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The Science of What Makes You Happy

5 min read  |  April 18, 2024  | 
Disponible en Español |

What does it mean to be happy?

  • Happiness comprises pleasure and engagement, meaningfulness, and purpose.
  • Cultural and personal expectations influence happiness levels, with genetics accounting for a significant portion.
  • Authenticity, compassion, meaningful relationships, and gratitude contribute to a joyful life but aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

Happiness — or at least the pursuit of it — is important for most of us. It is enshrined in the famous words of the U.S. Constitution, and a cottage industry has sprouted to help us achieve what many consider a blissful state. But it doesn’t take many years of living to figure out that we sometimes don’t know much about how to be happy (or happier) and why some people seem to be naturally joyful despite obstacles and tragedy.

While happiness is difficult to define, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists and philosophers have spent centuries studying the factors that relate to elevated levels of contentment. 

Modern technology has even allowed researchers to map out the neuroanatomy of happiness in the brain.

“Happiness is thought to consist of two components, a hedonic (different from hedonism) component involving pleasure, and a eudaimonic component involving engagement, meaningfulness, and purpose,” says Firdaus Dhabhar, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

This view of something so abstract dates back to Aristotle — and has evolved over time. 

“The emphasis on these two components changes through different times in history and in different philosophies of life from different parts of the world,” says Dr. Dhabhar, who also serves as Director of the Scholarly Concentration in Mind-Body Medicine at the Miller School of Medicine. 

The importance of focus on self versus the focus on others contributing to happiness levels has also changed in history.

Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar

He cites these examples: 

Zoroastrianism, an ancient (about 4,000-year-old) and almost extinct religious philosophy, maintains that happiness comes to those who bring happiness to others. This is an “other-focused” view of happiness. 

In more modern times, Mahatma Gandhi, who led the nonviolent movement for India’s independence, said that happiness is achieved when what you think, say and do are in harmony.

Culture and geography, as well as genetics, play a role, whether we like to admit it or not. For instance, the 2022 World Happiness Report looked into why some people appear to be inherently happier than others. By delving into studies of twins and families, it concluded that “approximately 40% of the differences in happiness are accounted for by genetic differences between people,” with environmental influences accounting for the remaining variance. Dr. Dhabhar puts the genetic component between 30 and 50%.

Some countries consistently score high on the happiness scale, too. 

The reasons for this are mixed. 

“These include the extent to which a social safety net, healthcare, and education are guaranteed for all citizens, and the expectations of people from different countries/cultures in terms of what it takes to be happy – the more reasonable their expectations, the happier the person/society is likely to be,” Dr. Dhabhar says.

In other words, a society’s definition of happiness can tip the scales on a personal level. 

“If a culture defines happiness as having fame, fortune, owning numerous highly-expensive things, and flaunting material possessions, then it would be difficult for many people in that culture to be happy because everyone is not likely to amass wealth in such a manner,” he points out.

Also, an aggressive insistence on positivity at all costs may cause more harm than good. 

Dr. Dhabhar says that happiness can be a choice under some circumstances. However, the happiness-as-a-choice movement can inadvertently cause harm. 

“In reality, their life circumstances may be such that it would be very difficult for most people to be happy under similar circumstances.”

Dr. Dhabhar’s research, teaching and life experiences have led him to offer some suggestions to lead a joyful life:

  • Remember that happiness consists of pleasure, meaning and purpose in life.
  • Be honest, authentic, supportive, and compassionate with others and with yourself.
  • Ensure that your thoughts, words, and deeds are in harmony.  
  • Treasure good people. “Having a healthy relationship with even one or a few people who care about you can enhance happiness and well-being,” Dr. Dhabhar says.
  • Focus on helping others and making them happy even as you focus on yourself.  
  • Be grateful for and genuinely appreciate the present, including the many beautiful aspects of life that we often take for granted. Do this even as you work to improve your life and attain your future goals and dreams.

Dr. Dhabhar says his suggestions aren’t meant as a magic formula that guarantees happiness. That said, “all of these could improve happiness if they are practiced AUTHENTICALLY.

“It is also important to keep in mind that such approaches may not always work for all people, or even for the same person at different times or under different circumstances.”


Headshot of Ana Veciana, author (2023)

Ana Veciana-Suarez is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.


Tags: Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar, positive attitude

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