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What Makes a Happy Life?

by Erika Franz

What constitutes a happy, fulfilled life? What makes people truly happy in the long run and how can we get closer to that lifestyle every day?

The most common answers to this question are a great career, lots of money, finding your soulmate, or purpose in life. While these are all good guesses, they are still very vague. What makes a great career – a big paycheck or making other people’s lives better? How do you know if someone is your soulmate? Our goals may be diverse but is there an underlying common ground to our deepest desires? Is there a scientific way to prove what makes people truly happy for prolonged periods of time?

The obvious answer is no. We are all so profoundly different in views, life experiences, expectations, interests, and skills that it is surely impossible to pinpoint what makes us all feel content. Or so we thought until researchers from all around the world started to pay closer attention to the topic.

There are two perspectives worth exploring when talking about the issue of a happy life.

1) Which ‘big’ part of life actually plays an important role in our overall wellbeing?

Family, friends, professional success, money, romantic partners, fame, respect, physical appearance…? Unsurprisingly, nurturing strong relationships with other people seems to be the most crucial step towards a happy life.

Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst is the third Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which is one of the most complex and complete longitudinal studies in history. Dr. Waldinger is also a Zen priest!

The simplest way to summarize what this study has taught us is a quote from Dr. Waldinger’s TED talk: „Good relationships keep us happy and healthy.“  People with strong social ties are happier, healthier, and live longer. Loneliness and isolation can literally kill us while feeling cared for and loved will protect both our body and mind. For instance, people in their 80s who had someone they could count on, a strong and stable relationship, had better memory than those who didn’t. They remembered more of their past and did so with much more detail compared to ‘lonelier’ subjects of the same age.

In conclusion, strong relationships with friends, family, or partners should be our main focus in life. Chasing career goals or trying to live up to other people’s expectations will make us unhappy – if there’s nobody in our lives to discuss it with. Through life’s ups and downs, one thing is constant: the human need to share, understand, empathize, to comfort, and be comforted, to celebrate success together.

Why is this knowledge so hard to implement? Because it isn’t easy or quick. It is a lifelong commitment, one that challenges us to be better and more understanding every day. Relationships are hard work, they are unpredictable and messy. But actively trying to deepen and strengthen our existing relationships and seeking out new ones is definitely worth the struggle.

Watch the TED talk by Robert Waldinger titled „The Good Life“ here:

2) What are some of the habits we need to incorporate into our everyday routine to live a better life?

This perspective explores ways to feel better and more energetic day after day. Here are some of the simple changes you can make that will have a big impact on your quality of life:

Exercise – as little as 7 minutes a day might do the trick. Taking some time every day to move around and get the blood flowing is a science-backed way to relax, increase focus, have a better memory and improve body image (even if your physical appearance doesn’t change at all!)

Sleep – apart from helping our bodies recover, the amount of sleep we get directly impacts how sensitive we are to negative emotions. Positive or neutral events are processed by the hippocampus while the negative are processed by the amygdala. Sleep deprivation has an immediate effect on the hippocampus which leaves us recalling bad memories just fine while struggling to remember the good ones.

Helping others – being kind and choosing to go out of your way to brighten somebody else’s day is the most reliable way to feel better both about yourself and the world we live in. Volunteering, washing the windows instead of your parents, going grocery shopping, or babysitting your neighbour’s twins… the possibilities are endless.

Going outside – making time to fit in a 20-minute walk into our busy schedules has great benefits. It improves mood, productivity, and memory. Sitting on a park bench or walking your dog will make you happier if you manage to stay away from screens and social media while doing it.

Meditation – a team of scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital compared brain scans of 16 people before and after participating in an eight-week course of mindfulness meditation. The results were unambiguous: parts of the participants’ brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew while areas related to stress shrank.

Gratitude – expressing gratitude and actively trying to come up with things to be grateful for increases happiness levels significantly. This can be done by keeping a journal or simply sharing 3 things you’re grateful for each day with a family member or friend.


10 simple ways to be happier:

Another 18 suggestions:

More about the Study of Adult Development findings:


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