What are the ingredients for happiness?

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”: the phrase comes from the American Declaration of Independence, but it just may express the basic three aspirations of most if not all people on Earth.  In this edition of Learning Life’s Big Question Series, we offer four happiness scholars’ perspectives on that last aspiration, particularly how one might effectively pursue happiness, or what makes people happy.  

Thanks to Learning Life intern Samantha MacFarlane for interviewing the scholars and transcribing their interviews.  The following are edited versions of the scholars’ responses.  

Cognitive Scientist, Emiliana Simon-Thomas

In  my view, there are three main ingredients to happiness.  The first has to do with the ease with which a person experiences positive emotional states. Some of us come into the world very readily able to laugh, and to feel connected and trusting around other people. Some of us, due in part to early life experiences, have a great deal of trust in others, share long term meaningful bonds with others, and easily feel joy with others. This tendency to see the world through a positive social emotional lens is really important to happiness.

Second is a skill or facility at recovering from adversity or difficult life experiences.  We’re all bound to experience difficult times, but people who stew in negative thoughts and emotions for long periods – or have difficulty recovering from negative experiences struggle more.  They are less able to look back on a previous segment of time and say, “yes, I consider myself happy in general” because those enduring negative experiences focus their reflections and recollections in an unhappy way.

Third is a sense of meaning which is tied to something greater than the self. If a person’s meaning in life  is based on a hierarchical achievement model, that is, on personal status and power, it’s not very helpful to happiness. But if meaning is based on contributing to the well-being of humanity or knowing that you’re playing an important role in your community, that sense of investment in humanity or something greater than yourself seems to really matter for happiness.

For everyone, spending more time thinking about or reflecting upon that which is good in your life, right now, and the people who are involved in that goodness is a very easy little exercise that can boost that first quality of happiness. You might think of a gratitude journal or a count-your-blessings exercise.  It’s not rocket science, it’s just practice.

Economist, Andrew J. Oswald 

We [Oswald and his research partners] feel that people are the best judges of their own happiness, so to learn about happiness, we survey large random samples of people, and ask them questions like “overall, how happy do you feel?” giving them a ten-point scale which which to answer the question.  We also ask many questions about their lives to see what happy people have in common.
Overall, based on our research on what happy people have in common, here is what I would recommend to be happy, or happier: Stay employed.  Find the right person with whom to live.  Cultivate a friendship circle.  Educate yourself.  Eat seven portions of fruit and vegetables a day.  Try not to compare yourself endlessly with others.  Don’t be materialistic.  Don’t expect children to make you happier.  And finally just wait: you will be happiest around the age of 70 as long as you stay in good health.

Philosopher, Dan Haybron

Generally, what you own and the big events that happen tend not to be that important because people adapt pretty quickly. For example, you might get a nice car, but you don’t sit around thinking about your car for very long. You get used to it pretty quickly.

There are five main components of happiness that stand out in philosophical tradition and in the sciences: security, outlook, autonomy, relationships, and skilled, meaningful activity. The most fundamental thing is a sense of security. It’s not just material stuff; there’s also social security — feeling secure in social networks and relationships — and time security, which we tend to overlook, meaning the feeling that you have enough time to do all the things you need to do.

After security, outlook is the next big thing. Outlook is a broad label for how you think, what you value, your mindset and how you approach the world. Caring about things outside of your self and about other people is really important, as is having a reasonably positive outlook and sense of gratitude. Americans do pretty well here as we tend to be pretty optimistic and that’s helpful.

Third, autonomy or control is being able to make your own decisions in life and not being under someone else’s thumb, a problem that young people are familiar with. A lot of old people also struggle with this. It’s not just an American-European individualistic thing either. You can find some version of this all over the world.

Fourth, we are thoroughly social animals, so we need other people.   Crucial are people we can count on, people to talk to when we need it as well as spending time with people that we enjoy.

Fifth, skilled and meaningful activity, comes out most clearly in work, or how you spend your day. If you do something that you’re good at, which involves some skill, and you feel that it’s worthwhile, then it’s a meaningful experience for you and you can be really engaged in what you’re doing.

Theologian, Ellen T. Charry 

For me, happiness is a flourishing life for which you need an intentional life. You need to think about, focus on, and guide your life. It’s not just about money or status, but also about the moral qualities of life. Moral flourishing involves organizing yourself around certain principles of how you want to live a life that is satisfying and productive, not only for yourself but for the whole community. Your own enjoyment and confidence in your life is tied up with the well-being of the society to which you contribute.

When thinking about contributing to the flourishing of someone else, such as your family or local community, think about how that enhances your own well-being and how those things are connected. One example I give in my book, God and the Art of Happinessis the story of my daughter who was driving home from work one day and saw a dog wandering in the street, lost. She called her husband to ask what she should do, and he suggested calling animal control. However, she decided against that and did what she thought she should do: take the dog home. She stopped the car, got out, and tried to help the dog find its way. Eventually the dog recognized where it was, and took my daughter right to the house where he lived. She knocked on the door and the family opened it, overjoyed to find their dog. She helped the family find its dog and the dog finds its family, despite her husband’s advice. So what did she learn from that? She learned to trust her own thinking and became stronger as a result, stronger in her own beauty as a human being and in her own confidence to do something well. She was helping other people, but she was building up herself, enhancing her own confidence, goodness, and beauty, and that’s where happiness comes from.

In finding these guiding principles, I think it’s helpful to have texts.  It’s important for people to receive the wisdom of the ages, through sacred scripture or important written documents that we can use to think about and guide our lives now.  Religious people do that by focusing on God but nonreligious people can organize similarly around another set of high-minded principles. What connects both is that these principles are bigger than our own individual well-being. They contribute to the world so that we see ourselves as part of a larger whole. From these principles we can craft what I would call a flourishing life.



Dr. Ellen T. CharryEllen T. Charry is the Margaret W. Harmon Professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in religion from Temple University following her MSW from Yeshiva University and B.A. from Barnard College.

Her research and scholarship focus on two themes: (1) how religious commitments or theological convictions contribute to human flourishing, and (2) interfaith understanding particularly between Judaism and Christianity.

She was a member of the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in 1998–2010 and a member of the Pursuit of Happiness Project at the Center for Law and Religion at Emory University sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation (2007–2010).  She is currently a participant in the Theology of Joy Project at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation.

Dan HaybronDan Haybron is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Saint Louis University.  He earned a B.A. in philosophy from Wesleyan University, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Rutgers University.  Prof. Haybron works in ethics, moral psychology, and political philosophy, with particular interest in the connection between human nature and the good life.  His research focuses mainly on the psychology of well-being and its connections with issues in ethical and political thought, as well as empirical research on well-being. In 2015 he was awarded a $5.1 million grant for a three-year project, Happiness and Well-Being: Integrating Research Across the Disciplines, funded by the John Templeton Foundation and Saint Louis University.


Andrew OswaldAndrew Oswald is a Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick, England.  He holds a B.A. from the University of Stirling, a Master of Science from the University of Strathclyde, and his Ph.D. from Oxford, all in economics.  His widely cited research lies mainly at the border between economics and behavioral science, and has addressed trade unions, labor contracts, wages, entrepreneurship, home ownership and unemployment, the consequences of high oil prices, and the economics of happiness and mental health.  Dr. Oswald is credited with helping to create the field now known as the economics of happiness.  He serves on the board of reviewing editors of the journal, Science.  He has previously taught at Oxford University and the London School of Economics, with spells at Princeton, Dartmouth, Harvard, Cornell, and the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany.


Emiliana Simon-Thomas

Emiliana Simon-Thomas is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center, where she oversees the GGSC’s fellowship program, is a co-instructor of its Science of Happiness online course, and helps run its Expanding Gratitude Project.

Dr. Simon-Thomas is a leading expert on the neuroscience and psychology of compassion, kindness, gratitude, and other “pro-social” skills.  She earned her doctorate in Cognition Brain and Behavior at UC Berkeley, where her dissertation used behavioral and neuroscience methods to examined how negative states like fear and aversion influence thinking and decision-making.  During her postdoc, Dr. Simon-Thomas transitioned to studying pro-social states like love of humanity, compassion, and awe.  From there, she served as Associate Director/Senior Scientist at CCARE (the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University), focusing on how compassion benefits health, well-being, and psychosocial functioning.
Today, Dr. Simon-Thomas’ work spotlights the science that connects health and happiness to social affiliation, caregiving, and collaborative relationships, as she continues to examine the potential for – as well as the benefits of – living a more meaningful life.