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  • Jim Taylor, PhD

What Happiness Really Is (and How to Find It)

Understanding what enables happiness allows you to take the steps to reach it.


  • Happiness is a highly sought-after, yet elusive, quality.

  • Our culture sends unhealthy messages about happiness.

  • A large body of research has identified the most common sources of happiness.

  • There are other, less researched, though still impactful factors that can lead to happiness.

Happiness is, for many in our culture, the Holy Grail of life. At the same time, is there a personal quality that we pursue with such vigor and commit so much time, energy, and money to with so little success? One reason why so many people are unable to find that mindset and feeling that we all seek is that they don’t truly understand what happiness really is and how to experience it. There is no doubt that the journey of the experience of happiness isn’t easy, but it is reachable if you can clearly see what that ethereal goal is.

Where many people err in their striving for inner peace is how they try to get it. Our culture sends messages to us that happiness involves focusing on ourselves, maximizing pleasure, and minimizing anything that causes discomfort. For example, advertising campaigns equate consumption with happiness (e.g., Coca-Cola: Open Happiness). However, research suggests that this hedonistic approach actually creates unstable, fluctuating, and transitory states of happiness.

In fact, happiness doesn’t equate at all with pleasure. It is also not unequivocally related to major positive or negative life events. Happiness is also not experienced as an emotional states often described as euphoria or elation.

What the Research Says About Happiness

If you have ever read about the research on happiness, you’ll have learned two things. First, over the last several decades, a large body of research has identified the key contributors to happiness. Second, that research has consistently shown that there are certain factors that most impact happiness (and they aren’t what many people think):

  • Genetics

  • Healthy relationships

  • Meaningful goals

  • Satisfying work

  • Physical health

  • Financial stability

Though there is not a robust body of research that supports my additional contributors to happiness, both my professional and personal experience have demonstrated these to also impact happiness.

Letting Go of Emotional Baggage

I would suggest that no matter how many of the evidence-based influences on happiness you have, you will not be truly happy if you are burdened by emotional baggage that might include low self-esteem, insecurity, perfectionism, fear of failure, anxiety (non-clinical), expectations, need to please, and need to control, to name a few. Emotional baggage weighs you down psychologically (e.g., negativity), emotionally (e.g., sadness, anger, frustration), and behaviorally (e.g., self-sabotage), thus making any level of consistent happiness a near impossibility. To fully experience happiness, you need to let go of your emotional baggage, though admittedly, it is easier said than done. Emotional baggage is mostly unconscious and, even if you are aware of your baggage, that mindfulness isn’t always enough to gain control of it. There are many ways to attempt to let go of emotional baggage, including reading, seminars, and group support. At the same time, the best outcomes will likely come from addressing your emotional baggage with a trained mental-health professional.

Reducing Life Stress

Life stress, in the form of family conflict, work or school difficulties, financial instability, unexpected events, and health problems, just to name a few, is another aspect of our lives that can prevent you from being happy. Our primitive neurological and psychological reactions to stress, including activation of the sympathetic nervous system and hypervigilance, respectively, create body and mind states that also make happiness very difficult to experience.

Life stress can be handled proactively and reactively. The ideal scenario involves taking steps to prevent stress from becoming debilitating. For example, you might end an unhappy marriage (though admittedly that can cause another, entirely different, set of stressors), leave a stressful job, maintain your physical health with a healthful lifestyle (e.g., healthy eating and exercise), or build a positive social support system.

Unfortunately, some level of stress is an unavoidable aspect of modern life, so not all stress can be avoided. As such, when stress arises, it’s important to have the tools to manage and mitigate it; for example, exercise, meditation, sleep, mental imagery, massage, mindfulness, humor, and support from others.

Controlling Your Life

Being out of control is one thing that we humans do not like. This aversion arose due to evolution because, during primitive times, if our ancestors were out of control, death was likely to follow. Yet, there are many aspects of our lives with which we can’t be in total control, whether our physical or mental health, work, finances, or relationships. Ultimately, the only thing you can control is yourself, namely, the way you think, the emotions you experience, and how you act on and react to your world. At the heart of gaining and regaining control of your life is a simple distinction: do you react as a victim (i.e., “I’m helpless to change my life,”) or a master (i.e., “I’m going to take control of what I can in my life”)? This shift requires that you make a deliberate decision to take control of your life.

Purpose Beyond Yourself

Sadly, we live in a culture that venerates selfishness. We’re constantly bombarded by messages about putting our own needs first. Narcissism has become a cultural toxin. Yet, paradoxically, I have found that focusing on myself makes me less happy. To the contrary, when I focus on others, in terms of love, support, and their needs, I’m actually happier.

That’s why it’s important to have a purpose in your life that is beyond your own selfish needs and wants. Your purpose outside of yourself could be a career path (e.g., working for a nonprofit) or an avocation (e.g., volunteering). In either case, that purpose offers you many benefits that can encourage happiness. First, you aren’t constantly dwelling on your own unhappiness or deficits in your life. Rather, you are focusing on helping others. Second, when you help others, you are connecting with and building positive relationships with them which, as I mentioned above, is the number-one contributor to happiness. Third, it is immensely gratifying and nurturing to see you are helping others find happiness. Finally, when you have a purpose beyond yourself, you experience changes in your brain including to endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.

Find Daily Joy

Happiness is a psychological, emotional, and physiological state that can be nourished in your everyday life. Small experiences of joy (e.g., at work, with family, in avocations), feeling and conveying positive emotions (e.g., love, inspiration, excitement), simple acts of giving to others (e.g., helping family or friends), expressing gratitude to those who help you (e.g., thanking a waiter or cashier), and appreciating your good fortune (e.g., being healthy, having strong relationships) can all feed your happiness and make it more resilient when difficult times arise. The opportunity to appreciate and smile at the simple pleasures in life and, even better, to laugh also produce psychological, emotional, and physiological benefits that bolster happiness. As someone very wise once said, happiness isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. By understanding and being mindful of what enables happiness to emerge, you can take active steps to build and maintain your happiness through the vicissitudes of life.


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