Happiness: What Makes Us Happy?

What's happiness? What do studies tell us about our probability of being so? Is there any part of this longed-for happiness that's really in our own hands?
Happiness: What Makes Us Happy?
Isabel Ortega

Written and verified by the psychologist Isabel Ortega.

Last update: 27 February, 2023

Have you ever wondered what makes us happy? One of the happiest countries in the world is Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom on the eastern edge of the Himalayas hidden among the mountains. In this country, they believe that the accumulation of wealth doesn’t bring happiness. In fact, their government has a national index of happiness.

The government takes this indicator, that’s based on Buddhist philosophy, into account to create policies that ensure the well-being of the population. It measures what makes the inhabitants happy. However, what exactly is happiness?


Almost all of us seek to be happy. That said, there’s no exact definition of this construct. Some scientists claim that it’s a subjective kind of well-being. In other words, it’s not what happens to us, but how we interpret what happens to us. Others state that it’s a state of psychological well-being, which depends on how each individual manages the circumstances of their life.

Researchers of happiness claim that it’s made up of two differentiated elements. These are the affective (positive emotional states and reactions) and the cognitive (thoughts of satisfaction with our lives).

But, how about genetics? Can they influence our happiness? In fact, it seems that 50 percent is highly influenced by genes, 40 percent by activities carried out intentionally by ourselves, and ten percent by life circumstances.

woman feeling satisfaction
Happiness is made up of an affective and a cognitive component.

What makes us happy?

Positive psychology highlights two perspectives on how we can experience happiness: the hedonistic and the eudemonic perspective. So, what are these perspectives based on?

The hedonistic perspective dates back to the fourth century BC. Aristippus of Cyrene, a Greek philosopher, and a disciple of Socrates explained that the ultimate goal of life should be to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. In Western cultures, the hedonic perspective is seen as the most common way of achieving happiness. An individual with a hedonistic perspective believes that happiness comes, for example, from the pleasure of taking a trip, going to a concert, or buying themselves a treat.

On the other hand, the eudemonic perspective isn’t so prevalent in Western culture. This concept dates back to the 4th century BC. C. Aristotle defined it for the first time in his Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle believed that we must live our lives according to our virtues to achieve happiness. This perspective is an attempt to search for more lasting and meaningful happiness. For example, an individual with this perspective may think that happiness derives from the pleasure of personal growth.

How to be happy

Many scientists point out that both approaches are necessary to experience the kind of psychological well-being labeled as happiness. A study of hedonic and eudaemonic behaviors concluded that both behaviors contribute to well-being in different ways. Therefore, both are necessary for happiness to occur.

Consequently, there’s no need to choose between the two as it seems the happiest people share both. That said, people with a eudemonic tendency have higher levels of happiness compared to those with a hedonic tendency.

The longest study on happiness

In 1938, a study began at Harvard University (USA) that’s still ongoing today. It’s followed 724 men for decades to see what made them happy. Throughout these years, the research team has collected information of various kinds about their lives.

The lives of two groups of men were studied. The first group began the study when they were undergraduates at Harvard University. They all finished college during World War II, and most of them went to war.

The second group studied was a group of young people from the poorer neighborhoods of Boston. Every two years, for 75 years, these young men were asked a series of questions about their lives.

The results indicated that happiness has little to do with wealth, fame, or hard work. In fact, it suggests that it’s the quality of our social relationships that make us more or less happy. Indeed, the study highlighted that people with more social ties to their families, friends, and communities were happier. Moreover, they lived longer than more isolated people.

This has nothing to do with the number of friends we have, nor with whether or not we’re in relationships. It concerns the quality of the relationships that we do have.

hugging friends
What matters is the quality and our feelings of satisfaction with our closest relationships.

Does happiness depend on us?

Laurie Santos states that we tend to think that happiness comes from reaching a goal. However, studies suggest that it originates from being able to appreciate what we have. For Laurie, it’s not about always smiling and being positive. She claims that negative emotions are also part of life and they form a part of our feelings of satisfaction with life.

Lyubomirsky, also a researcher in this particular field, states that happiness takes work. In effect, it’s like any other important life goal that we have to work on, and that requires commitment, dedication, and effort. Happiness is no different.

Why do we often forget to seek happiness in the present? Perhaps, we approach happiness as just one more goal in life. However, it’s a state of emotional well-being at the present time. This state can be worked on and built as a gradual habit from our mental functioning.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Delle Fave, A., Brdar, I., Freire, T., Vella-Brodrick, D., y Wissing, M. (2011). The eudaimonic and hedonic components of happiness: Qualitative and quantitative findings. Social Indicators Research100(2), 185 – 207.
  • Flores-Kanter, Pablo Ezequiel, Muñoz-Navarro, Roger, y Medrano, Leonardo Adrián. (2018). Concepciones de la Felicidad y su relación con el Bienestar Subjetivo: un estudio mediante Redes Semánticas Naturales. Liberabit24(1), 115-130.
  • Gabriela Rodríguez-Hernández (2019) The eudemonic and hedonic role of happiness in a population with high levels of life satisfaction, International Journal of Social Psychology, 34:2, 230-255, DOI: 10.1080/02134748.2019.1576323
  • Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. A., y Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855
  • Peterson, C., Park, N., y Seligman, M. E. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25-41.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.