What makes people happy?

Home Technologist 03 Happiness What makes people happy?

The question long seemed too subjective to elicit serious answers, but scientists now have plenty of clues that range from health to money to religion.

A smiley with coloured bars along the smile representing various happiness factors (wealth, health, generosity, social support, life choice, honesty) .

Of course everyone wants to be happy, but is it a matter of choice or destiny? Or both? Technologist asked leading experts to evaluate eight of the most common factors and to explain how they measure something as vague and impressionistic as happiness.


Photo of Meik Wiking
Meik Wiking
Director of Happiness Research Institute, Denmark

Photo of Jon Sigurd Wegener
Jon Sigurd Wegener
Neuroscientist at the Copenhagen Business School


No surprise here: healthy people score higher on surveys. Conversely, happiness protects health.

In 2011, a study from University College London found that those in the happiest group (the top third) had 35 per cent less mortality after five years compared to the bottom third.

It’s not so much that being healthy makes people happy; being unhealthy makes them unhappy, especially when society stigmatises such conditions as obesity. Having sick friends or relatives is also a negative factor.


“We can’t say for sure, but maybe we’re just born more or less satisfied,” says Meik Wiking, director of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen.

Indeed, certain countries may have a genetic advantage in psychological well-being, suggests a 2014 study by Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick. Denmark is the world’s happiest nation, according to one major survey (see A global guide to glee), and nations whose genetic makeup resembles that of Danes score higher on happiness rankings; that includes Americans of Danish ancestry.

Also, studies on monozygotic twins showed equal levels of life satisfaction, regardless of circumstances. This field of research remains relatively new, and Oswald calls for caution on interpretation of the results.


Especially in northern Europe and North America, work is an important predictor. It helps people define themselves and is strongly tied to the social relations that develop on the job. “In all the datasets I’ve seen, people who work are happier than those who don’t,” says Wiking. Even if there’s economic support, being unemployed means losing identity, social relations and structure.


“This is one of the most controversial and debated subjects in happiness research,” admits Wiking. But some conclusions exist. Rich nations are on average happier than poor ones, though their bliss does not increase with rising wealth, as does that of poorer nations. Thus there is a limit to the importance of wealth, which is also true on an individual level. “No matter how rich you become, you’ll still get stuck in traffic,” says Wiking.


Faith used to correlate with high scores on happiness surveys, but now scientists believe the reason may not be religion itself, but rather the social aspect of belonging to a congregation. “Coming to a place of worship means you’re part of a group,” says Wiking. “American studies show that if you live in a place with a lot of religious people you’re happier, even if you’re not religious.”


Having goals and feeling that there is a point to life has an effect, but only for those who are already content. “This is icing on the cake,” says Wiking. “Having a purpose in life contributes to happiness by providing a direction and something to do.” Being enthusiastic about something has a positive effect, which may explain why the self-employed score higher: they are more focussed in their everyday lives.


Social connections are a major influence. Despite soaring divorce rates, married people score higher than singles. “Choice anxiety” (constantly questioning preferences) decreases happiness, as does having too many options. “It’s good for you to commit to something,” explains Wiking.


“No chemistry, no happiness,” says Jon Wegener, a neuroscientist at the Copenhagen Business School.

The neurotransmitter serotonin keeps our basic mood in order: a lack of serotonin often leads to depression. Dopamine, meanwhile, is tied to surges of euphoria. And oxytocin makes people form strong bonds with those close to them, making them feel safe and trustful.

Finally, brain cells known as mirror neurons allow people to imitate those around them, creating empathy and satisfying the deeply rooted need to belong to a group.

What is happy, anyway?

In science, happiness is generally understood as “overall life satisfaction”, although most people associate the word with the brief surges of euphoria that researchers call “peak happiness”.

Life satisfaction is estimated along two dimensions. The evaluative (or “cognitive”) component is often measured through such questions as, “How happy are you with your life as a whole?”, which provides a broad evaluation of a person’s satisfaction with “life-as- a-whole”. Questions like “How happy were you yesterday?” measure the affective component, which tries to quantify a person’s everyday happiness.

A different view comes from Daniel Kahneman, famous for underlining “cognitive biases”, who argues in Thinking Fast and Slow (2011) that people are generally quite bad at judging themselves.

An Israeli-American psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics, Kahneman argues that self-assessment of pain or pleasure rarely corresponds to what people have actually experienced because of a disconnect between the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self”. He stresses what he calls the “focussing illusion”: ”Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”

That’s enough to seriously confuse anyone trying to understand what really makes people content.

By Line Emilie Fedders

More on happiness: Happy? Your smartphone will know; Think yourself healthyThe art of probing emotions; A global guide to gleeReading feelings


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