to use our strengths is a key ingredient for a happy life.

Good Relationships

The people in our lives matter. Good relationships are one of the best ways to enjoy happiness, health, and well-being.

Developing certain emotional skills can help us form and keep good relationships. When we are there for the people in our lives — and when they’re there for us — we are more resilient, resourceful, and successful.

Here are some of the skills that help us build good relationships:

Finding Meaning and Purpose in Life

Our lives can be busy with day-to-day activities and responsibilities. Many of us multi-task, so we might race ahead, thinking about the next place we need to be. But slowing down to pay attention to what we’re doing and why builds happiness.

Pay attention to the effects of your actions. Notice the ways (big or small) that you make a difference. Live life based on the values that are important to you. Take time to think of what really matters to you (like helping others or protecting the planet).

In what way do you want to make the world a better place? Notice any small daily actions that point you in that direction. They help give your life a sense of meaning and increase happiness.


When our lives are rich with positive emotions, great relationships, strengths to practice, and a sense of purpose, we are ready to accomplish things.

Setting and achieving goals gives us something to put our energy into. It lets us see how we make a difference.

Put effort into things that matter to you. Do your best at whatever you try, without a need to be perfect. If things don’t work out at first, keep an optimistic mindset and try again. Believe in yourself and your dreams.

Set realistic goals and small action steps to turn dreams into realities. To make a success even sweeter, celebrate it with people you care about.

Get Happier

OK, so you can learn how to be happier by managing your mindset, calming your mind, becoming more confident, using your strengths, building your self-esteem, doing things you enjoy, and creating good relationships. That’s a lot of things to think about! You can’t tackle them all at once. But you can start small and pick one thing to work on.

The best way to reach any goal is to begin with small, specific actions. After doing these for a while, they become habits — things that fit into your day without you thinking about them too much. That’s when you move on to build a new daily habit. Achieving small, specific goals can add up to big happiness!

Reviewed by: D’Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: December 2014