11 March 2019

Happiness: the basics

What science can teach us about being happier.

While I was putting together the content of a recent coaching workshop on happiness, I looked at some of the research there is on the subject to get a sense of how science defines happiness, why it’s important and some of the proven methods of raising levels of happiness.

In her book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness as being “the experience of joy, contentment or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” So, as well as happiness being something that makes us feel good, it is also about having a deeper sense of purpose in life.

We all want to be happy, it makes us feel good and so happiness is of course important to us. But when you look at the research, happiness has a considerably more profound effect on our lives than just the feel good factor. Lyubomirsky’s research (and many other studies) points out that higher levels of happiness can:

Finding Happiness Workshop, photo:
Carla Watkins Business & Branding Photography

  • improve physical and mental health (including life expectancy)

  • lead to better relationships and connection with others

  • improve performance, creativity and decision-making abilities

  • make us more self-compassionate and willing to help others

  • make us more likely to make a positive contribution to society

  • help us become more resilient when things go wrong


So where does our happiness come from? The research offers some very interesting and surprising answers. Only 10% of our happiness is affected by our circumstances, such as money, possessions, where we live, how we look and other external influences. Money can make us happier, but only to a certain point. When all our basics needs are met and we are comfortable, money has less power to improve levels of happiness. So when you’re next thinking, oh if only I could win the lottery... research says this won’t necessarily make you any happier.


Have you noticed that some people are generally happier than others? Apparently, 50% of our happiness comes from our genes. We’re all born with a certain level of happiness which stays with us throughout our life. Positive experiences may lift us above our given level; negative experiences may take us below it. This made me wonder if happiness is out of our control? Well no, because a whopping 40% is affected by our own thoughts and behaviours.


The way we think and the actions that we choose to take have a significant effect on our levels of happiness. This puts the ball firmly in our court, giving us the ability to take a lot of our happiness into our own hands. So what does the science say about which activities can make us happier? In Authentic Happiness, positive psychologist Martin Seligman, puts happy-inducing activities into 3 categories, each one being just as important as the other:


  • the pleasant life (happy and pleasurable moments)

  • the good life (moments of flow using our strengths and values)

  • the meaningful life (experiences that have purpose and meaning)


Happy and pleasurable moments might include noticing a beautiful sky, laughing with a friend or eating an ice cream. It’s those fleeting moments that give us a burst of positive emotion. It’s also important to note that some happy moments aren’t as useful as they seem because of the long-term consequences, such as heavy drinking or excessive shopping. Then we have to ask what’s the real reason we’re doing these things.


Moments of flow are those moments when you’re very much in the present moment, where you lose track of time, when you stop thinking about your worries, both past and future. You get those moments of flow when you’re doing something you’re good at and/or means something to you. This might include exercise, meditation, gardening, reading, cooking or work.


Meaningful moments are when we engage in something that not only meets our values but also has a sense of purpose or meaning for us. Often it’s when it benefits something or someone else. This could include helping a friend or a stranger, volunteering etc. It could be about recognising and savouring your achievements or being grateful for who and what is good in your life.


What is important for all 3 areas is the amount of social engagement we involve in our happiness activities. Research shows that our levels of happiness are significantly improved when we are with other people. Social relationships increase the lasting effect of these happiness experiences.


Here are some of the ideas, taken from the research, on how to nurture more happiness. You don’t have to do all of them and not all of them will work for everyone. Choose the ones that appeal and you think you could do. It’s also important to note that this isn’t suggesting we shouldn’t also seek help for the things we’re struggling with. These ideas can complement that work.


  • Write down 3 good things that went well today or that you were grateful for. They don’t have to be big things. What happened, why was it good? How did it make you feel? Do this every day for a week. Why? We tend to get caught up in the things that go wrong in our lives, but don’t always notice the good things. Or if we do notice them, we can get used them quickly or take them for granted.

  • Celebrate and savour success. Don’t brush over them too quickly, share your happiness with someone or write it down in a journal. Don’t be afraid to be happy, everyone deserves to be happy.

  • Find and do something you love. Give yourself time to enjoy it and to get lost in it. Note and remember how it feels.

  • Become more mindful and notice the world around you, switch off your auto pilot. We can drift through life and not notice the small wonders around us. When you start looking for them, you’ll see more of them.

  • Take care of your body with both physical exercise and good diet, both are proven to affect levels of energy and happiness.

  • Tap into previous moments of happiness and how you felt then. Reminisce with a friend or family about a happy or funny experience you had.

  • Improve relationships and connect with people. Spent more quality time with friends or family. Join a local group or volunteer for an organisation.

  • Do something for others, be kind to them. By helping them out, you’ll be helping yourself to become happier.


Coaching can help you find out what makes you happy and how you can find the right activities for you. You can also work on uncovering any limiting beliefs or fears you might have that are stopping you from being happier or taking the steps to be happier. Your coach can also help you bring out the confidence you need to try activities you might be shying away from.

Darren David

Phone: 07543 741182

Email: darrendavidcoaching@gmail.com

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© 2019 Darren David