The Pursuit of Happiness: 3 Facts Science Can Teach You

June 5, 2013

pursuit of happiness

by Susan Martin

Is there science to happiness or, in other words, can science teach us how to be happy? We all want to be happy. While the pursuit of happiness is an essential element of human existence, alas we are not always so clear on the details.

The self-help industry was born to fulfill this void, and it has produced copious amounts of information to answer these basic questions. Unfortunately, self-help books and DVDs are not always the most reliable source of information.

Fortunately, the pursuit of happiness is not the sole domain of the self-help industry. Research is actively addressing questions like ‘what makes a person happy’ and ‘how a person can improve their emotional life and emotional well-being’. Research on this area has already produced several interesting findings.

In this post I want to explore 3 interesting facts science can teach you about being happy.

Gratitude makes you happy

Count your blessings is one of the oldest advice offered by the self-help industry. Most of us are highly critical of ourselves and think negative thoughts about ourselves far more often than positive thoughts. Always being critical of yourself is obviously not great for your well-being.

Gratitude is the antidote for negativity. The idea is to focus on things you appreciate about your life, and then to be grateful of those things.

Research by Dr. Robert Emmons at the University of California shows that practicing gratitude indeed makes you happier [1]. The researchers asked the participants to either focus on: gratitude, life hassles or neutral things. 10 weeks later the researchers measured the effects.

Not surprisingly, the group that focused on gratitude reported significantly better emotional well-being than the other two groups. The gratitude group also felt more connected to others and acted more socially (they were more likely to give aid when requested). What’s interesting is the gratitude group also exercised an hour more per week more than the other two groups (3 hours per week vs. 4 hours for the gratitude group).

Gratitude does work!

Good deeds are passed on

Marketers have long understood the concept of reciprocity. When you receive something you are far more likely to give something back. That’s why companies like to ‘so generously’ give you trinkets and freebies – so you would buy their products and services.

A study published at the Journal of experimental psychology shows that generosity is paid forward [2]. In the study the researchers wanted to see what happens when people cannot give back to the person who initially gave them something. That is, when person A gives something to person B, what will the person B do when he or she cannot reciprocate to the person A?

The study found that both good and bad deeds are passed on. And unfortunately people were more likely to pass on greed and other bad deeds than good deeds.

The lesson here is clear. Be kind to others, because your behavior is passed on. You could see yourself as emanating energy that people you come in contact with pass on to others. So make sure you put out positive energy to the world.

Happiness is a circular motion

As humans we are often terrible at predicting what makes us happy. For example, let’s say you have $100 extra cash at your disposal and your task is to spend it in a way that maximizes your happiness. What would you do? If you are like most people, you might pamper yourself with a massage or buy something you’ve wanted for some time.

A study by Dr. Lara Aknin published at the Journal of happiness studies shows that’s exactly the wrong thing to do [3].

In the study the participants were asked to recall a recent purchase they had made. One group was asked to recall the last time they spent money on themselves or on others. Spending on others, also called prosocial spending, could mean buying something as a gift or a charitable donation. The group that recalled prosocial spending felt significantly happier afterwards. What’s more, they were also more likely to spend a monetary windfall of further prosocial spending than those who recalled spending on themselves.

This research shows that spending on others creates a positive feedback loop that encourages further prosocial spending and happiness. Combine this with the previous bit about people passing on good deeds and you’ll see how powerful simple act of gift giving can be.

As these studies show, we all have the potential to be happy. It doesn’t take great deeds or vast fortunes. Rather, happiness is a mixture of being content with what you have and treating others kindly. There’s a bit of scientific advice we all could take to heart.

Image Credit: Marcos Vasconcelos


[1] Emmons R, McCullough M. Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003, Vol. 84, No. 2, 377-389.

[2] Gray K, et al. Paying It Forward: Generalized Reciprocity and the Limits of Generosity. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2012 Dec 17.

[3] Aknin L, et al. Happiness Runs in a Circular Motion: Evidence for a Positive Feedback Loop between Prosocial Spending and Happiness. J Happiness Stud (2012) 13:347-355.