Black line drawing of people in red shirts talking

What the Longest Study on Human Happiness Found Is the Key to a Good Life

The Harvard Study of Adult Development has established a strong correlation between deep relationships and well-being. The question is, how does a person nurture those deep relationships?

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T urn your mind for a moment to a friend or family member you cherish but don’t spend as much time with as you would like. This needn’t be your most significant relationship, just someone who makes you feel energized when you’re with them, and whom you’d like to see more regularly.

How often do you see that person? Every day? Once a month? Once a year? Do the math and project how many hours annually you spend with them. Write this number down and hang on to it.

Book cover of The Good Life.

For us, Bob and Marc, though we work closely together and meet every week by phone or video call, we see each other in person for only a total of about two days (48 hours) every year.

How does this add up for the coming years? Bob is 71 years old. Marc is 60. Let’s be (very) generous and say we will both be around to celebrate Bob’s 100th birthday. At two days a year for 29 years, that’s 58 days that we have left to spend together in our lifetimes.

Fifty-eight out of 10,585 days.

Of course, this is assuming a lot of good fortune, and the real number is almost certainly going to be lower.

Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been investigating what makes people flourish. After starting with 724 participants—boys from disadvantaged and troubled families in Boston, and Harvard undergraduates—the study incorporated the spouses of the original men and, more recently, more than 1,300 descendants of the initial group. Researchers periodically interview participants, ask them to fill out questionnaires, and collect information about their physical health. As the study’s director (Bob) and associate director (Marc), we’ve been able to watch participants fall in and out of relationships, find success and failure at their jobs, become mothers and fathers. It’s the longest in-depth longitudinal study on human life ever done, and it’s brought us to a simple and profound conclusion: Good relationships lead to health and happiness. The trick is that those relationships must be nurtured.

From the June 2009 issue: What makes us happy?

We don’t always put our relationships first. Consider the fact that the average American in 2018 spent 11 hours every day on solitary activities such as watching television and listening to the radio. Spending 58 days over 29 years with a friend is infinitesimal compared with the 4,851 days that Americans will spend interacting with media during that same time period. Distractions are hard to avoid.

Thinking about these numbers can help us put our own relationships in perspective. Try figuring out how much time you spend with a good friend or family member. We don’t have to spend every hour with our friends, and some relationships work because they’re exercised sparingly. But nearly all of us have people in our lives whom we’d like to see more. Are you spending time with the people you most care about? Is there a relationship in your life that would benefit both of you if you could spend more time together? Many of these are untapped resources, waiting for us to put them to use. And, enriching these relationships can in turn nourish our minds and bodies.

Y ou don’t have to examine scientific findings to recognize that relationships affect you physically. All you have to do is notice the invigoration you feel when you believe that someone has really understood you during a good conversation, or the tension and distress you feel after an argument, or how little sleep you get during a period of romantic strife.

In this sense, having healthy, fulfilling relationships is its own kind of fitness—social fitness—and like physical fitness, it takes work to maintain. Unlike stepping on the scale, taking a quick look in the mirror, or getting readouts for blood pressure and cholesterol, assessing our social fitness requires a bit more sustained self-reflection. It requires stepping back from the crush of modern life, taking stock of our relationships, and being honest with ourselves about where we’re devoting our time and whether we are tending to the connections that help us thrive. Finding the time for this type of reflection can be hard, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable. But it can yield enormous benefits.

Many of our Harvard Study participants have told us that filling out questionnaires every two years and being interviewed regularly have given them a welcome perspective on their life and relationships. We ask them to really think about themselves and the people they love, and that process of self-reflection helps some of them.

Read: 10 practical ways to improve happiness

This is a practice that could help anyone. Looking in the mirror and thinking honestly about where your life stands is a first step in trying to live a good life. Noticing where you are can help put into relief where you would like to be. Having some reservations about this kind of self-reflection is understandable. Our study participants were not always keen on filling out our questionnaires, or eager to consider the larger picture of their life. Some would skip difficult questions or leave entire pages blank, and some would just not return certain surveys. Some even wrote comments in the margins of their questionnaires about what they thought of our requests. “What kinds of questions are these!?” is a response we received occasionally, often from participants who preferred not to think about difficulties in their life. The experiences of the people who skipped questions or entire questionnaires were also important, though—they were just as crucial in understanding adult development as the experiences of people eager to share. A lot of useful data and gems of experience were buried in the shadowed corners of their lives. We just had to go through a little extra effort to excavate them.

One of these people was a man we’ll call Sterling Ainsley. (We are using a pseudonym to protect his confidentiality as a study participant.)

Black line drawing illustration of a person inside a bubble of curly cues

S terling Ainsley was a hopeful guy. He graduated from Harvard in the 1940s and then served in World War II. After he left the service, he got a job as a scientist and retired in his 60s. When asked to describe his philosophy for getting through hard times, he said, “You try not to let life get to you. You remember your victories and take a positive attitude.”

The year was 1986. George Vaillant, the then-director of the study, was on a long interview trek, driving through the Rocky Mountains to visit the study’s participants who lived in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Montana. Sterling had not returned the most recent survey, and there was some catching up to do. He met Vaillant at a hotel to give him a ride to the diner where Sterling wanted to do his scheduled interview. When Vaillant buckled himself into the passenger seat of Sterling’s car, the seat belt left a stripe of dust across his chest. “I was left to wonder,” he wrote, “the last time somebody had used it.”

Sterling was technically married, but his wife lived far away, and they hadn’t slept in the same room in years. They spoke only every few months.

Read: The six forces that fuel friendship

When asked why they had not gotten a divorce, he said, “I wouldn’t want to do that to the children,” even though his kids were grown and had children of their own. Sterling was proud of his kids and beamed when he spoke of them, saying they were the most important thing in his life. But he rarely saw them and seemed to prefer to keep his relationships with them thriving mostly in his imagination. Vaillant noted that Sterling seemed to be using optimism to push away some of his fears and avoid challenges in his life. Putting a positive spin on every matter and then pushing it out of his mind made it possible for him to believe that nothing was wrong, he was fine, he was happy, his kids didn’t need him.

He didn’t travel to see his son’s new home abroad, because he didn’t “want to be a burden”—even though he’d been learning a new language to prepare for the trip. He had another child who lived closer, but he hadn’t visited in more than a year. He didn’t have a relationship with his grandchildren, and he wasn’t in contact with any friends.

When asked about his older sister, Sterling seemed startled. “My sister?” he said.

Yes, the sister he had told the study so much about when he was younger.

Sterling thought about it for a long time, and then told Vaillant that it must have been decades since he last spoke with her. A frightened expression came over his face. “Would she still be living?” he said.

Sterling tried not to think about his relationships, and he was even less inclined to talk about them. This is a common experience. We don’t always know why we do things or why we don’t do things, and we may not understand what is holding us at a distance from the people in our life. Taking some time to look in the mirror can help. Sometimes there are needs inside of us that are looking for a voice, a way to get out. They might be things that we have never seen or articulated to ourselves.

This seemed to be the case with Sterling. Asked how he spent his evenings, he said he spent time with an elderly woman who lived in a nearby trailer. Each night he would walk over, and they’d watch TV and talk. Eventually she would fall asleep, and he would help her into bed and wash her dishes and close the shades before walking home. She was the closest thing he had to a confidant.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if she dies,” he said.

Listen to Robert Waldinger in conversation with Arthur Brooks and Rebecca Rashid on "How to Build a Happy Life":

L oneliness has a physical effect on the body. It can render people more sensitive to pain, suppress their immune system, diminish brain function, and disrupt sleep, which in turn can make an already lonely person even more tired and irritable. Research has found that, for older adults, loneliness is far more dangerous than obesity. Ongoing loneliness raises a person’s odds of death by 26 percent in any given year. A study in the U.K., the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, recently reported on the connections between loneliness and poorer health and self-care in young adults. This ongoing study includes more than 2,200 people born in England and Wales in 1994 and 1995. When they were 18, the researchers asked them how lonely they were. Those who reported being lonelier had a greater chance of facing mental-health issues, partaking in unsafe physical-health behaviors, and coping with stress in negative ways. Add to this the fact that a tide of loneliness is flooding through modern societies, and we have a serious problem. Recent stats should make us take notice.

In a study conducted online that sampled 55,000 respondents from across the world, one out of every three people of all ages reported that they often feel lonely. Among these, the loneliest group were 16-to-24-year-olds, 40 percent of whom reported feeling lonely “often or very often.” In the U.K., the economic cost of this loneliness—because lonely people are less productive and more prone to employment turnover—is estimated at more than £2.5 billion (about $3.1 billion) annually and helped lead to the establishment of a U.K. Ministry of Loneliness.

Read: Why do we look down on lonely people?

In Japan, 32 percent of adults expected to feel lonely most of the time during 2020. In the United States, a 2019 study suggested that three out of four adults felt moderate to high levels of loneliness. As of this writing, the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which separated us from one another on a massive scale and left many feeling more isolated than ever, are still being studied.

Alleviating this epidemic of loneliness is difficult because what makes one person feel lonely might have no effect on someone else. We can’t rely entirely on easily observed indicators such as whether or not one lives alone, because loneliness is a subjective experience. One person might have a significant other and too many friends to count and yet feel lonely, while another person might live alone and have a few close contacts and yet feel very connected. The objective facts of a person’s life are not enough to explain why someone is lonely. Regardless of your race or class or gender, the feeling resides in the difference between the kind of social contact you want and the social contact you actually have.

Black line drawing of two people connected by curly line

I t never hurts —especially if you’ve been feeling low—to take a minute to reflect on how your relationships are faring and what you wish could be different about them. If you’re the scheduling type, you could make it a regular thing; perhaps every year on New Year’s Day or the morning of your birthday, take a few moments to draw up your current social universe, and consider what you’re receiving, what you’re giving, and where you would like to be in another year. You could keep your chart or relationships assessment in a special place, so you know where to look the next time you want to peek at it to see how things have changed.

If nothing else, doing this reminds us of what’s most important. Repeatedly, when the participants in our study reached old age, they would make a point to say that what they treasured most were their relationships. Sterling Ainsley himself made that point. He loved his older sister deeply—but he lost touch with her. Some of his fondest memories were of his friends—whom he never contacted. There was nothing he cared more about than his children—whom he rarely saw. From the outside it might look like he didn’t care. That was not the case. Sterling was quite emotional in his recounting of his most cherished relationships, and his reluctance to answer certain study questions was clearly connected to the pain that keeping his distance had caused him over the years. Sterling never sat down to really think about how he might conduct his relationships or what he might do to properly care for the people he loved most.

Sterling’s life reminds us of the fragility of our connections, and it echoes the lessons of science: Relationships keep us happier and healthier throughout our life spans. We neglect our connections with others at our peril. Investing in our social fitness is possible each day, each week of our lives. Even small investments today in our relationships with others can create long-term ripples of well-being.

This article is adapted from Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz’s new book, The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness .

When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

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W hen scientists began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938 during the Great Depression, they hoped the longitudinal study would reveal clues to leading healthy and happy lives.

They got more than they wanted.

After following the surviving Crimson men for nearly 80 years as part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development , one of the world’s longest studies of adult life, researchers have collected a cornucopia of data on their physical and mental health.

Of the original Harvard cohort recruited as part of the Grant Study, only 19 are still alive, all in their mid-90s. Among the original recruits were eventual President John F. Kennedy and longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. (Women weren’t in the original study because the College was still all male.)

In addition, scientists eventually expanded their research to include the men’s offspring, who now number 1,300 and are in their 50s and 60s, to find out how early-life experiences affect health and aging over time. Some participants went on to become successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and others ended up as schizophrenics or alcoholics, but not on inevitable tracks.

“Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist, Massachusetts General Hospital

During the intervening decades, the control groups have expanded. In the 1970s, 456 Boston inner-city residents were enlisted as part of the Glueck Study, and 40 of them are still alive. More than a decade ago, researchers began including wives in the Grant and Glueck studies.

Over the years, researchers have studied the participants’ health trajectories and their broader lives, including their triumphs and failures in careers and marriage, and the finding have produced startling lessons, and not only for the researchers.

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger , director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School . “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”

Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants.

“The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,” said Robert Waldinger with his wife Jennifer Stone.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

The long-term research has received funding from private foundations, but has been financed largely by grants from the National Institutes of Health, first through the National Institute of Mental Health, and more recently through the National Institute on Aging.

Researchers who have pored through data, including vast medical records and hundreds of in-person interviews and questionnaires, found a strong correlation between men’s flourishing lives and their relationships with family, friends, and community. Several studies found that people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.

“When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old,” said Waldinger in a popular TED Talk . “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

He recorded his TED talk, titled “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness,” in 2015, and it has been viewed 13,000,000 times.

The researchers also found that marital satisfaction has a protective effect on people’s mental health. Part of a study found that people who had happy marriages in their 80s reported that their moods didn’t suffer even on the days when they had more physical pain. Those who had unhappy marriages felt both more emotional and physical pain.

Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier, said Waldinger, and the loners often died earlier. “Loneliness kills,” he said. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

According to the study, those who lived longer and enjoyed sound health avoided smoking and alcohol in excess. Researchers also found that those with strong social support experienced less mental deterioration as they aged.

In part of a recent study , researchers found that women who felt securely attached to their partners were less depressed and more happy in their relationships two-and-a-half years later, and also had better memory functions than those with frequent marital conflicts.

“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.” George Vaillant, psychiatrist

“Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains,” said Waldinger in his TED talk. “And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”

Since aging starts at birth, people should start taking care of themselves at every stage of life, the researchers say.

“Aging is a continuous process,” Waldinger said. “You can see how people can start to differ in their health trajectory in their 30s, so that by taking good care of yourself early in life you can set yourself on a better course for aging. The best advice I can give is ‘Take care of your body as though you were going to need it for 100 years,’ because you might.”

The study, like its remaining original subjects, has had a long life, spanning four directors, whose tenures reflected their medical interests and views of the time.

Under the first director, Clark Heath, who stayed from 1938 until 1954, the study mirrored the era’s dominant view of genetics and biological determinism. Early researchers believed that physical constitution, intellectual ability, and personality traits determined adult development. They made detailed anthropometric measurements of skulls, brow bridges, and moles, wrote in-depth notes on the functioning of major organs, examined brain activity through electroencephalograms, and even analyzed the men’s handwriting.

Now, researchers draw men’s blood for DNA testing and put them into MRI scanners to examine organs and tissues in their bodies, procedures that would have sounded like science fiction back in 1938. In that sense, the study itself represents a history of the changes that life brings.

6 factors predicting healthy aging According to George Vaillant’s book “Aging Well,” from observations of Harvard men in long-term aging study

Physically active.

Absence of alcohol abuse and smoking

Having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs

Healthy weight

Stable marriage.

Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who joined the team as a researcher in 1966, led the study from 1972 until 2004. Trained as a psychoanalyst, Vaillant emphasized the role of relationships, and came to recognize the crucial role they played in people living long and pleasant lives.

In a book called “Aging Well,” Vaillant wrote that six factors predicted healthy aging for the Harvard men: physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and enjoying both a healthy weight and a stable marriage. For the inner-city men, education was an additional factor. “The more education the inner city men obtained,” wrote Vaillant, “the more likely they were to stop smoking, eat sensibly, and use alcohol in moderation.”

Vaillant’s research highlighted the role of these protective factors in healthy aging. The more factors the subjects had in place, the better the odds they had for longer, happier lives.

“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment,” said Vaillant. “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

“We want to find out how it is that a difficult childhood reaches across decades to break down the body in middle age and later.” Robert Waldinger

The study showed that the role of genetics and long-lived ancestors proved less important to longevity than the level of satisfaction with relationships in midlife, now recognized as a good predictor of healthy aging. The research also debunked the idea that people’s personalities “set like plaster” by age 30 and cannot be changed.

“Those who were clearly train wrecks when they were in their 20s or 25s turned out to be wonderful octogenarians,” he said. “On the other hand, alcoholism and major depression could take people who started life as stars and leave them at the end of their lives as train wrecks.”

The study’s fourth director, Waldinger has expanded research to the wives and children of the original men. That is the second-generation study, and Waldinger hopes to expand it into the third and fourth generations. “It will probably never be replicated,” he said of the lengthy research, adding that there is yet more to learn.

“We’re trying to see how people manage stress, whether their bodies are in a sort of chronic ‘fight or flight’ mode,” Waldinger said. “We want to find out how it is that a difficult childhood reaches across decades to break down the body in middle age and later.”

Lara Tang ’18, a human and evolutionary biology concentrator who recently joined the team as a research assistant, relishes the opportunity to help find some of those answers. She joined the effort after coming across Waldinger’s TED talk in one of her classes.

“That motivated me to do more research on adult development,” said Tang. “I want to see how childhood experiences affect developments of physical health, mental health, and happiness later in life.”

Asked what lessons he has learned from the study, Waldinger, who is a Zen priest, said he practices meditation daily and invests time and energy in his relationships, more than before.

“It’s easy to get isolated, to get caught up in work and not remembering, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen these friends in a long time,’ ” Waldinger said. “So I try to pay more attention to my relationships than I used to.”

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The Science of Happiness in Positive Psychology 101

The Science of Happiness

Whether on a global or an individual level, the pursuit of happiness is one that is gaining traction and scientific recognition.

There are many definitions of happiness, and we will also explore those in this article. For now, we invite you to think of a time when you were happy. Were you alone? With others? Inside? Outside.

At the end of this article, revisit that memory. You may have new insight as to what made that moment “happy,” as well as tips to train your brain towards more happiness.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Happiness & Subjective Wellbeing Exercises for free . These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients identify sources of authentic happiness and strategies to boost wellbeing.

This Article Contains:

A definition of happiness, a look at the science of happiness, the scientific research on happiness at work, 17 interesting facts and findings, a study showing how acts of kindness make us happier, the global pursuit of happiness, measures of happiness, four qualities of life.

  • How to Train your Brain for Happiness

A Take-Home Message

In general, happiness is understood as the positive emotions we have in regards to the pleasurable activities we take part in through our daily lives.

Pleasure, comfort, gratitude, hope, and inspiration are examples of positive emotions that increase our happiness and move us to flourish. In scientific literature, happiness is referred to as hedonia (Ryan & Deci, 2001), the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative emotions.

In a more broad understanding, human wellbeing is made up of both hedonic and Eudaimonic principles, the literature on which is vast and describes our personal meaning and purpose in life (Ryan & Deci, 2001).

Research on happiness over the years has found that there are some contributing correlational factors that affect our happiness. These include (Ryan & Deci, 2001):

  • Personality Type
  • Positive Emotions versus Negative Emotions
  • Attitude towards Physical Health
  • Social Class and Wealth
  • Attachment and Relatedness
  • Goals and Self-Efficacy
  • Time and Place.

So what is the “ science of happiness? ”

This is one of those times when something is exactly what it sounds like – it’s all about the science behinds what happiness is and how to experience it, what happy people do differently, and what we can do to feel happier.

This focus on happiness is new to the field of psychology; for many decades – basically since the foundation of psychology as a science in the mid- to late-1800s – the focus was on the less pleasant in life. The field focused on pathology, on the worst-scenario cases, on what can go wrong in our lives.

Although there was some attention paid to wellbeing, success, and high functioning, the vast majority of funding and research was dedicated to those who were struggling the most: those with severe mental illness, mental disorders, or those who have survived trauma and tragedy.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing what we can to raise up those who are struggling, there was an unfortunate lack of knowledge about what we can do to bring us all up to a higher level of functioning and happiness.

Positive psychology changed all of that. Suddenly, there was space at the table for a focus on the positive in life, for “ what thoughts, actions, and behaviors make us more productive at work, happier in our relationships, and more fulfilled at the end of the day ” (Happify Daily, n.d.).

The science of happiness has opened our eyes to a plethora of new findings about the sunny side of life.

Current research and studies

For instance, we have learned a lot about what happiness is and what drives us.

Recent studies have shown us that:

  • Money can only buy happiness up to about $75,000 – after that, it has no significant effect on our emotional wellbeing (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010).
  • Most of our happiness is not determined by our genetics, but by our experiences and our day-to-day lives (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).
  • Trying too hard to find happiness often has the opposite effect and can lead us to be overly selfish (Mauss et al., 2012).
  • Pursuing happiness through social means (e.g., spending more time with family and friends) is more likely to be effective than other methods (Rohrer et al., 2018).
  • The pursuit of happiness is one place where we should consider ditching the SMART goals; it may be more effective to pursue “vague” happiness goals than more specific ones (Rodas et al., 2018).
  • Happiness makes us better citizens – it is a good predictor of civic engagement in the transition to adulthood (Fang et al., 2018).
  • Happiness leads to career success, and it doesn’t have to be “natural” happiness – researchers found that “experimentally enhancing” positive emotions also contributed to improved outcomes at work (Walsh et al., 2018).
  • There is a linear relationship between religious involvement and happiness. Higher worship service attendance is correlated with more commitment to faith, and commitment to faith is related to greater compassion. Those more compassionate individuals are more likely to provide emotional support to others, and those who provide emotional support to others are more likely to be happy (Krause et al., 2018). It’s a long road, but a direct one!

research on happiness has shown that

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There’s been a ton of research on the effects of happiness in the workplace. Much of this is driven by companies who want to find a way to improve productivity, attract new talent, and get a dose of good publicity, all at the same time. After all, who wouldn’t want to do business with and/or work for a company full of happy employees?

Although the jury is still out on exactly how happy employees “should” be for maximum productivity, efficiency, and health, we have learned a few things about the effects of a happy workforce:

  • People who are happy with their jobs are less likely to leave their jobs, less likely to be absent, and less likely to engage in counterproductive behaviors at work.
  • People who are happy with their jobs are more likely to engage in behavior that contributes to a happy and productive organization, more likely to be physically healthy, and more likely to be mentally healthy.
  • Happiness and job performance are related—and the relationship likely works in both directions (e.g., happy people do a better job and people who do a good job are more likely to be happy).
  • Unit- or team-level happiness is also linked to positive outcomes, including higher customer satisfaction, profit, productivity, employee turnover, and a safer work environment.
  • In general, a happier organization is a more productive and successful organization (Fisher, 2010).

To sum up the findings we have so far, it’s easy to see that happiness at work does matter – for individuals, for teams, and for organizations overall. We don’t have all the answers about exactly how the relationship between happiness and productivity works, but we know that there is a relationship there.

Lately, many human resources managers, executives, and other organizational leaders have decided that knowing there’s a relationship is good enough evidence to establish happiness-boosting practices at work, which means that we have a lot of opportunities to see the impact of greater happiness at work in the future.

Smelling flowers happiness

Research in this field is booming, and new findings are coming out all the time. Here are a few of the most interesting facts and findings so far:

  • Happiness is linked to lower heart rate and blood pressure, as well as healthier heart rate variability.
  • Happiness can also act as a barrier between you and germs – happier people are less likely to get sick.
  • People who are happier enjoy greater protection against stress and release less of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Happy people tend to experience fewer aches and pains, including dizziness, muscle strain, and heartburn.
  • Happiness acts as a protective factor against disease and disability (in general, of course).
  • Those who are happiest tend to live significantly longer than those who are not.
  • Happiness boosts our immune system, which can help us fight and fend off the common cold.
  • Happy people tend to make others happier as well, and vice versa – those who do good, feel good!
  • A portion of our happiness is determined by our genetics (but there’s still plenty of room for attitude adjustments and happiness-boosting exercises!).
  • Smelling floral scents like roses can make us happier.
  • Those who are paid by the hour may be happier than those on salary (however, these findings are limited, so take them with a grain of salt!).
  • Relationships are much more conducive to a happy life than money.
  • Happier people tend to wear bright colors; it’s not certain which way the relationship works, but it can’t hurt to throw on some brighter hues once in a while—just in case!
  • Happiness can help people cope with arthritis and chronic pain better.
  • Being outdoors – especially near the water – can make us happier.
  • The holidays can be a stressful time, even for the happiest among us – an estimated 44% of women and 31% of men get the “holiday blues.”
  • Happiness is contagious! When we spend time around happy people, we’re likely to get a boost of happiness as well.

Newman (2015) is the source for the first six facts and findings, and Florentine (2016) for the latter 11 .

Happiness as a Social Emotion.

Feeling blue? Treat yourself to a decadent dessert.

Feeling frustrated after an argument with a friend? Skip your workout and have an extra scoop of ice cream.

The message is clear: If you want to feel happy, you should focus on your own wishes and desires. Yet this is not the advice that many people grew up hearing. Indeed, most of the world’s religions (and grandmothers everywhere) have long suggested that people should focus on others first and themselves second.

Psychologists refer to such behavior as prosocial behavior and many recent studies have shown that when people have a prosocial focus, doing kind acts for others, their own happiness increases.

But how does prosocial behavior compare to treating yourself in terms of your happiness? And does treating yourself really make you feel happy?

Nelson et al. (2016) presented their research answering these questions.

Participants were divided into four groups and given new instructions each week for four weeks.

One group was instructed to perform random acts of kindness for themselves (such as going shopping or enjoying a favorite hobby); the second group was instructed to perform acts of kindness for others (such as visiting an elderly relative or helping someone carry groceries); the third group was instructed to perform acts of kindness to improve the world (such as recycling or donating to charity); the fourth group was instructed to keep track of their daily activities.

Each week, the participants reported their activities from the previous week, as well as their experience of positive and negative emotions.

At the beginning, the end, and again two weeks after the four-week period, participants completed a questionnaire to assess their psychological flourishing. As a measure of overall happiness, the questionnaire included questions about psychological, social, and emotional wellbeing .

The Results

The results of the study were striking. Only participants who engaged in prosocial behavior demonstrated improvements in psychological flourishing.

Participants who practiced prosocial behavior demonstrated increases in positive emotions from one week to the next. In turn, these increases in feelings such as happiness, joy, and enjoyment predicted increases in psychological flourishing at the end of the study. In other words, positive emotions appeared to have been a critical ingredient linking prosocial behavior to increases in flourishing.

But what about the people who treated themselves?

They did not show the same increases in positive emotions or psychological flourishing as those who engaged in acts of kindness. In fact, people who treated themselves did not differ in positive emotions, negative emotions, or psychological flourishing over the course of the study compared to those who merely kept track of their daily activities.

This research does not say that we shouldn’t treat ourselves, show ourselves self-love when we need it, or enjoy our relaxation when we have it. However, the results of this study strongly suggest that we are more likely to reach greater levels of happiness when we exhibit prosocial behavior and show others kindness through our actions.

happiness scales

In world economic circles, Richard Easterlin investigated the relationship between money and wellbeing.

The Easterlin paradox—”money does not buy happiness” (Mohun, 2012)—sparked a new wave of thinking about wealth and wellbeing.

In 1972, Bhutan chose to pursue a policy of happiness rather than a focus on economic growth tracked via their gross domestic product (GDPP). Subsequently, this little nation has been among the happiest, ranking amongst nations with far superior wealth (Kelly, 2012).

More global organizations and nations are becoming aware and supportive of the importance of happiness in today’s world. This has lead to The United Nations inviting nations to take part in a happiness survey, resulting in the “ World Happiness Report ,” a basis from which to steer public policy. Learn about the World Happiness Report for 2016 .

The United Nations also established  World Happiness Day , March 20 th , which was the result of efforts of the Bhutan Kingdom and their Gross National Happiness initiative (Helliwell et al., 2013).

Organizations such as the  New Economic Foundation are playing an influential role as an economic think tank that focuses on steering economic policy and development for the betterment of human wellbeing.

Ruut Veenhoven, a world authority on the scientific study of happiness, was one of the sources of inspiration for the United Nations General Assembly (2013) adopting happiness measures. Veenhoven is a founding member of the World Database of Happiness , which is a comprehensive scientific repository of happiness measures worldwide.

The objective of this organization is to provide a coordinated collection of data, with common interpretation according to a scientifically validated happiness theory, model, and body of research.

At this point, you might be wondering: Is it possible to measure happiness? Many psychologists have devoted their careers to answering this question and in short, the answer is yes.

Happiness can be measured by these three factors: the presence of positive emotions, the absence of negative emotions, and life satisfaction (Ryan & Deci, 2001). It is a uniquely subjective experience, which means that nobody is better at reporting on someone’s happiness than the individuals themselves.

For this reason scales, self-report measures, and questionnaires are the most common formats for measuring happiness. The most recognized examples are the following:

  • The PANAS (Positive Affect and Negative Affect Schedule);
  • The SWLS (Satisfaction With Life Scale) ;
  • The SHS (Subjective Happiness Scale)

However, there are  many instruments available to measure happiness that have proven reliable and valid over time (Hefferon & Boniwell, 2011).

global happiness

Of the four dimensions, satisfaction is our personal subjective measure of happiness as we interpret life as a whole. Veenhoven’s (2010) global research into happiness suggests that happiness is possible for many.

This is an overview of his Four Qualities:

Using Veenhoven’s Four Qualities it is possible to assess the happiness of any country.

Liveability of environment

This dimension includes factors such as law, freedom, schooling, employment, electricity or gas, etc. It is a measurement of how well an environment meets what Maslow proposed as our basic needs (safety, security, shelter, food) (Maslow, 1943).

Life-ability of individuals

The ability of individuals to deal with life is important; both mental and physical health are identified as important factors, together with social values of solidarity, tolerance, and love (Veenhoven, 2010).

Utility of life

In this dimension, Veenhoven (2010) references a higher-order meaning, for example, religious affiliations.

Uchida et al. (2014) found that high levels of national disaster negatively impacted a nation’s level of happiness.

Satisfaction

Happiness is a complex construct that cannot be directly controlled. Through policy and individual and organizational action, one can endeavor to influence and increase happiness (Veenhoven, 2010).

However, happiness is a subjective experience and only once we change the way we perceive the world can we really begin sharing and creating happiness for others.

But is it possible to train yourself to be happier?

The answer is yes!

How to Train Your Brain for Happiness

At birth, our genetics provide us a set point that accounts for some portion of our happiness. Having enough food, shelter, and safety account for another portion.

There’s also quite a bit of happiness that’s entirely up to us (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).

By training our brain through awareness and exercises to think in a happier, more optimistic, and more resilient way, we can effectively train our brains for happiness.

New discoveries in the field of positive psychology show that physical health, psychological wellbeing, and physiological functioning are all improved by how we learn to “feel good” (Fredrickson, et al., 2000).

What Are The Patterns We Need To “Train Out” of Our Brains?

  • Perfectionism  – Often confused with conscientiousness, which involves appropriate and tangible expectations, perfectionism involves inappropriate levels of expectations and intangible goals. It often produces problems for adults, adolescents, and children.
  • Social comparison  – When we compare ourselves to others we often find ourselves lacking. Healthy social comparison is about finding what you admire in others and learning to strive for those qualities. However, the best comparisons we can make are with ourselves. How are you better than you were in the past?
  • Materialism – Attaching our happiness to external things and material wealth is dangerous, as we can lose our happiness if our material circumstances change (Carter & Gilovich, 2010).
  • Maximizing  – Maximizers search for better options even when they are satisfied. This leaves them little time to be present for the good moments in their lives and with very little gratitude (Schwartz et al., 2002).

Misconceptions About Mind Training

Some of the misconceptions about retraining your brain are simply untrue. Here are a few myths that need debunking:

1. We are products of our genetics so we cannot create change in our brains.

Our minds are malleable. Ten years ago we thought brain pathways were set in early childhood. In fact, we now know that there is huge potential for large changes through to your twenties, and neuroplasticity is still changing throughout one’s life.

The myelin sheath that covers your neural pathways gets thicker and stronger the more it is used (think of the plastic protective covering on wires); the more a pathway is used, the stronger the myelin and the faster the neural pathway. Simply put, when you practice feeling grateful, you notice more things to be grateful for.

2. Brain training is brainwashing.

Brainwashing is an involuntary change. If we focus on training our mind to see the glass half full instead of half empty, that is a choice.

3. If we are too happy we run the risk of becoming overly optimistic.

There is no such thing as overly optimistic, and science shows that brain training for positivity includes practices like  mindfulness and gratitude. No one has ever overdosed on these habits.

How Is The Brain Wired For Happiness?

Can You Train Your Mind for Happiness? - Brain scan

Our brains come already designed for happiness. We have caregiving systems in place for eye contact, touch, and vocalizations to let others know we are trustworthy and secure .

Our brains also regulate chemicals like oxytocin.

People who have more oxytocin trust more readily, have increased tendencies towards monogamy, and exhibit more caregiving behavior. These behaviors reduce stress which lowers production of hormones like cortisol and inhibits the cardiovascular response to stress (Kosfeld et al., 2005).

The following TED talk provides an insight into how we can overcome our negative mental patterns:

If happiness has little to do with having too many resources, then it is an inner state that we have the power to cultivate. The above video even offers specific exercises for you to try. Just by doing them, you are actively re-wiring your brain towards calm and happy sensations.

Meanwhile, this TED talk gives a better understanding of how to wire your brain to accept the positivity and happiness in your life:

The negativity bias that Dr. Rick Hanson discusses can help us understand how we can activate and “install” positive thinking as part of our core brain chemistry. If you don’t have a moment to watch either of these videos now, make time for it later—they are rich with relevant data and tips.

research on happiness has shown that

17 Exercises To Increase Happiness and Wellbeing

Add these 17 Happiness & Subjective Well-Being Exercises [PDF] to your toolkit and help others experience greater purpose, meaning, and positive emotions.

Created by Experts. 100% Science-based.

Happiness is the overall subjective experience of our positive emotions. There are many factors which influence our happiness, and ongoing research continues to uncover what makes us happiest.

This global pursuit of happiness has resulted in measures such as the World Happiness Report, while the World Happiness Database is working to collaborate and consolidate the existing happiness pursuits of different nations.

We are living in a time when the conditions for happiness are known. This can be disheartening at times when there is much negativity in the world.

There is, however, good news in this situation: neuroplasticity.

The human brain is wired for happiness and positive connections with others. It is actually possible to experience and learn happiness despite what has been genetically hardwired.

In a world where the focus on happiness is growing and the mirror is turning back towards ourselves, the happiness of the world relies on the happiness within each one of us and how we act, share, and voice the importance of happiness for everyone.

What are the steps you are taking to make yourself and others happier? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Happiness Exercises for free .

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Jessica

Thank you for this beautiful well written article. I came across it during my research regarding the science of happiness. The beauty in writing this post is the power to influence souls in a positive manner many who you will not meet.

Sending some love and light to you and all those who get to read your blog.

Ajit Singh

Being in the field of Human Resource for four decades, coming across and dealing with millions of minds, after reading your article, gives a feeling that I have learnt something new today…

Thank you and congratulations for such a informative work.

God bless…

king

Thank you for your search light into one of the nerve center of our generation. i will like to use part of this in my upcoming book

Prabodh Sirur

Hello Katherine, Now reading https://positivepsychology.com/happiness/ Salute to you for enriching us. Nearly hundred of us relatives are creating an audio book for our blind uncle about life skills. Any quote from you that I can add in the document? Will be grateful. regards, Prabodh Sirur

Nicole Celestine

Hi Prabodh,

Wow, that sounds like a lovely gift for your uncle! We actually have a couple of posts containing quotes about happiness, so you may want to take a look at those for some inspiration. You can find those here and here .

Hope this helps, and good luck with the audiobook!

– Nicole | Community Manager

sareh pasha

Thanks for your article, I translated this article for a mental health lesson and I really enjoyed this article.

Anon

Thank you for this super helpful article!!

Srinivas Kandi

Thank You for such an Informative and Detailed Article on Science of Happiness. I am a Budding Happiness Life Coach and stumbled on this Article. This gives me more understanding of Happiness in Scientific way, with your permission, I would like to share my learning in my course. Thank You and looking forward for more such Articles. Thank You and God Bless You

Hi Srinivas, Thank you for your lovely feedback. We’re glad you liked the article. Feel free to share it with others by clicking ‘Yes’ on the ‘Was this article useful to you’ button. From there, a range of sharing options will appear. – Nicole | Community Manager

eirebi albogasim

Thanks, very nice lecture and informative But I wish to know more about role of religious effects on Happiness? another thing is it ok to translate lecture to other language and share it? Regards Dr Eirebi Albogasim

Hi Dr. Albogasim, Thanks for reading. There’s quite a bit of research showing that those who practice religion tend to be happier than the general population ( here’s an article on the topic). And yes, feel free to translate and share the lecture. – Nicole | Community Manager

Ramesh Thota

I stumbled on your article as I am researching on Happiness to publish my 3rd book. Thanks for sharing! A very elaborate and informative article. The “Take home message” is very encouraging. And I vouch for the neuroplasticity of the brain. We can train ourselves to be Happy. Once we change our attitude, it is easy to be Happy. I learnt how to be Happy at the age of 23. Few years back I posted an article sharing my findings on Happiness in this Linked-in forum. Please see the link for the same https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/easy-happy-ramesh-thota-pmp-cqa/ . Appreciate if you can share your views.

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  • Published: 20 July 2023

A systematic review of the strength of evidence for the most commonly recommended happiness strategies in mainstream media

  • Dunigan Folk   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-6728-2776 1 &
  • Elizabeth Dunn   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-1214-7512 1  

Nature Human Behaviour volume  7 ,  pages 1697–1707 ( 2023 ) Cite this article

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We conducted a systematic review of the evidence underlying some of the most widely recommended strategies for increasing happiness. By coding media articles on happiness, we first identified the five most commonly recommended strategies: expressing gratitude, enhancing sociability, exercising, practising mindfulness/meditation and increasing nature exposure. Next, we conducted a systematic search of the published scientific literature. We identified well-powered, pre-registered experiments testing the effects of these strategies on any aspect of subjective wellbeing (that is, positive affect, negative affect and life satisfaction) in non-clinical samples. A total of 57 studies were included. Our review suggests that a strong scientific foundation is lacking for some of the most commonly recommended happiness strategies. As the effectiveness of these strategies remains an open question, there is an urgent need for well-powered, pre-registered studies investigating strategies for promoting happiness.

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Acknowledgements

We thank S. Lyubomirsky and H. Passmore for comments on a previous version of this manuscript, and M. Smith for providing guidance on conducting the systematic literature search. We also thank J. Tan, P. Ramachadran, R. Li, R. Kaur, C. Peretz and C. Cardle for assistance with the media and scholarly literature searches. Our work was supported by grant #GR012572 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC; E.D.) and the SSHRC Doctoral Award #6567 (D.F.). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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Folk, D., Dunn, E. A systematic review of the strength of evidence for the most commonly recommended happiness strategies in mainstream media. Nat Hum Behav 7 , 1697–1707 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-023-01651-4

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research on happiness has shown that

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Serious Research on Happiness

  • APS 20th Annual Convention (2008)
  • APS Teaching Fund
  • Personality/Social

Ed Diener is a happy man. In happiness ratings of over 80 psychologists, he came in first (never mind that he had read the study detailing what makes a happy autobiography before writing his own). His new book is called Happiness and his position at the University of Illinois is — I’m not making this up — the Smiley Distinguished Professor of Psychology. Diener is also the Editor of Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Diener has spent decades researching what makes people happy. In the 2008 APS David Myers Lecture on the Science and Craft of Teaching Psychology, delivered at the APS 20th Annual Convention, Diener shared some of the basic findings of research into well-being and how those findings can be brought to the classroom.

In the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness is protected as a fundamental human right, up there with life and liberty. But exactly what is happiness? How do you get and keep it? Why do some people always seem to be happy and some are never happy? Psychological scientists have uncovered some answers and along the way have even examined whether and why happiness matters. As it turns out, happiness does matter in very important ways. There is preliminary evidence that people who score higher on the well-being scales have better social and work relationships; make more money; live longer, healthier lives; and are more contributory societal citizens.

So, happiness is good. But, how do we get it? Diener identifies five factors that contribute to happiness: social relationships, temperament/adaptation, money, society and culture, and positive thinking styles.

Happy people have strong social relationships. In one study conducted by Diener, the happiest 10 percent of the participants all had strong supportive relationships. A strong social network didn’t guarantee happiness, but it was a requirement to be in the happiest group. Temperament, which appears to have a genetic component according to several recent studies, also affects mood. Diener discussed the set point theory of temperament, which states that people have ups and downs in reaction to life events, but that they adapt and return to a set point. There is evidence for this, but studies have shown that people who have experienced a major loss, like being fired or losing a spouse, often don’t fully adapt or take years to do so. In Diener’s words, it’s more like “a moving baseline” than one set point over a lifetime.

Whoever said money can’t buy happiness needs to look at the research. According to Diener, wealth actually is correlated with happiness, particularly in poorer societies. But there are caveats. Money has declining marginal utility. Those first few dollars that move someone out of poverty contribute much more to a person’s happiness than a billionaire earning her next million. In fact, money can be toxic to happiness. When participants in one study were asked if money was more important than love, those who answered “yes” were less likely to be happy and seemed destined never to catch up to happiness no matter how much money they make.

The broader society also influences happiness. Some of the most familiar findings of well-being research are the happiness ratings by country. Denmark is the happiest, the U.S. is high but behind several European countries and Canada, and poverty stricken or war-torn nations are at the bottom. It may be harder for individualistic Westerners to see, but happiness depends not only on what is going on with your own temperament or life events, but is affected by the larger world around you.

Happiness is also affected by cognitive patterns — for example, seeing opportunities instead of threats and generally trusting and liking other people. Diener identifies three facets of this positive cognition: attention (seeing the positive and beauty in things), interpretation (not putting a negative spin on things), and memory (savoring past experiences rather than ruminating on negative experiences).

Teaching Happiness

Happiness research is uniquely suited to the classroom, said Diener. It is a way to engage students in understanding psychological science because of the inherent interest in this topic and the relevance to daily life. Material can be brought in from different areas within psychology for general courses or, for more specific courses, instructors can focus only on the aspects of happiness research that most relate to their topic, for example, discussing social support’s role in happiness in social psychology courses, or happiness’s influences on work success in I/O psychology courses. Well-being research is rife with what Diener calls “fun studies,” everything from looking at the longevity of nuns to exploring colonoscopy memories (obviously, the definition of fun is debatable — more fodder for the positive psychologists!). Another advantage in teaching stems from the fact that it is a relatively new area of research. It’s a popular subject, and there is a wealth of research to discuss, but you can also “take students to the edge of the science” and encourage them to come up with questions that still need to be answered. This allows students to envision future research directions and implications of the subdiscipline for themselves.

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Good area of study to try and understand its true meaning and importance to a healthy lifestyle. But can’t the term ‘happiness’ be misleading? Is there not a type of happiness that is actually harmful and destructive to oneself and to others, yet fall into your happiness criteria, compared to another type of happiness that is based on compassion, love and caring for oneself and for others. Is there a distinction between ‘destructive-happiness’ and ‘constructive-happiness’? The question that looms for me is “What is genuine happiness?”

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Hello David:

On the continuing conversation about the state of happiness and its relationship to constructive and destructive forms of happiness, I think it’s important to study all the academia around intelligent ideas about being happy like that written in Seneca’s epistles and of-course studying the arc of the human condition right up to Albert Camus and his absurdist views! Essentially the word happiness may be misleading since its root word comes from happenstance and so the art and act of being happy may just be that sometimes you’re just lucky and feel happy after seeing a movie like The Wrong Missy and laughing at funny antics and the world around you! Also hanging around positive, funny people helps and being around children too! If you hang around depressive, shallow, and morose or morbid people you might become like them so stay clear of them! Cheers! Jack Baret

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Suspicion probes are meant to inform researchers about how participants’ beliefs may have influenced the outcome of a study, but it remains unclear what these unverified probes are really measuring or how they are currently being used.

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December 9, 2020

How you measure happiness depends on where you live

by University of California - Riverside

happiness

The meaning of happiness varies depending where in the world a person lives and so benefits from using different measures, new UC Riverside research finds.

Happiness studies historically have focused on the Western ideal of happiness , which is relatively self-centered and big on thrills.

"Accordingly, the prevailing conceptualization of happiness is consistent with a historically Protestant, self-centered world view that emphasizes personal worthiness and hard work to obtain positive outcomes, and sees happiness as a personal achievement," the study's authors wrote in a just-published paper, "Happiness around the world: A combined etic-emic approach across 63 countries."

But Western-centered happiness concepts aren't universal, the authors hold. While happiness is tied to independence in the West, Eastern happiness is related to interdependence.

"The East Asian world view has been described as one in which the self is more entwined with others, such that personal happiness depends on position connections in social relationships," wrote lead author Gwen Gardiner, a recent Ph.D. graduate of David Funder's Situations Lab. "The Eastern ideologies of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism emphasize the interconnectedness of everyone and everything, prioritizing harmony and balance over individual achievement."

Koreans talk about "happiness" and "family" in the same breath, for example. And past research has shown even perhaps the most obvious measure of happiness—a smile—is different in the East and West.

It led the authors to the current study, aimed at measuring which tests of happiness would be most effective among 15,368 worldwide participants. The two measures used were the Subjective Happiness Scale developed in the U.S., and the Interdependent Happiness scale, a relatively new test developed in Japan. The Eastern measure looks more closely at factors such as "interpersonal harmony" and equality of accomplishment with one's peers.

In addition to expanding and comparing the measures of happiness, the study extended the study group beyond traditionally studied Westerners in the U.S. and Canada and East Asians to include Africans, Latin Americans, Middle Easterners, and Southeast Asians.

63-country comparison suggests happiness tests are not universally reliable

The study included college-age students across 63 countries and 42 languages who were asked to log in to a custom website (ispstudy.ucr.edu) and complete a survey that included happiness measures.

The Western measure, the Subjective Happiness Scale, proved most reliable at measuring happiness in Western European countries including Belgium, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. Countries with higher development, less population growth, and in colder climates were more likely to score similarly in the Western, or independent, measure. The Western scale wasn't as effective at determining happiness in Eastern countries such as China, Japan, and Vietnam. And it performed poorly in other countries, namely African countries.

The Eastern measure, the Interdependent Happiness scale, was most reliable in Asian countries including Japan and South Korea. It was more difficult for researchers to relate those scores to country-by-country factors including economic development or cultural factors . And the Eastern measure was generally a less reliable predictor in Western countries.

Interestingly, the interdependent measure of happiness did not vary nearly as much across countries. The performance of the measure was much more consistent—an important finding for cross-cultural researchers.

Both measures were highly reliable in the United States and Japan. That was of particular interest to researchers because those are the respective countries where the Western and Eastern tests were developed.

"For us, this result was particularly interesting and surprising because, typically, the U.S. and Japan are the prototypical countries used to highlight cross-cultural differences in cultural psychology," said Gardiner, who earned her Ph.D. from UCR this fall, and is now in Germany on a Humboldt Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship. "But in this case, they were much more similar to each other."

Both measures performed poorly in countries without Christian Protestant or Buddhist traditions, including African and Middle Eastern countries. Future studies should consider new measures for those world regions, the authors wrote.

The happiness study is among the first results published from the farthest-reaching original research of how people experience everyday life. The International Situations Project relied on a worldwide network to canvass 63 countries, 42 languages, and more than 15,000 people, and the results are only now being distilled.

The article was published in the journal PLOS ONE .

Journal information: PLoS ONE

Provided by University of California - Riverside

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Happiness and Life Satisfaction

Self-reported life satisfaction differs widely between people and between countries. What explains these differences?

By Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser

First published in 2013; most recent substantive revision February 2024.

How happy are people today? Were people happier in the past? How satisfied with their lives are people in different societies? And how do our living conditions affect all of this?

These are difficult questions to answer, but they are questions that undoubtedly matter for each of us personally. Indeed, today, life satisfaction and happiness are central research areas in the social sciences, including in ‘mainstream’ economics.

Social scientists often recommend that measures of subjective well-being should augment the usual measures of economic prosperity, such as GDP per capita . 1 But how can happiness be measured? Are there reliable comparisons of happiness across time and space that can give us clues regarding what makes people declare themselves ‘happy’?

In this topic page, we discuss the data and empirical evidence that might answer these questions. Our focus here will be on survey-based measures of self-reported happiness and life satisfaction. Here is a preview of what the data reveals.

  • Surveys asking people about life satisfaction and happiness do measure subjective well-being with reasonable accuracy.
  • Life satisfaction and happiness vary widely both within and among countries. It only takes a glimpse at the data to see that people are distributed along a wide spectrum of happiness levels.
  • Richer people tend to say they are happier than poorer people; richer countries tend to have higher average happiness levels; and across time, most countries that have experienced sustained economic growth have seen increasing happiness levels. So, the evidence suggests that income and life satisfaction tend to go together (which still doesn’t mean they are one and the same).
  • Important life events such as marriage or divorce do affect our happiness but have surprisingly little long-term impact. The evidence suggests that people tend to adapt to changes.

See all interactive charts on Happiness and Life Satisfaction ↓

Other research and writing on happiness and life satisfaction on Our World in Data:

  • Are Facebook and other social media platforms bad for our well-being?
  • Are people more likely to be lonely in so-called 'individualistic' societies?
  • Are we happier when we spend more time with others?
  • Collective pessimism and our inability to guess the happiness of others
  • How important are social relations for our health and well-being?
  • Is there a loneliness epidemic?
  • There is a 'happiness gap' between East and West Germany

Happiness across the world today

The World Happiness Report is a well-known source of cross-country data and research on self-reported life satisfaction. The map here shows, country by country, the ‘happiness scores’ published this report.

The underlying source of the happiness scores in the World Happiness Report is the Gallup World Poll —a set of nationally representative surveys undertaken in more than 160 countries in over 140 languages.

The main life evaluation question asked in the poll is: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” (This is also known as the “Cantril Ladder”.)

The map plots the average answer that survey respondents provided to this question in different countries. As with the steps of the ladder, values in the map range from 0 to 10.

There are large differences across countries. According to the most recent figures, European countries top the ranking: Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands have the highest scores. In the same year, the lowest national scores correspond to Afghanistan, South Sudan, and other countries in central Sub-Saharan Africa.

You can click on any country on the map to plot time series for specific countries.

Self-reported life satisfaction tends to correlate with other measures of well-being—richer and healthier countries tend to have higher average happiness scores. (More on this in the section below .)

Happiness over time

Findings from the integrated values surveys.

In addition to the Gallup World Poll (discussed above), the Integrated Values Surveys provides cross-country data on self-reported life satisfaction. These are the longest available time series of cross-country happiness estimates that include non-European nations.

The Integrated Values Surveys collect data from a series of representative national surveys covering almost 100 countries, with the earliest estimates dating back to 1981. In these surveys, respondents are asked: “Taking all things together, would you say you are (i) Very happy, (ii) Rather happy, (iii) Not very happy, or (iv) Not at all happy”. This visualization plots the share of people answering they are “very happy” or “rather happy”.

As we can see, in most countries, the trend is positive: In most countries with data from two or more surveys, the most recent observation is higher than the earliest. In some cases, the improvement has been very large; in Albania, for example, the share of people who reported being ‘very happy’ or ‘rather happy’ went from 33.4% in 1998 to 73.9% in 2022.

Findings from Eurobarometer

The Eurobarometer survey collects data on life satisfaction as part of their public opinion surveys. For several countries, these surveys have been conducted at least annually for more than 40 years. The visualization here shows the share of people who report being ‘very satisfied’ or ‘fairly satisfied’ with their standards of living.

Two points are worth emphasizing. First, estimates of life satisfaction often fluctuate around trends. In France, for example, we can see that the overall trend is positive, yet there is a pattern of ups and downs. And second, despite fluctuations, decade-long trends have been generally positive for most European countries.

In most cases, the share of people who say they are ‘very satisfied’ or ‘fairly satisfied’ with their life has gone up over the full survey period. 2 Yet there are some clear exceptions, of which Greece is the most notable example. In 2007, around 67% of the Greeks said they were satisfied with their life, but five years later, after the financial crisis struck, the corresponding figure was down to 32.4%. Despite recent improvements, Greeks today are, on average, much less satisfied with their lives than they were before the financial crisis. No other European country in this dataset has gone through a comparable negative shock.

The distribution of life satisfaction

More than averages — the distribution of life satisfaction scores.

Most of the studies comparing happiness and life satisfaction among countries focus on averages. However, distributional differences are also important.

Life satisfaction is often reported on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 representing the highest possible level of satisfaction. This is the so-called ‘Cantril Ladder’. This visualization shows how responses are distributed across steps in this ladder. In each case, the height of the bars is proportional to the fraction of answers at each score. Each differently-colored distribution refers to a world region, and for each region, we have overlaid the distribution for the entire world as a reference.

These plots show that in Sub-Saharan Africa—the region with the lowest average scores—the distributions are consistently to the left of those in Europe.

This means that the share of people who are ‘happy’ is lower in Sub-Saharan Africa than in Western Europe, independently of which score in the ladder we use as a threshold to define ‘happy’. Similar comparisons can be made by contrasting other regions with high average scores (e.g., North America, Australia, and New Zealand) against those with low average scores (e.g., South Asia).

Another important point to notice is that the distribution of self-reported life satisfaction in Latin America and the Caribbean is high across the board—it is consistently to the right of other regions with roughly comparable income levels, such as Central and Eastern Europe.

This is part of a broader pattern: Latin American countries tend to have a higher subjective well-being than other countries with comparable levels of economic development. As we will see in the section on the social environment , culture, and history matter for self-reported life satisfaction.

Distribution of self-reported life satisfaction by world region

If you want data on country-level distributions of scores, the Pew Global Attitudes Survey provides such figures for more than 40 countries.

Differences in happiness within countries

Happiness inequality, happiness inequality in the us and other rich countries.

The General Social Survey (GSS) in the US is a survey administered to a nationally representative sample of about 1,500 respondents each year since 1972 and is an important source of information on long-run trends of self-reported life satisfaction in the country. 3

Using this source, Stevenson and Wolfers (2008) 4 show that while the national average has remained broadly constant, inequality in happiness has fallen substantially in the US in recent decades.

The authors further note that this is true both when we think about inequality in terms of the dispersion of answers, and also when we think about inequality in terms of gaps between demographic groups. They note that two-thirds of the black-white happiness gap has been eroded (although today, white Americans remain happier on average, even after controlling for differences in education and income), and the gender happiness gap has disappeared entirely (women used to be slightly happier than men, but they are becoming less happy, and today there is no statistical difference once we control for other characteristics). 5

The results from Stevenson and Wolfers are consistent with other studies looking at changes of happiness inequality (or life satisfaction inequality) over time. In particular, researchers have noted that there is a correlation between economic growth and reductions in happiness inequality—even when income inequality is increasing at the same time. The visualization here uses data from Clark, Fleche, and Senik (2015) 6 shows this. It plots the evolution of happiness inequality within a selection of rich countries that experienced uninterrupted GDP growth.

In this chart, happiness inequality is measured by the dispersion — specifically the standard deviation — of answers in the World Values Survey . As we can see, there is a broad negative trend. In their paper, the authors show that the trend is positive in countries with falling GDP.

Why could it be that happiness inequality falls with rising income inequality?

Clark, Fleche, and Senik argue that part of the reason is that the growth of national income allows for the greater provision of public goods, which in turn tightens the distribution of subjective well-being. This can still be consistent with growing income inequality since public goods such as better health affect incomes and well-being differently.

Another possibility is that economic growth in rich countries has translated into a more diverse society in terms of cultural expressions (e.g., through the emergence of alternative lifestyles), which has allowed people to converge in happiness even if they diverge in incomes, tastes, and consumption. Steven Quartz and Annette Asp explain this hypothesis in a New York Times article , discussing evidence from experimental psychology.

The link between happiness and income

The link across countries, higher national incomes go together with higher average life satisfaction.

If we compare life satisfaction reports from around the world at any given point in time, we immediately see that countries with higher average national incomes tend to have higher average life satisfaction scores. In other words, people in richer countries tend to report higher life satisfaction than people in poorer countries. The scatter plot here shows this.

Each dot in the visualization represents one country. The vertical position of the dots shows the national average self-reported life satisfaction in the Cantril Ladder (a scale ranging from 0-10 where 10 is the highest possible life satisfaction), while the horizontal position shows GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity (i.e., GDP per head after adjusting for inflation and cross-country price differences).

This correlation holds even if we control for other factors: Richer countries tend to have higher average self-reported life satisfaction than poorer countries that are comparable in terms of demographics and other measurable characteristics. You can read more about this in the World Happiness Report 2017 , specifically the discussion in Chapter 2.

As we show below, income and happiness also tend to go together within countries and across time .

The link within countries

Higher personal incomes go together with higher self-reported life satisfaction.

Above; we point out that richer countries tend to be happier than poorer countries. Here, we show that the same tends to be true within countries: richer people within a country tend to be happier than poorer people in the same country. The visualizations here show us this by looking at happiness by income quintiles.

Firstly, we show each country in individual panels: within each panel is a connected scatter plot for a specific country. This means that for each country, we observe a line joining five points: each point marks the average income within an income quintile (horizontal axis) against the average self-reported life satisfaction of people at that income quintile (vertical axis).

What does this visualization tell us? We see that in all cases, lines are upward sloping: people in higher income quintiles tend to have higher average life satisfaction. Yet in some countries, the lines are steep and linear (e.g., in Costa Rica, richer people are happier than poorer people across the whole income distribution), while in some countries, the lines are less steep and non-linear (e.g., the richest group of people in the Dominican Republic is as happy as the second-richest group).

Self-reported life satisfaction across the income distribution

In a second visualization, we present the same data, but instead of plotting each country separately, showing all countries in one grid.

The resulting connected scatter plot may be messy, resembling a ‘spaghetti’ chart, but it is helpful to confirm the overall pattern: despite kinks here and there, lines are, by and large, upward-sloping.

Self-reported life satisfaction across the income distribution, country by country

Looking across and within countries

A snapshot of the correlation between income and happiness—between and within countries.

Do income and happiness tend to go together? The visualization here shows that the answer to this question is yes, both within and across countries.

It may take a minute to wrap your head around this visualization, but once you do, you can see that it handily condenses the key information from the previous three charts into one.

To show the income-happiness correlation across countries, the chart plots the relationship between self-reported life satisfaction on the vertical axis and GDP per capita on the horizontal axis. Each country is an arrow on the grid, and the location of the arrow tells us the corresponding combination of average income and average happiness.

To show the income-happiness correlation within countries, each arrow has a slope corresponding to the correlation between household incomes and self-reported life satisfaction within that country. In other words, the slope of the arrow shows how strong the relationship between income and life satisfaction is within that country. ( This chart gives you a visual example of how the arrows were constructed for each country). 7

If an arrow points northeast, that means richer people tend to report higher life satisfaction than poorer people in the same country. If an arrow is flat (i.e., points east), that means rich people are, on average, just as happy as poorer people in the same country.

As we can see, there is a very clear pattern: richer countries tend to be happier than poorer countries (observations are lined up around an upward-sloping trend), and richer people within countries tend to be happier than poorer people in the same countries (arrows are consistently pointing northeast).

People in richer countries tend to be happier, and within all countries, richer people tend to be happier

It’s important to note that the horizontal axis is measured on a logarithmic scale. The cross-country relationship we would observe on a linear scale would be different since, at high national income levels, slightly higher national incomes are associated with a smaller increase in average happiness than at low levels of national incomes. In other words, the cross-country relationship between income and happiness is not linear on income (it is ‘log-linear’). We use the logarithmic scale to highlight two key facts: (i) at no point in the global income distribution is the relationship flat, and (ii) a doubling of the average income is associated with roughly the same increase in the reported life satisfaction, irrespective of the position in the global distribution.

These findings have been explored in more detail in a number of recent academic studies. Importantly, the much-cited paper by Stevenson and Wolfers (2008) 8 shows that these correlations hold even after controlling for various country characteristics, such as the demographic composition of the population, and are robust to different sources of data and types of subjective well-being measures.

Economic growth and happiness

In the charts above, we show that there is robust evidence of a strong correlation between income and happiness across and within countries at fixed points in time. Here, we want to show that, while less strong, there is also a correlation between income and happiness across time. Or, put differently, as countries get richer, the population tends to report higher average life satisfaction.

The chart shown here uses data from the World Values Survey to plot the evolution of national average incomes and national average happiness over time. To be specific, this chart shows the share of people who say they are ‘very happy’ or ‘rather happy’ in the World Values Survey (vertical axis) against GDP per head (horizontal axis). Each country is drawn as a line joining the first and last available observations across all survey waves. 9

As we can see, countries that experience economic growth also tend to experience happiness growth across waves in the World Values Survey. This is a correlation that holds after controlling for other factors that also change over time (in this chart from Stevenson and Wolfers (2008), you can see how changes in GDP per capita compare to changes in life satisfaction after accounting for changes in demographic composition and other variables).

An important point to note here is that economic growth and happiness growth tend to go together on average . Some countries, in some periods, experience economic growth without increasing happiness. The experience of the US in recent decades is a case in point. These instances may seem paradoxical given the evidence—we explore this question in the following section.

research on happiness has shown that

The Easterlin Paradox

The observation that economic growth does not always go together with increasing life satisfaction was first made by Richard Easterlin in the 1970s. Since then, there has been much discussion over what came to be known as the ‘Easterlin Paradox’.

At the heart of the paradox was the fact that richer countries tend to have higher self-reported happiness, yet in some countries for which repeated surveys were available over the course of the 1970s, happiness was not increasing with rising national incomes. This combination of empirical findings was paradoxical because the cross-country evidence (countries with higher incomes tended to have higher self-reported happiness) did not, in some cases, fit the evidence over time (countries seemed not to get happier as national incomes increased).

Notably, Easterlin and other researchers relied on data from the US and Japan to support this seemingly perplexing observation. If we look closely at the data underpinning the trends in these two countries, however, these cases are not, in fact, paradoxical.

Let us begin with the case of Japan. There, the earliest available data on self-reported life satisfaction came from the so-called ‘Life in Nation surveys’, which date back to 1958. At first glance, this source suggests that mean life satisfaction remained flat over a period of spectacular economic growth (see, for example, this chart from Easterlin and Angelescu 2011). 10 Digging a bit deeper, however, we find that things are more complex.

Stevenson and Wolfers (2008) 8 show that the life satisfaction questions in the ‘Life in Nation surveys’ changed over time, making it difficult—if not impossible—to track changes in happiness over the full period. The visualization here splits the life satisfaction data from the surveys into sub-periods where the questions remained constant. As we can see, the data is not supportive of a paradox: the correlation between GDP and happiness growth in Japan is positive within comparable survey periods. The reason for the alleged paradox is, in fact mismeasurement of how happiness changed over time.

In the US, the explanation is different but can once again be traced to the underlying data. Specifically, if we look more closely at economic growth in the US over the recent decades, one fact looms large: growth has not benefitted the majority of people. Income inequality in the US is exceptionally high and has been on the rise in the last four decades, with incomes for the median household growing much more slowly than incomes for the top 10%. As a result, trends in aggregate life satisfaction should not be seen as paradoxical: the income and standard of living of the typical US citizen have not grown much in the last couple of decades. (You can read more about this in our page on inequality and incomes across the distribution .)

GDP per capita vs. Life satisfaction across survey questions

Health and life satisfaction

Life expectancy and life satisfaction.

Health is an important predictor of life satisfaction, both within and among countries. In this visualization, we provide evidence of the cross-country relationship.

Each dot in the scatterplot represents one country. The vertical position of the dots shows national life expectancy at birth, and the horizontal position shows the national average self-reported life satisfaction in the Cantril Ladder (a scale ranging from 0-10, where 10 is the highest possible life satisfaction).

As we can see, there is a strong positive correlation: countries where people tend to live longer are also countries where people tend to say more often that they are satisfied with their lives. A similar relationship holds for other health outcomes (e.g., life satisfaction tends to be higher in countries with lower child mortality ).

The relationship plotted in the chart clearly reflects more than just the link between health and happiness since countries with high life expectancy also tend to be countries with many other distinct characteristics. However, the positive correlation between life expectancy and life satisfaction remains after controlling for observable country characteristics, such as income and social protection. You can read more about this in the World Happiness Report 2017 , specifically the discussion in Chapter 2.

Life satisfaction through life events

How do common life events affect happiness.

Do people tend to adapt to common life events by converging back to a baseline level of happiness?

Clark et al. (2008) 12 use data from the German Socio-Economic Panel to identify groups of people experiencing significant life and labor market events and trace how these events affect the evolution of their life satisfaction. The visualization here shows an overview of their main findings. In each individual chart, the red lines mark the estimated effect of a different event at a given point in time (with ‘whiskers’ marking the range of confidence of each estimate).

In all cases, the results are split by gender, and time is labeled so that 0 marks the point when the corresponding event took place (with negative and positive values denoting years before and after the event). All estimates control for individual characteristics, so the figures show the effect of the event after controlling for other factors (e.g., income, etc.).

The first point to note is that most events denote the evolution of a latent situation: People grow unhappy in the period leading up to a divorce, while they grow happy in the period leading up to a marriage.

The second point is that single life events do tend to affect happiness in the short run, but people often adapt to changes. Of course, there are clear differences in the extent to which people adapt. In the case of divorce, life satisfaction first drops, then goes up and stays high. For unemployment, there is a negative shock both in the short and long run, notably among men. And for marriage, life satisfaction builds up before the wedding and fades out after it.

In general, the evidence suggests that adaptation is an important feature of well-being. Many common but important life events have a modest, long-term impact on self-reported happiness. Yet adaptation to some events, such as long-term unemployment, is neither perfect nor immediate.

The effect of life events on life satisfaction

Does disability correlate with life satisfaction?

A number of papers have noted that long-term paraplegics do not report themselves as particularly unhappy when compared to non-paraplegics (see, for example, the much-cited paper by Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman, 1978). 13

This assertion has received attention because it tells us something about the very meaning of well-being and has important consequences for policy. It is, for example, considered in courts of law with respect to compensation for disability.

However, comparing differences in self-reported life satisfaction among people with different disability statuses is not an ideal source of evidence regarding the effect of tragedy on happiness. Non-paraplegics are potentially different from paraplegics in ways that are hard to measure. Better sources of evidence are longitudinal surveys, where people are tracked over time.

Oswald and Powdthavee (2008) 14 use data from a longitudinal survey in the UK to explore whether accidents leading to disability imply long-term shocks to life satisfaction.

The chart here, from Oswald and Powdthavee, shows the average reported life satisfaction of a group of people who became seriously disabled (at time T) and remained seriously disabled in the two following years (T+1 and T+2). Here, ‘seriously disabled’ means that disability prevented them from being able to do day-to-day activities.

As we can see—and as the authors show more precisely through econometric techniques—those entering disability suffer a sudden drop in life satisfaction and recover only partially. This supports the idea that while adaptation plays a role in common life events, the notion of life satisfaction is indeed sensitive to tragic events.

Life satisfaction of those entering serious disability

Life satisfaction and society

Culture and life satisfaction.

Comparisons of happiness among countries suggest that culture and history shared by people in a given society matter for self-reported life satisfaction. For example, as the chart here shows, culturally and historically similar Latin American countries have a higher subjective well-being than other countries with comparable levels of economic development. (This chart plots self-reported life satisfaction as measured in the 10-point Cantril ladder on the vertical axis against GDP per capita on the horizontal axis).

Latin America is not a special case in this respect. Ex-communist countries, for example, tend to have lower subjective well-being than other countries with comparable characteristics and levels of economic development.

Academic studies in positive psychology discuss other patterns. Diener and Suh (2002) write: “In recent years cultural differences in subjective well-being have been explored, with a realization that there are profound differences in what makes people happy. Self-esteem, for example, is less strongly associated with life satisfaction, and extraversion is less strongly associated with pleasant affect in collectivist cultures than in individualist cultures”. 15

To our knowledge, there are no rigorous studies exploring the causal mechanisms linking culture and happiness. However, it seems natural to expect that cultural factors shape the way people collectively understand happiness and the meaning of life.

Self-reported life satisfaction vs GDP per capita, in 2015

Sense of freedom and life satisfaction

A particular channel through which social environment may affect happiness is freedom: the society we live in may crucially affect the availability of options that we have to shape our own life.

This visualization shows the relationship between self-reported sense of freedom and self-reported life satisfaction using data from the Gallup World Poll . The variable measuring life satisfaction corresponds to country-level averages of survey responses to the Cantril Ladder question (a 0-10 scale, where 10 is the highest level of life satisfaction), while the variable measuring freedom corresponds to the share of people who agree with the statement “In this country, I am satisfied with my freedom to choose what I do with my life”. 16

As we can see, there is a clear positive relationship: countries, where people feel free to choose and control their lives, tend to be countries where people are happier. As Inglehart et al. (2008) 17 show this positive relationship holds even after we control for other factors, such as income and strength of religiosity.

Interestingly, this chart also shows that while there are some countries where the perceived sense of freedom is high but average life satisfaction is low (e.g., Rwanda), there are no countries where the perceived sense of freedom is low but average life satisfaction is high (i.e., there are no countries in the top left area of the chart).

To our knowledge, there are no rigorous studies exploring the causal mechanisms linking freedom and happiness. However, it seems natural to expect that self-determination and the absence of coercion are important components of what people consider a happy and meaningful life.

Perception of freedom vs. self-reported life satisfaction, 2016

The link between media and gloominess

A number of studies have found that there is a link between emotional exposure to negative content in news and changes in mood.

Johnston and Davey (1997), 18 , for example, conducted an experiment in which they edited short TV news to display positive, neutral, or negative material and then showed them to three different groups of people. The authors found that people who watched the ‘negative’ clip were more likely to report a sad mood.

This link between emotional content in news and changes in mood is all the more important if we consider that media gatekeepers tend to prefer negative to positive coverage of newsworthy facts (see, for example, Combs and Slovic 1979 19 ).

Of course, mood is not the same as life satisfaction. Yet, as we discuss below in the section on measurement and data quality , surveys measuring happiness often do capture emotional aspects of well-being. In any case, people’s perceptions of what it means to lead a meaningful life are heavily influenced by their expectations of what is possible and likely to occur in their lives, and this has also been shown to depend on media exposure. 20

Data Quality and Measurement

Can ‘happiness’ really be measured.

The most natural way to attempt to measure subjective well-being is to ask people what they think and feel. Indeed, this is the most common approach.

In practice, social scientists tend to rely on questions inquiring directly about happiness or on questions inquiring about life satisfaction. The former tends to measure the experiential or emotional aspects of well-being (e.g., “I feel very happy”), while the latter tends to measure the evaluative or cognitive aspects of well-being (e.g., “I think I lead a very positive life”).

Self-reports about happiness and life satisfaction are known to correlate with things that people typically associate with contentment, such as cheerfulness and smiling. (In this scatter plot , you can see that countries where people have higher self-reported life satisfaction are also countries where people tend to smile more).

Experimental psychologists have also shown that self-reports of well-being from surveys turn out to correlate with activity in the parts of the brain associated with pleasure and satisfaction. Various surveys have confirmed that people who say they are happy also tend to sleep better and express positive emotions verbally more frequently.

Is ‘life satisfaction’ the same as ‘happiness’?

In this topic page, we discuss data and empirical research on happiness and life satisfaction. However, it is important to bear in mind that “life satisfaction” and “happiness” are not really synonyms. This is, of course, reflected in the data since self-reported measures of these two variables come from asking different kinds of questions.

The Integrated Values Surveys asks directly about happiness: “Taking all things together, would you say you are (i) Very happy, (ii) Rather happy, (iii) Not very happy, (iv) Not at all happy, (v) Don’t know.”

The Gallup World Poll, on the other hand, uses the Cantril Ladder question and asks respondents to evaluate their life: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”

As the following scatter plot shows, these two measures tend to be related (countries that score high in one measure also tend to score high in the other), yet they are not identical (there is substantial dispersion, with many countries sharing the same score in one variable but diverging in the other).

The differences in responses to questions inquiring about life satisfaction and happiness are consistent with the idea that subjective well-being has two sides: an experiential or emotional side and an evaluative or cognitive side. Of course, the limits between emotional and cognitive aspects of well-being are blurred in our minds, so in practice, both kinds of questions measure both aspects to some degree. Indeed, social scientists often construct ‘subjective well-being indexes’ where they simply average out results from various types of questions.

Are happiness averages really meaningful?

The most common way to analyze data on happiness consists of taking averages across groups of people. Indeed, cross-country comparisons of self-reported life satisfaction, such as those presented in ‘happiness rankings’, rely on national averages of reports on a scale from 0 to 10 (the Cantril Ladder).

Is it reasonable to take averages of life satisfaction scores? Or, in more technical terms, are self-reports of Cantril scores really a cardinal measure of well-being?

The evidence tells us that survey-based reports on the Cantril Ladder do allow cardinal measurement reasonably well—respondents have been found to translate verbal labels, such as ‘very good’ and ‘very bad’, into roughly the same numerical values. 21 22

But as with any other aggregate indicator of social progress, averages need to be interpreted carefully, even if they make sense arithmetically. For example, if we look at happiness by age in a given country, we may see that older people do not appear to be happier than younger people. Yet this may be because the average-by-age figure from the snapshot confounds two factors: the age effect (people from the same cohort do get happier as they grow older, across all cohorts) and the cohort effect (across all ages, earlier generations are less happy than more recent generations). If the cohort effect is very strong, the snapshot can even give a picture that suggests people become less happy as they grow older, even though the exact opposite is actually true for all generations.

This example is, in fact, taken from the real world: using data from the US, Sutin et al. (2013) 23 showed that self-reported feelings of well-being tend to increase with age across generations, but overall levels of well-being depend on when people were born.

How much does language matter for cross-country comparisons of happiness?

Linguistic differences are often seen as a major obstacle for making cross-country comparisons of happiness. However, there is evidence suggesting that comparability issues, at least with respect to language, are less problematic than many people think.

Studies have shown, for example, that in interviews in which respondents are shown pictures or videos of other individuals, respondents can broadly identify whether the individual shown to them was happy or sad; this is also true when respondents were asked to predict the evaluations of individuals from other cultural communities. (For evidence of this, see Sandvik et al., 1993; Diener and Lucas, 1999). 24

Studies have also shown that ‘indigenous emotions’ across cultures (i.e., feelings that are unique in that they do not have equivalents in the English language) are not experienced any more frequently or differently than commonly translated emotions. (See Scollon et al. 2005). 25

The conclusion, therefore, seems to be that there is some basic understanding among humans about what it means to be ‘happy’. Survey-based measures of self-reported life satisfaction are informative about cross-country differences, even if these comparisons are obviously noisy.

A French translation of this topic page is available on our site: Bonheur et satisfaction .

Interactive charts on happiness and life satisfaction

Particularly important was the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission . It also relates to Bhutan’s famous measurement of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an indicator of progress (Wikipedia here ).

To be precise, in 27 out of 31 countries with data spanning longer than one decade, the estimate for 2016 is higher than the earliest available estimate.

The GSS asks people a very similar question to the Integrated Values Survey: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”

Stevenson, Betsey, and Justin Wolfers. “Happiness inequality in the United States.” The Journal of Legal Studies 37.S2 (2008): S33-S79. An ungated earlier version of the paper is available here .

These results have been discussed in various blogs. Freakonomics provides a quick and interesting overview of the debate, specifically with regard to gender gaps .

Clark, Andrew E., Sarah Flèche, and Claudia Senik. “Economic growth evens out happiness: Evidence from six surveys.” Review of Income and Wealth (2015). An ungated earlier version of the paper is available here

To be precise, the gradients correspond, country by country, to the regression coefficients between income quintiles and the related average life satisfaction reported by people within each income quintile.

Stevenson, B. and Wolfers, J. (2008). Economic growth and subjective well-being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 1-87. An earlier version is available online here .

The dataset includes observations for Egypt. However, we have excluded these observations from our analysis. This is because the survey for Egypt in the wave labeled 2014 is from 2012, which was a year characterized by extreme political instability in that country.

R.A. Easterlin and L. Angelescu – ‘Modern Economic Growth and Quality of Life: Cross-Sectional and Time Series Evidence’ in Land, Michalos, and Sirgy (ed.) (2011) – Handbook of Social Indicators and Quality of Life Research. Springer.

Chart from Stevenson B, Wolfers J (2008) - Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox. Brookings Paper Econ Activ 2008 (Spring):1–87. Underlying data source: Life in Nation surveys, 1958–2007. Note from the authors: “The series in each of the four panels reports responses to a different life satisfaction question, and therefore comparisons should be made only within each panel. GDP per capita is at purchasing power parity in constant 2000 international dollars.”

Clark, A. E., Diener, E., Georgellis, Y., & Lucas, R. E. (2008). Lags and leads in life satisfaction: A test of the baseline hypothesis. The Economic Journal, 118(529).

Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? . Journal of personality and social psychology, 36(8), 917. Chicago.

Oswald, A. J., & Powdthavee, N. (2008). Does happiness adapt? A longitudinal study of disability with implications for economists and judges. Journal of Public Economics, 92(5), 1061-1077.

Diener, E., Oishi, S., & Lucas, R. E. (2009). Subjective well-being: The Science of Happiness and Life Satisfaction. Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2, 187-194.

To be precise, the Gallup World Poll asks: “In this country, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?”

Inglehart, R., Foa, R., Peterson, C., & Welzel, C. (2008). Development, freedom, and rising happiness: A global perspective (1981–2007). Perspectives on psychological science, 3(4), 264-285.

Johnston, W. M., & Davey, G. C. (1997). The Psychological Impact of Negative TV News Bulletins: The Catastrophizing of Personal Worries. British Journal of Psychology, 88(1), 85-91.

Combs, B., & Slovic, P. (1979). Newspaper coverage of causes of death. Journalism Quarterly, 56(4), 837-849.

Riddle (2010), for example, found that people watching more vivid violent media gave higher estimates of the prevalence of crime in the real world. (Riddle, K. (2010). Always on my mind: Exploring how frequent, recent, and vivid television portrayals are used in the formation of social reality judgments. Media Psychology, 13(2), 155–179.)

Ferrer‐i‐Carbonell, A., & Frijters, P. (2004). How important is methodology for the estimates of the determinants of happiness?. The Economic Journal, 114(497), 641-659.

Van Praag, B.M.S. (1991). ‘Ordinal and cardinal utility: an integration of the two dimensions of the welfare concept’, Journal of Econometrics, vol. 50, pp. 69–89.

Sutin, A. R., Terracciano, A., Milaneschi, Y., An, Y., Ferrucci, L., & Zonderman, A. B. (2013). The effect of birth cohort on well-being The legacy of economic hard times. Psychological science, 0956797612459658.

Sandvik, E., Diener, E. and Seidlitz, L. (1993). ‘Subjective well-being: the convergence and stability of self and non-self report measures’, Journal of Personality, vol. 61, pp. 317–42. Diener, E. and Lucas, R.E. (1999). ‘Personality and subjective well-being’, in Kahneman et al. (1999) chapter 11.

Scollon, C. N., Diener, E., Oishi, S., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2004). Emotions across cultures and methods. Journal of cross-cultural psychology, 35(3), 304-326.

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Prioritizing Happiness has Important Implications for Mental Health, but Perhaps Only if you Already are Happy

  • Published: 06 January 2021
  • Volume 17 , pages 375–390, ( 2022 )

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  • Richard A. Burns   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-7750-4341 1 &
  • Dimity A. Crisp   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-0241-1121 2  

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Happiness is frequently posited as an important outcome of quality of life and characteristic of well-adjusted and functioning individuals. Happy individuals are less likely to report adverse mental health. Understanding the importance that individuals place on happiness is less clearly articulated and inconsistent. Valuing or placing higher importance of happiness appear to confer both benefits and risk for mental health outcomes. The primary aim of this study was to examine the relationship between the importance of happiness and mental health outcomes and whether the relationship between happiness and mental health is moderated by the importance individuals place on happiness. We utilised data from two studies, a university student sample ( n  = 413) and a community sample ( n  = 248) to examine the study aims. Mental health was operationalised in terms of psychological distress and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Happiness and the level of importance individuals ascribed to happiness were associated with adverse mental health outcomes. In multi-variate analyses, level of happiness was more strongly related to mental health. Interactions between happiness and the importance of happiness revealed that the effect of happiness was moderated by the importance that individuals placed on happiness. Overall happiness and to a lesser extent, the importance of happiness, are significantly associated with mental health outcomes. Happiness was most strongly related to mental health amongst those who rated the importance of happiness more highly.

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Burns, R.A., Crisp, D.A. Prioritizing Happiness has Important Implications for Mental Health, but Perhaps Only if you Already are Happy. Applied Research Quality Life 17 , 375–390 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11482-020-09891-6

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How to Thrive as You Age

U.s. drops in new global happiness ranking. one age group bucks the trend.

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research on happiness has shown that

The U.S. ranks higher in the world happiness report when it comes to people aged 60 and older. Thomas Barwick/Getty Images hide caption

The U.S. ranks higher in the world happiness report when it comes to people aged 60 and older.

How happy are you? The Gallup World Poll has a simple way to gauge well-being around the globe.

Imagine a ladder, and think about your current life. The top rung, 10, represents the best possible life and the bottom rung, 0, represents the worst. Pick your number.

Researchers use the responses to rank happiness in countries around the globe, and the 2024 results have just been released.

This year, Finland is at the top of the list. Researchers point to factors including high levels of social support and healthy life expectancy, to explain the top perch of several Scandinavian countries.

Can a picture make you happy? We asked photographers and here's what they sent us

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Can a picture make you happy we asked photographers and here's what they sent us.

North America does not fare as well overall. As a nation, the United States dropped in the global ranking from 15th to 23rd. But researchers point to striking generational divides.

People aged 60 and older in the U.S. reported high levels of well-being compared to younger people. In fact, the United States ranks in the top 10 countries for happiness in this age group.

Conversely, there's a decline in happiness among younger adolescents and young adults in the U.S. "The report finds there's a dramatic decrease in the self-reported well-being of people aged 30 and below," says editor Jan-Emmanuel De Neve , a professor of economics and behavioral science, and the director of the Wellbeing Research Centre at Oxford University.

This drop among young adults is also evident in Canada, Australia and, to a lesser extent in parts of western Europe and Britain, too. "We knew that a relationship existed between age and happiness, but the biggest surprise is that it is more nuanced than we previously thought, and it is changing," says Ilana Ron-Levey , managing director at Gallup.

"In North America, youth happiness has dropped below that of older adults," Ron-Levey says. The rankings are based on responses from a representative sample of about 1,000 respondents in each country.

There are a range of factors that likely explain these shifts.

De Neve and his collaborators say the relatively high level of well-being among older adults is not too surprising. Researchers have long seen a U-shaped curve to happiness.

Children are typically happy, and people tend to hit the bottom (of the U) of well-being in middle age. By 60, life can feel more secure, especially for people with good health, financial stability and strong social connections. Living in a country with a strong social safety net can also help.

Can little actions bring big joy? Researchers find 'micro-acts' can boost well-being

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Can little actions bring big joy researchers find 'micro-acts' can boost well-being.

"The big pressures in life, [such as] having small children, a mortgage to pay, and work, have likely tapered off a bit," De Neve says. But what's so unexpected he says is the extent to which well-being has fallen among young adults.

"We would expect youth to actually start out at a higher level of well-being than middle-age individuals," De Neve says.

"People are hearing that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and the young especially are feeling more threatened by it," says John Helliwell , Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, and a co-author of the study.

He says many younger people may feel the weight of climate change, social inequities, and political polarization which can all be amplified on social media.

But hope is not lost, Helliwell says.

He points to countries in eastern Europe where levels of well-being are on the rise among young people.

He says the older generations in the countries that make up the former Yugoslavia, tend to be less happy. "They are bearing the scars of genocide and conflict," he says.

But he says the younger people are looking beyond this history. "A new generation can put it in the past and think of building a better future and feel that they can be part of that," Helliwell says.

Stuck In A Rut? Sometimes Joy Takes A Little Practice

Stuck In A Rut? Sometimes Joy Takes A Little Practice

This story was edited by Jane Greenhalgh

  • world happiness report

research on happiness has shown that

Research Says Your Happiness at Work May Come Down to 2 Simple Choices

Neuroscience suggests two specific activities may be key to the feeling of happiness.

I have been following research on positive psychology for years and find this field of study fascinating. The fundamental idea of positive psychology is that people aspire to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, which makes them sustainably happy .

Positive psychology is the pathway to achieve that objective. However, experiencing happiness does not happen overnight. Training your brain to adopt virtuous behaviors takes time and effort until they become ingrained as lifestyle habits. This leads to more happiness, optimism, and resilience.

If you are determined to embark on the journey toward sustained happiness, here are two fundamental starting points to help you get there.

1. Practice generosity

You don't need to be a neuroscientist to know that being generous and doing things for others can make you feel happy. However, recent studies have discovered that simply thinking about doing something generous can also boost your brain's happiness levels.

In a study published in Nature Communications , 50 participants were told they'd receive about $100 over a few weeks. Half of the people were asked to commit to spending that money on themselves, and half were asked to spend it on someone they knew.

The researchers conducted a study to examine whether committing to generosity can increase happiness. First, they invited the participants to the lab and asked them to imagine a friend they would like to gift something to and how much they would hypothetically spend. Then, they conducted functional MRI scans to measure activity in three regions of the brain linked to social behavior, generosity, happiness, and decision-making.

Brain scans revealed that even the intent to be generous was linked to activity in the ventral striatum, an area important in the feeling of happiness.

Philippe Tobler, one of the study's authors, said, "It is remarkable that intent alone generates a neural change before the action is actually implemented. Promising to behave generously could be used as a strategy to reinforce the desired behavior, on the one hand, and to feel happier, on the other. You don't need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice."

2. Have a pay-it-forward mentality

Has this ever happened to you? You're waiting to pick up your order at the drive-thru of your local fast-food joint, and the cashier says, "The car in front of you took care of your order." When it happened to me, I was surprised at first, followed by immense gratitude. This act of kindness rubbed off, and a few days later, I paid it forward.

A refreshing study published in the journal Emotion found both givers and receivers of kindness in the workplace enjoyed positive benefits. The researchers from the University of California, headed by Joseph Chancellor, studied workers from Coca-Cola's Madrid site.

They found that, while receivers of kindness reported 10 times more prosocial behaviors than the controls, the givers' one-month follow-up measures were even more impressive: They enjoyed higher levels of life satisfaction and job satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms. This suggests that giving had a more durable effect than receiving.

The best part? Receivers didn't just enjoy acts of kindness -- they paid them forward, much as I did in my own example. As a result, after the study, the receivers reported engaging in nearly three times more pro-social behaviors than the controls.

The bottom line? Encouraging acts of kindness in the workplace can create a virtuous cycle within teams that benefits everyone involved, especially the organization. When corporate values promote uninhibited kindness, it can lead to better work and positive outcomes. By starting with one random act of kindness, its effects can spread outwardly and have a significant impact.

This post originally appeared at inc.com .

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Research Says Your Happiness at Work May Come Down to 2 Simple Choices

Why are so many young Americans suffering from mental distress?

The cost of living, university fees and even gun crime are contributing to an alarming rise in depression and anxiety among young adults.

research on happiness has shown that

The number of young men and women suffering from depression and other mental health disorders in the United States has risen sharply since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a series of reports.

The latest World Happiness Report, which is produced once a year by the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford in the UK, shows that people under the age of 30 have experienced a dramatic decrease in happiness in recent years. Unhappiness is particularly pronounced in the US, which has dropped out of the index’s 20 happiest countries for the first time since 2012 when it was first published.

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This year’s report, published last week, is the first to divide respondents by age but is only the latest to show that young people are struggling inordinately with mental distress.

What do the reports show?

Overall, reports are showing that mental health among young adults has declined sharply since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the effects of which are still taking a toll on the mental health of young people.

The 2023 State of Mental Health report from non-profit Mental Health America cited CDC figures showing that 67 percent of high school students had found school work more difficult during the pandemic, while 55 percent had experienced emotional abuse in the home during lockdowns. It added that 11 percent had experienced physical abuse and 24 percent said they did not have enough food to eat.

In addition, according to the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, which surveyed adults from 2020 and 2022, there were higher levels of anxiety and depression among younger adults after surges of COVID-19 cases.

Pew Research, which undertook surveys across the general population from the start of the pandemic 2020 until September 2022, found that 58 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 years old had experienced high levels of psychological distress – the highest of any age group.

More recently, the February 2024 Student Mental Health Landscape report by the publishing and research group Wiley, found that 80 percent of 2,500 college students surveyed in the US and Canada say they have experienced some degree of mental distress as a result of the pandemic – with anxiety, mental “burnout” and depression the most common conditions cited.

INTERACTIVE_MENTAL_HEALTH_NETWORK_MARCH_25_2024

Which mental health disorders are young people suffering from?

In a recent interview, Admiral Dr Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said: “So we are looking at depression and anxiety, suicidality. We’re looking at eating disorders, we’re looking at the risk of substance use and the full range of mental health challenges that youth face.”

Common mental disorders among young adults can include depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa, body dysmorphia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and substance abuse.

Depression is the most common condition cited by young adults. According to a February 2023 Gallup survey undertaken across all 50 US states, young adults aged 18 to 29 are more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those older than 44.

Why are so many young people suffering from mental distress in the US?

There are many factors, however, some of the most commonly cited by young people suffering from mental distress are as follows:

Financial worries

The cost of university fees and the general cost of living are weighing heavily on the minds of young adults. In a 2022 Harvard study [ PDF ] of more than 1,800 people aged 18 to 25, more than half of respondents reported that financial worries (56 percent) were negatively impacting their mental health.

Similarly, in the Wiley study, close to half of students cited tuition fees (50 percent) and the cost of living (49 percent) as their biggest challenges.

The economic burden of undertaking university study has steadily grown over the past few decades. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), between the academic year of 1979-1980 and the academic year of 2021-2022, the cost of going to college increased by 136 percent, even after inflation is accounted for. This means that in real terms, the cost of going to college is more than twice as expensive now than it was 40 years ago. The biggest cost rise has been in tuition fees, which have increased by 170 percent over the past 40 years.

Feelings of isolation and loneliness were also cited by respondents to the Wiley study. In the Harvard study, 44 percent of young adults reported a sense of “not mattering to others” while 34 percent reported “loneliness”.

According to a 2023 Gallup poll, overall loneliness has decreased since early 2021, but young adults and those in lower-income homes are more likely to feel lonely than other age groups.

Some experts attribute this to the rise in social media use which has caused “virtual isolation” – or social isolation due to the use of mobile devices.

In May 2023, US Surgeon General Vivek H Murthy issued a report about the effects of social media on mental health, which stated: “Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling – it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.”

“Loneliness is the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need. It can feel like being stranded, abandoned, or cut off from the people with whom you belong – even if you’re surrounded by other people. What’s missing when you’re lonely is the feeling of closeness, trust, and the affection of genuine friends, loved ones, and community,” Dr Murthy wrote in his 2020 book, Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness.

INTERACTIVE_NEGATIVE_EFFECTS_SOCIAL_MEDIA_NETWORK_MARCH_25_2024

Social issues

In the 2022 Harvard study, 42 percent of respondents reported that gun violence in schools had a negative influence on their mental health, while 34 percent said they were worried about climate change and 30 percent expressed concerns about corruption among political leaders.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association, 75 percent of those aged between 15 and 21 reported that mass shootings were a considerable source of stress.

How can we solve this crisis?

There remain significant challenges to addressing mental distress among young adults, especially in the US.

Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, director of the Wellbeing Research Center and editor of the World Happiness Report, said: “To think that in some parts of the world children are already experiencing the equivalent of a midlife crisis, demands immediate policy action.”

Experts say helping young people build better relationships, giving them a sense of purpose and fostering a healthy environment that helps them achieve their future goals is the way forward.

What does seem clear, say campaigners, is that the emotional plight of so many young people demands far more concerted and serious attention from governments, colleges and universities, workplaces and many other institutions.

What Is Happiness?

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Happiness is an electrifying and elusive state. Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and even economists have long sought to define it. And since the 1990s, a whole branch of psychology— positive psychology —has been dedicated to pinning it down. More than simply positive mood, happiness is a state of well-being that encompasses living a good life, one with a sense of meaning and deep contentment.

Feeling joyful has its health perks as well. A growing body of research also suggests that happiness can improve your physical health; feelings of positivity and fulfillment seem to benefit cardiovascular health, the immune system, inflammation levels, and blood pressure, among other things. Happiness has even been linked to a longer lifespan as well as a higher quality of life and well-being.

Attaining happiness is a global pursuit. Researchers find that people from every corner of the world rate happiness more important than other desirable personal outcomes, such as obtaining wealth, acquiring material goods, and getting into heaven.

research on happiness has shown that

Happiness is not the result of bouncing from one joy to the next; researchers find that achieving happiness typically involves times of considerable dis comfort. Genetic makeup, life circumstances, achievements, marital status, social relationships, even your neighbors—all influence how happy you are. Or can be. So do individual ways of thinking and expressing feelings. Research shows that much of happiness is under personal control.

Regularly indulging in small pleasures, getting absorbed in challenging activities, setting and meeting goals , maintaining close social ties, and finding purpose beyond oneself all increase life satisfaction. It isn't happiness per se that promotes well-being, it’s the actual pursuit that’s key.

For more, see How to Find Happiness.

Shift Drive/Shutterstock

Happy people live with purpose. They find joy in lasting relationships, working toward their goals, and living according to their values. The happy person is not enamored with material goods or luxury vacations. This person is fine with the simple pleasures of life—petting a dog, sitting under a tree, enjoying a cup of tea. Here are a few of the outward signs that someone is content.

  • Is open to learning new things
  • Is high in humility and patience
  • Smiles and laughs readily
  • Goes with the flow
  • Practices compassion
  • Is often grateful
  • Exercises self-care
  • Enjoys healthy relationships
  • Is happy for other people
  • Gives and receives without torment
  • Lives with meaning and purpose
  • Does not feel entitled and has fewer expectations
  • Is not spiteful or insulting
  • Does not hold grudges
  • Does not register small annoyances
  • Does not angst over yesterday and tomorrow
  • Does not play games
  • Is not a martyr or victim
  • Is not stingy with their happiness

For more, see How To Find Happiness.

eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock

Misperceptions abound when it comes to what we think will make us happy. People often believe that happiness will be achieved once they reach a certain milestone, such as finding the perfect partner or landing a particular salary.

Humans, however, are excellent at adapting to new circumstances, which means that people will habituate to their new relationship or wealth, return to a baseline level of happiness, and seek out the next milestone. Fortunately, the same principle applies to setbacks—we are resilient and will most likely find happiness again.

Regarding finances specifically, research shows that the sweet spot for yearly income is between $60,000 and $95,000 a year, not a million-dollar salary. Earnings above $95,000 do not equate to increased well-being; a person earning $150,000 a year will not necessarily be as happy as a person earning a lot less.

The type of thoughts below exemplify these misconceptions about happiness:

  • "I’ll be happy when I’m rich and successful."
  • "I’ll be happy when I’m married to the right person."
  • "Landing my dream job will make me happy."
  • "I can’t be happy when my relationship has fallen apart."
  • "I will never recover from this diagnosis."
  • "The best years of my life are over."

For more, see The Science of Happiness.

research on happiness has shown that

Positive psychology is the branch of psychology that explores human flourishing. It asks how individuals can experience positive emotions, develop authentic relationships, find flow, achieve their goals, and build a meaningful life.

Propelled by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman , the movement emerged from the desire for a fundamental shift in psychology—from revolving around disease and distress to providing the knowledge and skills to cultivate growth, meaning, and fulfillment. For more, see Positive Psychology.

research on happiness has shown that

Every person has unique life experiences, and therefore unique experiences of happiness. That being said, when scientists examine the average trajectory of happiness over the lifespan, some patterns tend to emerge. Happiness and satisfaction begin relatively high, decrease from adolescence to midlife , and rise throughout older adulthood.

What makes someone happy in their 20s may not spark joy in their 80s, and joy in someone’s 80s may have seemed irrelevant in their 20s. It’s valuable for people to continue observing and revising what makes them happy at a given time to continue striving for fulfillment throughout their lifetime.

For more, see Happiness Over the Lifespan.

research on happiness has shown that

Health and happiness are completely intertwined. That’s not to say that people with illnesses can’t be happy, but that attending to one’s health is an important—and perhaps underappreciated—component of well-being.

Researchers have identified many links between health and happiness—including a longer lifespan—but it’s difficult to distinguish which factor causes the other. Making changes to diet , exercise, sleep, and more can help everyone feel more content.

For more, see Happiness and Health .

research on happiness has shown that

Personal Perspective: "Presence" is not a state that comes and goes, but rather the very basis of every momentary, fleeting perception, and it can never be lost.

research on happiness has shown that

How to cultivate daily happiness habits.

research on happiness has shown that

Helping children learn how to use their challenges as stepping stones to their happier experiences is our aim.

research on happiness has shown that

Desires and cravings can often trap us in the grip of unhealthy addictions or relationships. Fortunately, there's a surprisingly simple way to rewire your brain and get free.

research on happiness has shown that

"Spring cleaning" often applies to dusty closets, leaf-riddled yards, or cluttered kitchens. But why not make a few small changes to help your brain feel freer and clearer as well?

research on happiness has shown that

Knowing and understanding your values can help shape your life decisions, career path, and even who you vote for.

research on happiness has shown that

Many people are worried about the growing rates of youth anxiety. There's an answer we need to embrace that's good for our kids and good for the world.

research on happiness has shown that

A Personal Perspective: Surprisingly, not everyone is happy in retirement. Use these easy tips to discover the type of retirement that best suits your personality and goals.

research on happiness has shown that

Laughter is a normal reaction to modest failings and unanticipated wins, but what about the outcomes of blind chance? One theory reveals why they, too, can inspire its expression.

research on happiness has shown that

Building and maintaining good, supportive relationships can help you cope with stress, stay healthy, enjoy life, and live longer.

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Research: How Women Can Build High-Status Networks

  • Carla Rua-Gomez,
  • Gianluca Carnabuci,
  • Martin Goossen

research on happiness has shown that

Companies can help women overcome common obstacles they face when trying to forge powerful professional ties.

Despite the potential career benefits of building high-status networks, research has long shown that women face greater obstacles in establishing these networks compared to men. The authors’ research , published in the Academy of Management Journal, not only underscores what we know about the unique challenges women face in building high-status networks; it also offers a strategic roadmap for overcoming these challenges. By understanding and leveraging the power of shared social connections, women as individuals can navigate around systemic biases and forge valuable professional ties that propel their careers forward. For organizations committed to gender equality, their study provides a clear directive: Invest in building network sponsor programs that recognize and use the distinct pathways through which women can achieve high-status connections.

In the context of career advancement, the notion that “It’s not what you know, but who you know” holds some truth. However, for many women, this concept presents unique challenges. Despite the potential career benefits of building high-status connections within an organization, research has long shown that women face greater obstacles in establishing such connections compared to men. Our research , published in the Academy of Management Journal, offers new insights into this persistent challenge, and we share some of those insights in this article.

research on happiness has shown that

  • CR Carla Rua-Gomez  is an assistant professor of management and organization at SKEMA Business School, Université Côte d’Azur (GREDEG). She received her PhD from Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) in Switzerland. Her research interests revolve around innovation, social networks, and gender inequality. Carla is particularly interested in understanding how workplace dynamics perpetuate or limit gender inequality within research-intensive corporations.
  • GC Gianluca Carnabuci is a professor of organizational behavior at ESMT Berlin. He is also the holder of the Ingrid and Manfred Gentz Chair in Business and Society. His research and teaching focus on how informal networks shape the flow of information and knowledge within organizations, and how that affects the productivity of leaders, teams, and organizations.
  • MG Martin Goossen is an assistant professor in the Department of Management of Tilburg University. His research focuses on the role of individual employees in the R&D activities of high-technology firms.

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More money means more happiness for most of us—here's when earning over $100,000 doesn't help

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Psychologists have long agreed more money can equate to more happiness — to a certain extent.

Since a notable study published in 2010 by Princeton University's Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, many have agreed that after about $75,000 a year, your happiness somewhat plateaus, even if your income increases. 

However, a study published in 2021 by the University of Pennsylvania's Matthew Killingsworth contradicted those findings, asserting there is no plateau, and happiness continues to grow as income increases, even beyond a $75,000 salary.

Aiming to resolve these contradictory conclusions, Kahneman and Killingsworth teamed up with Penn's Barbara Mellers to determine whether there is a limit to how much happiness a bigger income can buy.

For most people, there is no limit, the new study found . Participants' reported wellbeing did, in fact, increase along with income, up to and well beyond earning $75,000 a year.

What's more, the researchers found that happiness really only plateaus as income increases — above roughly $100,000 a year — for people who were already somewhat unhappy to begin with.

While money certainly helps bring joy and satisfaction to your life, it won't have the same impact on everyone. If your life is missing some other desire, more money can only take your wellbeing so far.

Can a bigger salary make you happier?

The researchers first set out to determine why one study showed a happiness plateau while the other did not. But first, they had to get on the same page about where a plateau might be.

Kahneman's original study that put the plateau around $75,000 more specifically saw happiness flatten in the $60,000 to $90,000 salary range, making the $75,000 number the midpoint, which is why it gets cited as the official plateau.

For the new study, the researchers decided to look at incomes above or below $100,000 as a starting point.

That's because they call Kahneman's plateau less than or equal to a $90,000 salary, which by the time of Killingsworth's study would be less than or equal to $97,000, when adjusted for inflation. Since Killingsworth's study categorized that salary in the $90,000 to $100,000 range, they decided to simply look at incomes above or below $100,000.

By looking at the progress of participants' unhappiness diminishing, rather than their happiness increasing, the new research confirmed the earlier findings that a higher income is correlated with less dissatisfaction, or a higher level of happiness.

Taking it a step further, the researchers examined who, exactly, is seeing their wellbeing improve with more money in their pockets. The answer: most of the population, the researchers found. While happiness began to slightly level off among study participants who earned at least $500,000, the researchers said not many participants were above that threshold.

Additionally, some people — the happiest 30% of the population — see even less of a plateau. To their surprise, the researchers found that wellbeing continues to grow, and even accelerates slightly, when participants start to earn more than $100,000 a year.

An "unhappy minority" revealed itself, however, as the researchers found the most explicit happiness plateau among the least happy 15 to 20% of people. This group does see their unhappiness diminish as income increases, but not much after earning around $100,000 a year.

The joy money can't buy

While these statistical correlations between money and happiness exist, they are rather insignificant in the big picture of your overall satisfaction, the researchers say. More money can help you feel somewhat happier, but it may not move the needle as much as you'd think.

"The effect of an approximately four-fold difference in income is about equal to the effect of being a caregiver, twice as large as the effect of being married, about equal to the effect of a weekend, and less  than a third as large as the effect of a headache," the study says.

So will more money make you happier? For most of the population, yes.

But you'll find much more satisfaction in life if you identify and focus on the areas that bring you the most joy, such as your relationships, hobbies or career.

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Check out: An 85-year Harvard study found the No. 1 thing that makes us happy in life: It helps us 'live longer'

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Apple Researchers Reveal New AI System That Can Beat GPT-4

Apple researchers have developed an artificial intelligence system named ReALM (Reference Resolution as Language Modeling) that aims to radically enhance how voice assistants understand and respond to commands.

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Reference resolution is an important part of natural language understanding, enabling users to use pronouns and other indirect references in conversation without confusion. For digital assistants, this capability has historically been a significant challenge, limited by the need to interpret a wide range of verbal cues and visual information. Apple's ReALM system seeks to address this by converting the complex process of reference resolution into a pure language modeling problem. In doing so, it can comprehend references to visual elements displayed on a screen and integrate this understanding into the conversational flow.

ReALM reconstructs the visual layout of a screen using textual representations. This involves parsing on-screen entities and their locations to generate a textual format that captures the screen's content and structure. Apple researchers found that this strategy, combined with specific fine-tuning of language models for reference resolution tasks, significantly outperforms traditional methods, including the capabilities of OpenAI's GPT-4.

ReALM could enable users to interact with digital assistants much more efficiently with reference to what is currently displayed on their screen without the need for precise, detailed instructions. This has the potential to make voice assistants much more useful in a variety of settings, such as helping drivers navigate infotainment systems while driving or assisting users with disabilities by providing an easier and more accurate means of indirect interaction.

Apple has now published several AI research papers. Last month, the company revealed a new method for training large language models that seamlessly integrates both text and visual information. Apple is widely expected to unveil an array of AI features at WWDC in June.

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Top Rated Comments

HackMacDaddy Avatar

enabling users to use pronouns and other indirect references in conversation without confusion.

Japan Ricardo Avatar

It's good if AI understands "Can you repeat that?" properly. /thread

aknabi Avatar

I am invested in Apple products and services, so I am rooting for Apple as a self-serving customer. However, I won't believe anything Apple claims about AI until it happens. I will believe OpenAI, Google, Meta, Microsoft, even McDonald's about AI before I believe Apple.

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[HEADING=2]Apple Researchers Reveal[/HEADING]

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Use of Abortion Pills Has Risen Significantly Post Roe, Research Shows

Pam Belluck

By Pam Belluck

Pam Belluck has been reporting about reproductive health for over a decade.

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On the eve of oral arguments in a Supreme Court case that could affect future access to abortion pills, new research shows the fast-growing use of medication abortion nationally and the many ways women have obtained access to the method since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022.

The Details

A person pours pills out of a bottle into a gloved hand.

A study, published on Monday in the medical journal JAMA , found that the number of abortions using pills obtained outside the formal health system soared in the six months after the national right to abortion was overturned. Another report, published last week by the Guttmacher Institute , a research organization that supports abortion rights, found that medication abortions now account for nearly two-thirds of all abortions provided by the country’s formal health system, which includes clinics and telemedicine abortion services.

The JAMA study evaluated data from overseas telemedicine organizations, online vendors and networks of community volunteers that generally obtain pills from outside the United States. Before Roe was overturned, these avenues provided abortion pills to about 1,400 women per month, but in the six months afterward, the average jumped to 5,900 per month, the study reported.

Overall, the study found that while abortions in the formal health care system declined by about 32,000 from July through December 2022, much of that decline was offset by about 26,000 medication abortions from pills provided by sources outside the formal health system.

“We see what we see elsewhere in the world in the U.S. — that when anti-abortion laws go into effect, oftentimes outside of the formal health care setting is where people look, and the locus of care gets shifted,” said Dr. Abigail Aiken, who is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the lead author of the JAMA study.

The co-authors were a statistics professor at the university; the founder of Aid Access, a Europe-based organization that helped pioneer telemedicine abortion in the United States; and a leader of Plan C, an organization that provides consumers with information about medication abortion. Before publication, the study went through the rigorous peer review process required by a major medical journal.

The telemedicine organizations in the study evaluated prospective patients using written medical questionnaires, issued prescriptions from doctors who were typically in Europe and had pills shipped from pharmacies in India, generally charging about $100. Community networks typically asked for some information about the pregnancy and either delivered or mailed pills with detailed instructions, often for free.

Online vendors, which supplied a small percentage of the pills in the study and charged between $39 and $470, generally did not ask for women’s medical history and shipped the pills with the least detailed instructions. Vendors in the study were vetted by Plan C and found to be providing genuine abortion pills, Dr. Aiken said.

The Guttmacher report, focusing on the formal health care system, included data from clinics and telemedicine abortion services within the United States that provided abortion to patients who lived in or traveled to states with legal abortion between January and December 2023.

It found that pills accounted for 63 percent of those abortions, up from 53 percent in 2020. The total number of abortions in the report was over a million for the first time in more than a decade.

Why This Matters

Overall, the new reports suggest how rapidly the provision of abortion has adjusted amid post-Roe abortion bans in 14 states and tight restrictions in others.

The numbers may be an undercount and do not reflect the most recent shift: shield laws in six states allowing abortion providers to prescribe and mail pills to tens of thousands of women in states with bans without requiring them to travel. Since last summer, for example, Aid Access has stopped shipping medication from overseas and operating outside the formal health system; it is instead mailing pills to states with bans from within the United States with the protection of shield laws.

What’s Next

In the case that will be argued before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, the plaintiffs, who oppose abortion, are suing the Food and Drug Administration, seeking to block or drastically limit the availability of mifepristone, the first pill in the two-drug medication abortion regimen.

The JAMA study suggests that such a ruling could prompt more women to use avenues outside the formal American health care system, such as pills from other countries.

“There’s so many unknowns about what will happen with the decision,” Dr. Aiken said.

She added: “It’s possible that a decision by the Supreme Court in favor of the plaintiffs could have a knock-on effect where more people are looking to access outside the formal health care setting, either because they’re worried that access is going away or they’re having more trouble accessing the medications.”

Pam Belluck is a health and science reporter, covering a range of subjects, including reproductive health, long Covid, brain science, neurological disorders, mental health and genetics. More about Pam Belluck

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Understanding the Interactions of Happiness, Self-Rated Health, Mental Feelings, Habit of Eating Healthy and Sport/Activities: A Path Model for Abu Dhabi

Masood a. badri.

1 Department of Business Administration, College of Business and Economics, United Arab Emirates University, Al Ain P.O. Box 88888, United Arab Emirates; [email protected]

2 Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development, Abu Dhabi P.O. Box 15551, United Arab Emirates; ea.vog.dcdda@reehguM (M.A.); [email protected] (H.A.); [email protected] (H.A.); [email protected] (G.Y.); [email protected] (A.A.)

Mugheer Alkhaili

Hamad aldhaheri, hamdan alnahyan, muna albahar, asma alrashdi, associated data.

The data presented in this study are available on request from the corresponding author. The data are not publicly available due to privacy restrictions.

Understanding the interactions between happiness, self-perception of health, healthy eating behaviors, physical activities, and psychological feelings or symptoms of mental health provides necessary inputs for social policymaking. Using data from the second cycle of the Abu Dhabi Quality of Life survey, this study examined a path analysis of Abu Dhabi residents’ nature of assimilations between these variables. The results point to the significant association between happiness and self-rated health. In addition, the results portray significant direct paths to happiness from three mental feeling variables—“feeling calm and peaceful”, “having lots of energy”, and “feeling downhearted and depressed”. The variable of “often feeling rushed or pressed for time” shows a direct path to self-rated health only. Eating healthy food is significantly associated with both happiness and self-perception of health. In addition, “often doing physical activities” positively influences happiness. The present study enhances and refines policymakers’ understanding of the considered factors on happiness and self-rated health with further elaborations of the mediating roles of specific well-being determinants. Limitations and future research directions are also discussed.

1. Introduction

A better understanding of the determinants of happiness amongst people in a community could provide social policymakers with standard metrics that help analyze and compare the effects of different policies [ 1 , 2 , 3 ]. In addition, measuring and tracking happiness can be especially helpful to multiple stakeholders involved in well-being and health promotion [ 4 , 5 , 6 ]. In the literature, abundant studies aim to understand the association of some personal behaviors, feelings, and habits with happiness. For example, [ 7 ] reviewed the relationships between happiness and sports and physical activities, while [ 8 ] synthesized research findings related to the impact of eating healthy food on happiness. Others, such as [ 9 ], analyzed happiness as a predictor of the mortality of the elderly adjusted for health and physical activity, while [ 10 ] discussed the role of certain mental feelings or intrinsic motivation indicators in influencing well-being.

According to the How’s Life report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development [ 11 , 12 ], many researchers in their analyses of people’s happiness use data collected through quality-of-life surveys, which have been a significant data source for many well-being studies [ 13 , 14 ]. However, some international research usually concentrates on selected social indicators that do not include health-related indicators [ 6 , 13 ], whereas an ideal set of health indicators could provide useful information about physical and mental health outcomes [ 15 , 16 ]. Self-perception of health status is relatively well covered in research projects and regularly collected across OECD countries, using a standard answering scale. The OECD, for example, measures self-reported mental health status indicators such as individuals feeling calm and peaceful, feeling active and full of energy, feeling downhearted and depressed, and rushed for time [ 12 ].

The UAE has paid significant attention to the happiness index by devoting a stand-alone ministry—The Ministry of Happiness—to this area of research [ 17 , 18 ]. Meanwhile, in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, a Well-being Committee is formed to report well-being and happiness-related strategies to the executive leadership of the Emirate [ 19 ]. As a result, the Abu Dhabi Quality of Life survey is conducted annually by the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development and the Abu Dhabi Statistics Department, which primarily reflects the main components of the OECD Better Life indicators.

This research concentrates on several main factors related to happiness: self-rated health, subjective mental feelings, physical activities/sport, and eating healthy food. The objective is to carefully design and test a path model to understand the variables’ associations when taking happiness as the outcome.

2. Review of Literature

In a framework within well-being, many researchers focus on happiness as experiencing positive feelings throughout the day (or days) in contrast to general life satisfaction, which reflects a sense of purpose in life [ 20 , 21 , 22 ]. In addition, happiness has been regarded as one of the most essential and fundamental goals in life [ 4 ]. Some regard increased happiness as an essential precursor of general health [ 20 ]. Therefore, it is vital to truly understand the factors that promote and increase our happiness. In the context of the present study, the focal concept of happiness is the subjective assessment of life satisfaction [ 22 ]. This concept facilitates researchers to measure happiness related to the quality-of-life abstract domain [ 23 , 24 ]. In addition, some view happiness as the experience of satisfaction, and this satisfaction can come from everything around a person as we refer to the quality of life [ 25 ].

Research confirms that happiness and health share significant similarities in many well-being determinants [ 26 , 27 ]. Primarily, research has identified income, social connections, mental health, and physical and sport factors linked with both happiness and health [ 28 ]. Moreover, the relation between health and happiness has also been vastly studied but with inconsistent results when considering direction and magnitude [ 26 ]. Happiness is generally defined as a joyful state of mind that reflects an individual’s overall subjective well-being [ 4 , 22 , 29 ] and is increasingly considered an essential tool to guide public policy and measure the effectiveness of policy actions [ 30 ]. Many countries (i.e., Canada, France, and the UK) have included a national happiness index to measure national progress [ 22 ]. Internationally, the World Happiness Report 2021, based on the Gallup World Poll and a wide variety of data sources, identifies the happiness indicators of individuals in countries around the globe [ 31 ].

The concept of relations between happiness and health has been studied from different approaches. Most have analyzed the correlations between them. For example, some reported that Argyle (1997) happiness affects health and vice versa [ 32 ]. However, most research discussing health referred to physical and mental health [ 33 , 34 ]. There is a wealth of studies on the association between happiness and subjective health [ 29 ]. However, research that dealt with the association between happiness and self-rated health provided different results. Most studies that included paths (between happiness and self-rated health) established paths from self-rated health to happiness. For example, for elderlies, [ 35 ] reported an indirect path from health to happiness, but through hedonic balance [ 36 ]. In a similar study in China on elderlies, [ 37 ] concluded a path from self-rated health to happiness.

In a study testing the relationship between happiness and self-rated health in Italy, a direct path from happiness to self-rated health was recorded [ 36 ]. However, some used the word “debate” to point to the bidirectional relationship between happiness and health [ 38 ]. The author pointed out that happier people feel healthier than unhappier people. In addition, health can influence happiness and life satisfaction.

Extensive studies have highlighted the health benefits of happiness [ 39 ]. Research findings tend to show that happiness promotes a range of lifestyle practices and patterns that affect overall health [ 40 ]. Therefore, policymakers are encouraged to enable new channels to investigate health promotions using physical activity interventions [ 41 ].

The benefits of physical activity on health have been well documented. For example, active people enjoy better health and are happier than inactive peers [ 42 ]. Moreover, many suggest that physical activity is correlated with significant health benefits across an individual’s life course [ 43 , 44 ]. For example, [ 45 ] suggested that simple regular activity has been shown to play a significant role in preventing many diseases, such as cancer, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.

The health benefits of happiness extend to mental health. The World Health Organization (WHO) points to the belief that “a healthy mind can represent a healthy body” [ 46 ]. As a subjective state of mind, happiness is associated with psychological or mental health, and many studies elaborate on how positive emotions correlate with happiness [ 47 ]. Some explain that the concept of mental health is also subjective and argue that happiness is one of the most important reflections and aspects of positive psychology [ 48 ]. Some authors suggest that happiness is a subjective emotional outcome of many different mental feelings such as stress, anxiety, and depression and that happy people have less chance to be prone to mental disorders [ 49 , 50 ].

Many studies show that sports and physical activities have a significant association with happiness [ 51 ]. Some research evidence points to the association between regular participation in physical activities and positive mental-health-related outcomes such as anxiety, stress, depression, enhanced cognitive function, and academic performance [ 42 , 52 , 53 , 54 ]. The effects of physical activity on happiness were examined for different categories of people, including adolescents [ 55 ] and older adults [ 56 ], generally revealing positive associations. Some found that total minutes of physical exercise per week was positively related to happiness [ 57 ]. A review of research on happiness and physical activity showed that a positive direct or indirect association between happiness and physical activities is consistently found in the literature [ 7 ]. However, they could not confirm the presence of a causal relationship between physical activity and happiness. While researchers encourage more research to investigate whether physical activity might be an essential correlate of happiness, some refer to social interactions gained through physical activities that lead to one’s happiness [ 56 , 58 ]. In addition, most extant studies tend to focus on the association of physical activity with the negative aspects of mental health [ 59 , 60 ].

Research shows that those with a positive well-being were more likely to consume healthy food (i.e., fresh fruits and vegetables) than their less favorable counterparts [ 61 ]. The WHO characterizes healthy eating or healthy diet as involving diet, fruit, and vegetables, a less or moderate amount of fats and oil, and less salt and sugar [ 62 ]. Studies show that diets rich in fruits and vegetables have consistently been associated with a range of health benefits, including lower risks of diabetes, stroke, and heart disease [ 63 , 64 , 65 ]. Thus, there is significant evidence that encourages healthy eating and suggests that healthy food choices should be considered as a long-term investment in future well-being [ 66 , 67 , 68 ]. Some research investigated the tradeoff between eating healthier food and happiness. For example, ref [ 8 ]’s review of research reports on the nature of the relationship between healthy food and happiness provides clear evidence of a strong association between healthy eating and happiness, where such a pattern seems to be universal and only with minor variations across time, people, and regions in the world. Research also points out that the relationship between eating healthy food and our mental health might be somehow complex. Existing research shows a link between what we eat and how we feel [ 69 ], and suggests that healthy, well-balanced food could contribute to our ability to stay alert, concentrate, and pay attention [ 70 ] and an inadequate food diet could lead to more fatigue, stress, depression, impaired decision-making, and slower reaction time [ 64 , 71 ].

Although many studies recognized health and happiness individually and in isolation, some existing research took a more profound understanding to further investigate the direction of effect between the two outcomes: does happiness affect health or vice versa? [ 72 , 73 , 74 ]. In this study, we investigate this understanding between health and happiness using an alternative conceptual framework, which includes the interaction of other related factors, such as subjective mental feelings, often doing sports, and eating healthy food. We would investigate the role of those other factors described by many studies as fundamental in shaping such vast relationships. We would consider subjective health and happiness as distinct yet associated with each other, with the mediations of other well-being factors. Such an investigation would enrich our understanding of those other social forces (such as mental health, eating healthy, and physical activities).

The World Happiness Report also acknowledged some Arab countries in its list, where the UAE enjoyed the top spot with a score of (6.825) and ranked 21st globally [ 75 ]. A total of 19 Arab countries were listed in the report. The UAE has been taking significant steps to promote happiness. In 2016, the UAE appointed its first-ever minister of happiness. Its main objectives were to promote and sustain happiness for all and throughout the UAE. In addition, in March 2017, the UAE launched the World Happiness Council, which had to improve the state of happiness throughout the UAE and across the world. The council focused on health, education, environment, personal happiness, happy cities, and community standards for happiness. As determinants of happiness, [ 76 ] explored the relationship between Islamic religiosity and satisfaction with a diverse range of life and health domains. They concluded that religiosity has a robust positive relationship with subjective well-being. Regarding the UAE, a happiness-related research paper addresses the factors associated with the subjective well-being of older adults in Abu Dhabi.

This research aims to contribute to the literature by focusing on these specific dimensions related to happiness, including self-rated health, healthy eating, physical activities, and mental feelings. Drawing on an extensive survey of Abu Dhabi residents examines the associations between these subjective indicators and happiness. In addition, the strength of relationships will also be examined. The results of this study could provide inputs and evidence to inform the social policy-making process in Abu Dhabi that has given priority to the improvement of the lives and well-being of Abu Dhabi residents.

3. Materials and Methods

3.1. survey and data collection.

The second set of Abu Dhabi Quality of Life (QoL) survey data was considered for this research. Based on some international well-being frameworks and general social surveys, including the OECD’s Better Life, World Happiness Report, Gallup Global Well-being Survey, and European Quality of Life Surveys, the Abu Dhabi Quality of Life Survey covered a variety of dimensions and factors that are believed to affect the well-being of residents of Abu Dhabi. Those dimensions range from housing, household income, jobs, and earnings, to health, education, safety, and social connections. The survey was administered online from September 2019 to March 2020. It covered residents aged 15 or above in all regions of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Both the Department of Community Development (DCD) and the Statistics Center Abu Dhabi (SCAD) provided the ethical approval for this study. The study sample included residents across the three regions of Abu Dhabi: the Abu Dhabi region, Al Ain region, and Al Dhafra region. The survey team made extra efforts to reach all community residents to achieve representative samples. The survey was available in Arabic, English, and six other Asian languages. The survey was distributed online. More than 50 survey links were created and distributed amongst the various segments of the community. Both DCD and SCAD were involved in distributing the survey links. DCD also sent encouraging calls to the communities, inviting their participation in the survey. Means of survey distribution included phone calls, messengers, emails, and social media. Survey representatives also appeared in several national TV newscasts to encourage participation. It should be added here that the online means of distribution also facilitated reaching respondents who were not in the country at the time of distribution. A total of 72,034 respondents participated in the survey.

3.2. Design and Analysis

The analytical approach adopted for this study hypothesizes that health and happiness are associated with other well-being factors of mental feelings and habits related to dietary food, with sport and exercising acting as significant determinants. Adopting a path model framework offers distinct advantages. First, it allows us to investigate patterns and directions of associations given the model considered. Second, it offers a different examination of the relationships between the variables. Third, it examines the impact of a set of predictor variables on multiple dependent variables.

The main hypotheses test the existence of direct relations between happiness and variables of physical activities, self-rated health, positive and negative mental feelings, and eating healthy food. In addition, the relations between self-perception of health and other variables will also be explored. We could summarize research objectives as:

  • Design a path model of happiness and subjective health, and the multiple associations of mental health, exercising and eating healthy.
  • Determine the outcome direction of association between happiness and health.
  • Clarify the association strength of the established directions.
  • Determine the direction of association between the factors of mental health, exercising, and eating healthy, with the two main factors of happiness and health.

Some pre-analysis attempts and examinations were carried out before initiating the path analysis. The pre-analysis included correlations and simple and multiple regression analyses. As the result of the pre-analysis, some variables were dropped from further path analysis. We need to elaborate that correlation coefficients measure the absolute value of the correlation between variables in a given body of data. However, a path coefficient measures the direct influence of one variable upon another and permits the correlation coefficient’s separation into direct and indirect effects components. It should be mentioned here that some of the pre-analysis regression results were strongly confirmed by the final path analysis. For example, and most specifically, regression analysis having happiness as the dependent variable recognized all seven determinants used in the path analysis framework as significant. The final proposed path model hypothesizes that happiness is associated with specific variables. The model was tested using LISERL v.10. [ 77 ]. The maximum likelihood estimation was employed because of its advantage of allowing for the simultaneous examination of both indirect and direct effect paths present throughout the model. This maximum likelihood estimation also allows us to test the overall fit of the data to the hypothesized model [ 78 ].

We used several fit indices to assess the overall path model fit. First, the chi-square statistic was used to evaluate the magnitude of discrepancy between the data sample used and the covariance matrix predicted by the model [ 79 ]. Second, as suggested by [ 80 ], the chi-square/degree of freedom ratio (CMIN/DF) was used to assess model fit further. The threshold of 3.0 was followed, as suggested by [ 78 ]. Other fit statistics included the Normed Fit Index (NFI), Non-Normed Fit Index (NNFI), Comparative Fit Index (CFI), Goodness of Fit Index (GFI), and the Adjusted Goodness of Fit Index (AGFI). To indicate a good fit, the minimum value for these indices should be greater than or equal to 0.95, and a minimum value of 0.90 indicates adequate fit [ 79 , 80 ]. The Root Mean Square Error of Approximation (RMSEA), which estimates the average absolute difference between estimated model covariances and the observed covariances, was also checked. A value less than 0.06 indicates a good model [ 80 ]. The same logic uses the Root Mean Square Residual (RMR). Finally, to test the null hypothesis, we considered a p -value testing the null hypothesis (PCLOSE) of the RMSEA. Many researchers recommend a non-significant result greater than 0.05 required to reject the null [ 77 ].

3.3. Variables in the Final Path Model

Based on the presented extensive review of the literature and the objective of this research, several variables were selected from the QoL survey. The two main variables are subjective self-rated health (1–5-point scale) and subjective happiness (0–10-point scale). The model also includes four subjective mental health variables (often feeling calm and peaceful, often having lots of energy, often feeling downhearted and depressed, and often feeling rushed or pressed for time), where each is evaluated on a (1–5-point scale). The other two variables include often eating healthy food and doing physical activity sport (minimum 30 min). Both are rated using (1–5-point scales). Since the scales for variables were different, the data were standardized for further path analysis. The descriptive characteristics of the variables in the model are presented in Table 1 . The table shows descriptive statistics of the variables that remained in the final path analysis. As mentioned, all variables except the happiness variable used scales ranging from 1 to 5. Out of the eight variables in the path model, two mental feelings variables were worded negatively (how often feeling downhearted and depressed, and how often feeling rushed or pressed for time).

Descriptive statistics of variables in the path model.

Table 2 shows the breakdown regarding specific categories. About 62.1% were male, and 37.9% were female. Most of them were married (80.9%), while only 14.3% were single. Around (4.8%) were separated, widowed, or divorced. About 43.5% were Emirati, and 56.5% were non-Emiratis. Regarding education attainment, the most significant percentage (38.4%) of the elderlies held a bachelor’s degree, while 3.2% held doctorate degrees. Those not holding any degrees below bachelor’s degrees accounted for 48.1%. Most of the respondents (65.2%) were between 30 and 44 years old. About 73.6% of respondents resided in Abu Dhabi, 22% resided in Al Ain, and 4.4% resided in Al Dhafra. It should be realized that the percentages of the different categories reflect the accurate representations of each in Abu Dhabi. However, Emiratis in Abu Dhabi are less than the accurate representation reflected in the response rates. Therefore, specific weighing was used to represent the actual percentages for this category.

Respondent’s profile.

Table 2 also provides the happiness scores for each respondent category. Happiness scores favor females (7.308 relative to 7.009). The widowed and singles recorded the highest means (7.495 and 7.241, respectively), while the divorced and separated recorded means of 6.861 and 6.433, respectively. The marred respondents recorded happiness means closer to the medium point (7.138). Regarding education attainment, those with higher degrees, such as bachelor, master, and doctorate, recorded the lowest happiness (7.043, 6.944, and 6.937 relatively). On the other hand, those with school degrees enjoyed the highest mean of (7.629). The oldest category of respondents enjoys the highest happiness scores along with school-aged children (7.753 and 7.785, respectively). Meanwhile, non-Emiratis recorded higher means than Emiratis (7.324 relative to 7.008). Finally, the figures show that those residing in Abu Dhabi city recorded the lowest happiness means relative to those in Al Ain or Gharbia (7.031, 7.194, and 7.186, respectively).

The path analysis used the covariance matrix shown in Table 3 . A covariance value reflects the relationship of two variables whenever one variable changes. When an increase in one variable results in an increase in the other variable, both variables have positive covariance.

The covariance matrix.

The final path model fit statistics are shown in Table 4 . The fit statistics reflect an excellent model in all aspects. The RMSEA is 0.00413. The value of CMIN/DF is 1.537, which is far below the threshold of 3.0. All fit statistics are above 0.99, which indicates an excellent model. It should be noted that since many studies identified the direction of association to be from happiness to health, we also tried to explore that specific direction. The analysis provided a Root Mean Square Error of Approximation (RMSEA) of 0.0938, with many of the fit indices between (0.806) and (0.884).

Path model goodness-of-fit statistics.

Table 5 shows the standardized path statistics and their related t-values. Overall, all paths point to happiness and self-rated health. A total of five variables point to happiness, while six points to self-rated health. In general, it is interesting to note the presence of all four mental-health-related variables in the final path model and their significant association with both happiness and self-rated health. The most significant total association with either happiness or health is the mental feeling of how often one feels they have lots of energy. The other mental sense of how often one feels downhearted and depressed presented itself with happiness’s most significant negative association.

Model fits and statistics.

Concerning happiness, the largest direct association is from “how often feeling downhearted and depressed” with a pessimistic standardized estimate of −0.1707. The other significant estimates are from “how often feeling having lots of energy”, “how often feeling calm and peaceful”, “how often doing physical activity/sport”, and “how often eating healthy diet/food”, with estimates of 0.1392, 0.1314, 0.0759, and 0.0385, respectively. In summary, all four mental-feeling-related variables have a significant presence in the happiness of Abu Dhabi respondents. However, it is essential to see that “self-rated health” is also associated with happiness. As a result, we need to calculate the indirect association of these variables with happiness but through self-rated health. Table 4 shows the indirect and total associations of these variables with happiness. Five variables have both direct and indirect associations with happiness. The indirect associations are through the mediation of the self-rated health variable. The highest indirect association is from “how often feeling having lots of energy” (0.0293). The others are from “how often feeling calm and peaceful” (0.0194), “how often eating healthy diet/food” (0.0153), “how often doing physical activity/sport” (0.0115), and “how often feeling downhearted and depressed” (−0.0107).

In path analysis, a path coefficient indicates the direct effect (or association) on another variable. Path coefficients are standardized because they are estimated from correlations (a path regression coefficient is unstandardized). Path coefficients are written with two subscripts. A total of six variables contribute to the respondents’ self-rated health indicator. The highest contribution is from “how often feeling having lots of energy”, with a standardized statistic of 0.1944. The other five significant estimates are related to “how often feeling calm and peaceful”, “how often eating healthy diet/food”, “how often feeling downhearted and depressed”, “how often doing physical activity/sport”, and “how often feeling rushed or pressed for time”, with standardized estimates of 0.1485, 0.1011, −0.0715, 0.0467, and −0.0239, respectively.

Figure 1 shows that the four mental feeling variables act independently with no paths relating directly to each other. There are also no associations between these mental health variables and “how often eating healthy food/diet” and “how often doing physical activity/sport” directly or indirectly. We should also note that the mental feeling variables directly correlate with happiness and self-perception of health, except that “how often feeling rushed or pressed for time” has no direct association with happiness.

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The final path model.

5. Discussions

The most important objectives of this study were to explore how feelings of happiness are associated with other factors of self-rated health, subjective mental feelings, being active and practicing sport, and consuming healthy diets. In addition, the aim was to extend our knowledge about the associations between and further exploit the directionality of the relationships, especially between happiness and self-rated health. We have demonstrated that self-rated health and happiness are related to one another. The results indicate a direct association between most of the variables and happiness. In addition, we also demonstrated that self-perception of health mediates between happiness and other variables of physical activity, eating healthy, and mental feelings. The path model, featured with six variables interacting with self-rated health and happiness, shows excellent fit statistics of the path analytic model.

The findings show that self-rated health influences happiness with many other healthy lifestyle practices and patterns. In other words, self-rated health might explain happiness to a large extent. The significant association between self-perception of health and happiness is no surprise, as it is consistent with the results from other studies [ 39 ]. Thus, the study offers further support to the call by many researchers that social policymakers should consider the relationship between self-rated health and happiness in their policy interventions [ 41 ]. As reviewed earlier, many studies pointed to the direction of association to be from happiness to self-rated health. Our further sensitivity analysis for exploring that direction provided a path model that was less significant than the one proposed here. Again, this might raise a debate that this specific direction might also depend on the presence and interaction between the other variables present in the model (subjective happiness, self-rated health, four types of mental health variables, eating healthy food, and practicing sports).

The results also align with relevant findings that explain the association of happiness with health and positive emotions [ 49 , 50 ]. Several variables of mental feelings have both direct and indirect associations with happiness. Such outcomes agree with the concept that mental health or feelings are subjective [ 48 ]. The results support other findings that attribute happiness as significant reflections and aspects of positive psychology and human emotions [ 49 , 50 ].

The direct association between mental feelings and self-rated health is evident in this Abu Dhabi research, which is congruent with other international applications that confirm that those general mental feelings are a reliable subjective indicator of self-rated health [ 81 ].

The present study results also reflect the significance of eating healthy food on both self-rated health and happiness. Such outcomes go parallel with other studies that note the association between positive well-being and healthy food consumption [ 61 ] and the literature confirming the association of consuming diet-rich food with a range of health benefits [ 63 , 65 ] and happiness [ 8 ].

The resulting general associations between physical activity and happiness align with many studies that have observed positive associations between self-reported physical activity and happiness [ 55 , 82 ]. The findings could encourage policymakers to offer innovative solutions for different categories of citizens, believing that a physically active lifestyle contributes to increased happiness. However, the results do not provide paths from physical activity to the four mental feelings variables, which is not consistent with a large body of literature demonstrating that physical activity effectively reduces depression and anxiety [ 59 , 60 ]. We should stress, however, that the path analysis in several other similar studies also does not confirm the causal relationship between physical activity and happiness [ 58 ]. In addition, our path model did not reveal any association between the four mental feelings variables, either directly or indirectly, and eating healthy food and physical activity. It is worth noticing that the mental feeling variables have direct associations with both happiness and self-perception of health, except that “often feeling rushed” shows no direct association with happiness.

The most apparent outcome of this research is the significance of the associations between all seven variables in the model with both happiness and self-rated health. In addition, many variables show an indirect association with happiness. The containment of all variables to show associations to happiness directly or indirectly provides much support for the Better Life framework hypothesized by the OECD. Such support is also declared by other related research in other countries [ 14 , 15 ]. This supporting evidence provides much-needed influence and capacity to social policymakers to convince community members of the value of their strategies associated with advancing happiness in their community.

In general, finding the correct meaning of the results of this research is undoubtedly a challenge for social policymakers. Social policymakers would utilize the results effectively by looking at possible ways to further invest in happiness-related health policies. The results reflect the belief that happy people are more likely to feel healthier, show positive mental feelings, live a healthy lifestyle by exercising correctly and avoid eating unhealthy food. Policymakers need to understand the interrelations between these factors when designing their public awareness programs toward a more positive lifestyle.

The findings of this research concerning the association of happiness to health, mental health, sport and exercise, and eating healthy could encourage investing in related social policies to guarantee the cohesive interaction between related decision-making bodies to play their role in the well-being of people.

The lack of other studies focusing specifically on happiness and self-rated health analyzed here in the Abu Dhabi respondents constitutes a limitation of the discussion of the current study’s findings. This is especially true for self-rated health status. Some might argue that it might lack greater clarification, primarily used in parallel with physical activities and mental health factors. Nevertheless, the results point to the need to further explore the direction of relations between happiness and self-rated health. Expanding the path analysis model with relevant indicators could add information to policymakers to better understand the direction of associations between the relevant well-being factors.

The results addressed differences in happiness between the various categories of gender, age, marital status, education attainment, place of residence, and nationality (Emirati or non-Emirati). The current research did not address these facts, as more specific objectives were addressed by using path analysis. Future research could look at these differences with more methodological designs to better understand their various well-being determinants, including happiness. In addition, an expanded path model could be designed to consider all the different respondent categories.

Future research should focus on analyzing the differences when considering happiness, self-rated health, mental feelings, and supportive actions for the different categories of people living in Abu Dhabi. The categories could include gender, age, marital status, ethnicity, education attainment, living region, type of housing, income class, specific life habits, and other factors. As a result, future research could initiate such studies on older adults or younger school-aged children. Such in-depth studies might enhance and prolong the value of awareness campaigns associated with social policies. Moreover, the study used single-item indicators of happiness, self-rated health, mental feelings, and the habits of eating healthy and exercising. Future research could try multi-item scales to cover more profound perceptions and understandings. Finally, future research could refer to more longitudinal studies to detect developments or progress in the target population’s characteristics in Abu Dhabi. Such studies that extend beyond a single moment in time might reflect more accountability and meanings to social policy outcomes. It is also worth mentioning that the COVID-19 pandemic has played a significant role in the happiness and life satisfaction of Abu Dhabi residents (reference). We also recommend an extension (or trended) version of this research to elaborate on the significance of the COVID-19 pandemic regarding all eight well-being determinants used in this study.

6. Conclusions

Consistent with many other studies, the results suggest that multiple factors explain happiness. Through path analysis, this study demonstrates the relations between happiness, physical activities, eating healthy, and certain mental feelings. Several significant direct or indirect paths observed in other international studies were not observed in our path analysis. As a result, this research could partially support the findings observed elsewhere. Moreover, the resulting path model’s overall excellent fit may provide sound understandings leading to constructive policies. A better understanding of the associations presented in this study can help policymakers develop more effective health and social intervention programs for different segments of the community.

With recognized relationships between happiness, health, and physical activities, policymakers in the different social sectors are encouraged to envision and design more innovative physical activities and healthy eating behaviors to enhance happiness and health perception. In particular, in the education sector, students should be provided with various opportunities to become more active at schools and universities. Baselines should be established to monitor changes in physical activity patterns over time.

We should note that the current study is amongst the first to address happiness in a culture such as the UAE. According to several authors, happiness and quality of life are significantly culturally rooted (Ye et al., 2014). Nonetheless, this study contributes to the literature for the first empirical analysis of the relationship between happiness and self-rated health in Abu Dhabi. The study also provided significant insights into subjective mental health roles on happiness and self-rated health. In addition to practical implications, the present study also contributed to the existing literature, as it enhances our current understanding of the interlink between the various well-being constructs. The holistic path analysis of this study added to existing research by identifying a group of eight significant constructs.

The roles of other related factors, such as eating healthy and exercising, were also considered to be significant. Further research could address the influential roles of some categorical differences that might affect happiness and self-rated health, such as gender, age, marital status, and income. Such a review might focus on the results for issuing more effective social policies. Despite this reasonable attempt, relationships between happiness, physical activities, mental well-being, and self-perception of health in Abu Dhabi have remained largely unexplored. Moreover, the current research has limitations when it tested one single path model for the whole community in Abu Dhabi without further consideration of the specific categories or segments of the community. Therefore, future research should further explore such path models for each of the different categories of people in the community, which may differ by social status, education level, place of living, income, work, and housing type. In addition, and to support exceptional policies and strategies, more research on the association between physical activity and happiness and health should be conducted. In other words, promoting sports and well-being might require more rigorous efforts from social policymakers for long-term strategies. As a final remark, it is generally accepted that happiness is perceived differently in individualistic, secular countries (West) and collectivist ones with a significant influence of religion on people’s lives (East and Southeast Asia). Since the QoL survey could be analyzed according to this crucial factor, future research could investigate if cultural differences could influence happiness and its related determinants.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, M.A.B. and M.A. (Mugheer Alkhaili); methodology, M.A.B. and G.Y.; software, M.A.B. and A.A.; validation, M.A.B., H.A. (Hamad Aldhaheri) and M.A. (Mugheer Alkhaili) and G.Y.; formal analysis, M.A.B.; investigation, M.A.B.; data curation, A.A.; writing—original draft preparation, M.A.B.; writing—review and editing, M.A. (Mugheer Alkhaili), G.Y., M.A. (Muna Albahar), H.A. (Hamad Aldhaheri), visualization, A.A.; supervision, M.A. (Mugheer Alkhaili); project administration, G.Y., H.A. (Hamdan Alnahyan) and A.A. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

The study was conducted according to the guidelines of the Declaration of Helsinki and approved by Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development and Statistics Center Abu Dhabi, the code is OUT/061/2021.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

Conflicts of interest.

The authors declare that there has been no conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note: MDPI stays neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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