The Science Behind Happiness: Nine Ways To Boost Your Happiness

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated April 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Over the last 20 years, many have found that the science of happiness has emerged as a widely studied discipline with implications for everyday life. Some people say happiness is a choice, while others believe it's innate.

According to social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, the truth may fall somewhere in the middle—with 50% of happiness being determined by our genes, 10% by our circumstances, and 40% by our actions, attitude and responses to life's inevitable ups and downs.

Read on to learn more about the current scientific findings on happiness, as well as nine ways you can boost your own happiness that are backed by recent evidence.

Happiness defined: What is happiness, really?

Lyubomirsky defines happiness as “joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one's life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile”.

However, many researchers studying the topic have frequently swapped the word "happiness" with the term "subjective well-being," possibly inferring that two people experiencing identical circumstances may rate themselves at opposite ends of a happiness rating scale.

Additionally, some experts believe that individuals can have a happiness “set point,” which may be determined early in life and can be largely unaffected by life circumstances over the long term. This theory isn't conclusive, however—and some recent research suggests we may have more control over our happiness than some set-point theorists give us credit for.

This is a common belief that has been held by many for centuries. As the "Father of American Psychology," William James once said, "The greatest discovery… is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes...”.

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Learn how to facilitate happiness in your own life

Is there such a thing as a recipe for happiness?

So, is there any definitive act, item or experience that makes people truly happy? The answer to this can be complex. To begin, it can be helpful to acknowledge that research suggests that happy people have several things in common.

From prioritizing happiness to practicing mindfulness, gratitude and compassion, the way we live our daily lives can greatly impact the level of happiness we experience.

The following are nine habits of happy people that can elevate your level of happiness significantly:

1. Practice gratitude

Research shows that a regular practice of gratitude can help us appreciate the little things in life, shifting our thoughts from what we think is lacking to what's positive and abundant in our lives.

Keeping a gratitude journal may be an effective way to facilitate that shift. You don't necessarily have to jot down your appreciation on a daily basis, however. According to Berkeley University's Greater Good Science Center, writing in a gratitude journal just three times a week can be more effective in elevating happiness than jotting down our appreciation daily.
The following are several ways to increase the effectiveness of a gratitude practice:

  • Being specific when recalling a positive experience, person or event
  • Viewing your positive experiences as gifts rather than expectations
  • Noting surprises, such as an impromptu visit from a friend or a beautiful rainbow after a storm
  • Trying to avoid repetition, even when it takes effort 
  • Making gratitude a regular practice

2. Pay attention to the good, and avoiding rumination

Rather than fixating on a negative experience, such as getting an upsetting email or arguing with a friend, you might try zeroing in on the positive aspects of your day. We acknowledge that this can be easier said than done, however. Many experts believe that humans may prefer to focus on bad experiences and completely overlook positive ones. 

This phenomenon is generally known as negativity bias, and it has the power to diminish joy if left unacknowledged. Greater awareness in general may help to combat negativity bias. Additionally, making a conscious effort to hone in on positive experiences and emotions on a regular basis can be transformative—and can directly impact the formation of a happier you.

3. Be mindful

Research has shown that mindfulness can reduce stress and boost overall well-being. Being mindful generally entails an attitude of curiosity, non-judgment and awareness of what's happening in the present moment.

One strategy many might use as they learn to live in the present is by practicing mindfulness meditation, which you can do on your own or with a guided meditation app. 

4. Be more compassionate

It can be easy to rush through the day trying to complete your to-do list while meeting your basic needs. When you’re constantly on the go, however, it can be difficult to practice compassion for others and yourself.

Practicing compassion sometimes requires slowing down, which may seem challenging to people with perpetually hectic schedules. However, research shows that slowing down can enable you to get more done while opening space for contentment and increased compassion.

One way to practice compassion is with guided meditations specifically created for compassion or "lovingkindness." The University of California, Berkeley, offers a free online guided meditation that may be ideal for beginners or anyone looking to increase their level of compassion for themselves and others. 

The 32-minute session guides participants through a lovingkindness and compassion meditation, first asking them to focus on a loved one, then themselves—followed by a neutral person, an enemy, and finally all living beings. This type of meditation can reduce negativity while elevating one’s sense of kindness, compassion and well-being.

5. Revel in your happiness

It can be easy to settle into routines without questioning our level of happiness and contentment. However, doing this in excess may compromise our potential for joy.

Making an effort to acknowledge our routines and cultivate a more curious mindset may open up a world of new experiences that could lead to newfound happiness.

6. Form and maintain positive relationships

According to an ongoing Harvard study, your social circle could have a significant impact on your happiness level. Positive relationships can lead to better health and increased happiness. These relationships can be with friends, family, or people in your community.

The study has also found details that support the hypothesis that loneliness can be toxic, and isolation can lead to poor health, decreased brain functioning, and even earlier death.

7. Learn to forgive

If you tend to hold grudges, learning to forgive could boost your mood, along with your overall health. Studies show that people who have difficulty forgiving others may experience increased negativity, anger and sadness and feel less in control of their lives. Embracing forgiveness may counteract these negative effects on your mood and overall mental health.

Not sure where to start? You’re not alone. Online therapy can be a helpful place for many to practice mindful and authentic forgiveness. 

Learn how to facilitate happiness in your own life

8. Engage in physical activity

Did you know? Physical activity has been linked to an improvement in mood. Even a little bit of exercise can go a long way.

Recent research suggests that people who engage in 30 minutes or more of physical activity on most days report being 30% happier than people who exercise less.

9.Don't ignore your strengths

It can be easy to focus on our weaknesses and completely ignore our strengths. Nurturing our strengths, using them and reflecting on them can boost confidence and self-esteem and lead to increased happiness. Research shows that simply thinking about our strengths has the power to boost happiness and decrease depression.

Finding your happiness: How can online therapy help?

If you're experiencing negative emotions, or if you've tried the tips above and still don't experience happiness, you may benefit from talking to a licensed therapist. If you don’t like the idea of going to a therapy practice, you might try online therapy services. With BetterHelp, you can talk to a therapist from anywhere with an internet connection, and you can change therapists until you find the right fit for you. 

Is online therapy effective?

Several studies have shown that online therapy can be just as effective as in-person therapy. The American Psychological Association has identified several pieces of research to date that indicate that the modality can be effective across age groups and areas of need. Higher retention rates are also associated with the use of online therapy compared to other methods.


If you’re experiencing challenging emotions or if you simply have questions about how to boost happiness, you’re not alone. Thousands of people reach out to a therapist to discuss ways to address these questions. You can be matched with a therapist with experience helping people manage mental health concerns similar to yours, and you can talk to them on a schedule that works for you. Take the first step and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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