One should be skeptical of anyone with a ready answer to a question like, "What's the secret to happiness?" Emotions -- and happiness in particular-- are very subjective. Cresting a hill on a rollercoaster is a happy occasion for some and a nightmare for others, for example. If happiness is subjective, how can we ever qualify it enough to understand what leads us to happiness? Most researchers have found that simply asking people what makes them happy works best.
By surveying everyday people and aggregating the data, members of fields as disparate as social psychology, epidemiology and economics have come up with what many see as a better understanding of what makes us happy. The secret of happiness, it would appear, isn't much of a secret anymore.
One of the early conclusions researchers in the field of happiness arrived at contradicted a longstanding assumption: that money translates to happiness. In the 1970s, economist George Easterlin found that while income in the United States grew following World War II, reported happiness in the country didn't keep pace. Easterlin found that this applied to other developed nations as well. Over time, the so-called Easterlin Paradox has been refined -- money does increase happiness to certain degrees -- but the data suggests that once basic necessities like food, shelter and health care are secured, income falls out of step with happiness.
Instead, researchers have found that humans experience happiness through involved relationships that bestow on us a sense of belonging, and activities and lifestyles that engage them. In fact, some psychologists are confident that what makes people happy can be narrowed down to three categories: genetics, choices and the circumstances of one's life [source: Rowe].
Most people studying happiness have concluded that genetic predisposition toward happiness -- called trait happiness -- accounts for a large portion of what makes humans happy. As much as 50 percent of why we're happy may be found in our genes [source: Barber]. The other half of human happiness is slightly more within our control. While about 10 percent are life circumstances like income and relationships, the remaining 40 percent consists of choices made by the individual [source: Rowe]. Making positive choices like returning a wallet found stuffed with cash to its rightful owner or remaining faithful to one's spouse are part of the secret to happiness, say some researchers.
Others put more emphasis on relationships. People who have close relationships with others tend to be happier. One study by found that the number of happy people in one's life could increase happiness in a person in a predictable manner. Each happy person in a person's life increased their chances of being happy by 9 percent [source: Christakis and Fowler].
A state known as flow is also thought to be a part of what makes us happy. This state, where one is fully engaged in an activity like work or a hobby, exists between being bored and being overwhelmed [source: Myers]. When in flow, a person's talents and interests are utilized and the task undertaken is generally met with success.
Science's investigation into what makes us happy is still a comparatively young field and it's still grappling with a chicken-or-the-egg question: Are the traits found in happy people the factors that make them happy or are they just characteristics of happy people? Research will have to determine the answer to that before it will be able to fully unlock the secret of happiness.