What does happiness mean to you?  Is it spending time with loved ones, being outdoors in nature, a new puppy?  Or is it something less tangible – that feeling of satisfaction you get from a job well done, or a goal attained?

Here’s what Webster’s has to say:

Happiness:  good fortune, prosperity; a state of well-being and contentment , joy; a pleasurable or satisfying experience;  felicity, aptness.

If I asked you to come up with a list of 10 things that fit any of these descriptions, I’ll bet you could do it rather easily. I’ll also wager it might look somewhat different from mine, or your next door neighbor’s.  Happiness is subjective.  Maybe your idea of happiness is one of prosperity, good fortune.  Maybe mine is browsing an art museum on a Saturday afternoon.   Someone else might find a thrill in the feeling of health and well-being that accompanies them after their morning run.  Or all of these might show up on your list. Is there a common thread?  Researchers have found the following common characteristics of happy people:

  • They have close connections to family, friends, and community. When asked what positive psychology was all about, one of its founders, the late Dr. Christopher Peterson, was fond of saying:  “Other people matter. Period.”
  • They are grateful.  Dr. Robert Emmons, UC-Davis, operates the Emmons Lab, which studies gratitude as it relates to well-being.  Among his discoveries:

Participants in an experiment who wrote in a gratitude journal on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives, and were more optimistic, compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).  In another study, it was found that children who practiced grateful thinking had a more positive attitude towards their schools and families (Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2008).

  • Their lives have meaning.   They found purpose in something which they believe to be bigger than themselves.  Whether their work is inside or outside the home, whether they are students, parents, or retirees, they regularly engage in an activity they find fulfilling, and where they can use their strengths and talents.
  • They engage in some type of regular physical activity.  For anyone who continues to doubt the mind-body connection, there is a host of research to support maintaining a regular exercise program.  Just a few of the benefits:  Improved moods, reduced stress, increased self-esteem and self-confidence, increase in energy,  improved body image, and better sleep.  A growing body of evidence also links exercise with mental acuity and improved cognitive function.

So why does all this matter?  Why bother to pursue this state called happiness, well-being and contentment?  Turns out there are some very good reasons.  In general, people in this category:

Are more sociable and energetic;
More charitable and cooperative;
Better liked by others;
More likely to get and stay married;
Have richer networks of friends and social support;
More flexible and show more ingenuity in thinking’
More productive at jobs;
Better leaders and negotiators;
Make more money;
More resilient in face of hardship;
Have better immune systems; and,
Live longer.

So what can you take from this?  Your well-being counts in more ways than meets the eye.  Happiness = well-being, and it’s important, for you and those around you.

Coach’s action step:  Pick one of the characteristics of happy people above and put it to work in your life this week.  Call a friend (or friends) for a get-together, make a gratitude list, or help out in a cause you care about.  Note how you feel afterward.  If it’s something that makes you feel good, you may want to do it more often.


Categories: Wellness


Donna Wiss · August 6, 2013 at 8:21 pm

Beautiful article! This should be published far and wide. I am blessed to get to do what I love which in turn is a value to others and a value to my family. Thank you for sharing your wisdom 🙂

    Suzanne Levy · August 7, 2013 at 8:03 am

    Donna, thanks so much for your comments! I think a lot of this we know on some level, but it is now being backed up with science and research, which is very cool.

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