How to Be Happy, Part II: What is Happiness?

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By Mike DuBose with Blake DuBose and Debra DuBose

Eight years ago, I realized that there was something missing from my life. As I mentioned in the first installment of this series, although I had achieved business success and acquired material possessions beyond my wildest dreams, I didn’t truly feel content. I thought I was happy, but deep down I wasn’t. I began to search for an understanding of what it means to be happy, and ever since, I have been working toward becoming a joyous person.

Researchers strongly agree that we can create happier lives by better understanding ourselves: our strengths, opportunities for improvement, positive behaviors, challenges, family histories, genetics, and motivations. First, however, it helps to define what“happiness” really means. This was the first step I took in my journey, and it is not an easy task! As a report notes, “Defining happiness can seem as elusive as achieving it.” However, before setting off on any trip (including the path of happiness), it’s important to know your end goal. As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might not get there!”

Webster’s Dictionary defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment.” How that blessed state manifests itself and what causes it will differ from person to person. Pause for a moment and think about what makes you happy, including both brief moments and longtime habits. Then, think about the things in your life (or your past) that cause you stress, regrets, unhappiness, and dissatisfaction. These are barriers to happiness that you will want to change (I will explain how I got rid of all my personal baggage and demons in a later segment.) For now, just start a list of what makes you happy (and unhappy) as you move toward your personal happiness ideal.

Although there are as many variations of happiness as there are people, there are also overarching themes that present themselves through scientific, religious, and psychological texts. These may help guide you toward your own personal definition of happiness.

Psychological viewpoints: One of the best definitions comes from Ed Diener, author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Diener defines happiness as “the ‘subjective well-being’ that results from having many more positive emotions than negative ones.” Positive psychology researcher and author Sonja Lyubomirsky offers a similar definition, calling happiness “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

Although it’s been much discussed and long sought, there is no one “tried and true” path to happiness, according to Psychology Today; rather, there are many components and variables that combine to make people happy (or unhappy). Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, proposes that there are three parts to happiness: pleasure, meaning, and engagement. Pleasure encompasses the positive feelings that come with happiness. Engagement is living a good life and enjoying one’s work, family relationships, friendships, and hobbies. Meaning (having a purpose in one’s life), Seligman says, is the most important factor in finding happiness.

Religious viewpoints: While we do not profess to be religious scholars, our research into various world religions shows that they too have sought to explain the roots of happiness. Many important holy books and teachings weigh in on the causes of joy and what humans can do to achieve it.

The Christian Bible alone mentions “happiness” and “joy” over 300 times! Its New Testament ranks love as the most important, followed by the other Fruits of the Spirit (joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control).Christians believe that many of components of happiness can be found in the Bible and in their relationship with God. Christians also believe that charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, and self-control are the outcomes of happiness, and perfect joy exists in the eternal afterlife. According to St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, “man’s last end is happiness.”

In Judaism, happiness means living a healthy and holy life. The Torah (a collection of Jewish holy teachings) contains parables indicating that people are meant to serve God with “happiness and a glad heart.” The Talmud, the central text in Rabbinic Judaism, draws a distinction between imagined happiness, which is concerned with the temporal, and true happiness, which originates from observation of the Torah commandments. Like other religions, Judaism emphasizes being content with one’s life and possessions rather than desiring things one does not have.

Buddhist texts say that happiness is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. Tibetan Buddhism prescribes a combination of “mindful awareness” and “loving compassion” as the keys to happiness, according to Carolyn Gregoire in a June 2014 Huffington Post article. Like Christians and Jews, Buddhists are also urged to actively pursue happiness. In fact, the current Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual leader for Tibetan Buddhists, has said, ““Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”

According to the Muslim scholar Bukhari, “True enrichment does not come through possessing a lot of wealth, but true enrichment is the enrichment of the soul.” Like people of other faiths, Muslims are urged to do what is right, give generously to those in need, and strive to please God (Allah)—in fact, according to scholar and instructor Ustadha Bint Ahmad, the Quran says that “the greatest bliss is the Good Pleasure of Allah. That is the supreme success.” The Alchemy of Happiness, by Sunni philosopher Al-Ghazali, is another spiritual handbook still used today throughout the Muslim world.

“Ananda” is a Hindu term that means “bliss.” Throughout the centuries, Hindu scholars have had different opinions of what ananda is and how to reach it; the 19th century monk Swami Vivekananda attributes this to differences in people. Since every person is different, he theorized, each one chooses the most appropriate path to happiness for him or herself. Most texts recommend performing the series of stretches known as yoga to calm the mind and body and move toward ananda. In fact, the author of the yoga sutras, Hindu thinker Patanjali, wrote extensively on the benefits of happiness.

Although people of dissimilar faiths have different beliefs and worship in their own unique ways, there are many underlying themes regarding happiness that extend throughout most religions. Followers generally feel a sense of community and support, which Gregoire notes is important to an individual’s happiness. Also, most religions (particularly Buddhism), emphasize compassion and kindness toward others as a path to one’s own joy. Many religions also recommend a focus on spiritual and emotional pleasures over material ones.

Philosophy and happiness: Philosophers, too, have expressed opinions on what constitutes happiness. Aristotle, who studied under Plato, felt that a person was responsible for his or her own happiness. He dedicated a great deal of time to writing about how to be happy. One of his most famous works, Nicomachean Ethics, suggests that happiness is a long-range goal that can be achieved through a life filled with good values geared toward reaching our full potential, rather than just the short-term moments. In fact, he stated that people would not achieve true joy simply by enjoying the pleasures of the moment. Aristotle felt that happiness came about through a combination of intellectual curiosity, having small groups of like-minded friends, making good choices, awareness of the future, and a balance of good health, wealth, passion, and knowledge. He suggested that individuals who lack passion will have short, dull lives.

Contemporary opinions: Today’s scholars have also weighed in on the meaning of joy. In 2013, former ABC news anchor Katie Couric convened a panel of experts from Stanford University to discuss the question “What is happiness?” The professors’ findings included:

  • Having fun and knowing what fun is to you
  • Pursuing a higher purpose
  • Doing things you feel good about and are interested in
  • Taking care of other people
  • Giving to others
  • Being with people and spending quality time with loved ones
  • Loving and believing that you are loved
  • Finding meaning in what you do
  • Identifying and progressing toward life goals
  • Joining your thoughts, words, and actions in harmony

The benefits of happiness: Although a one-size-fits-all definition of happiness is elusive, the state of being happy provides proven benefits. Work byUniversity of California-Berkeley researchers, along with that of other scientists, strongly suggests that being happy can improve emotional health, relationships, and physical well-being:

  • Better heart health. In a study that followed more than 6,000 men and women over 20 years, Harvard School of Public Health researchers found that emotional vitality—defined as “a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance”—was linked to reduced risk of coronary heart disease.
  • Longer lifespans. Over the course of a five-year British study of older people (ages 52 to 79), those who identified as happy were 35% less likely to die than participants who were unhappy or in the middle. Other research indicates that happy people may live up to 18 years longer than those who are unhappy.
  • Positive relationships. People are attracted to positive and healthy-thinking individuals, so happy persons are more likely to have strong marriages and rewarding friendships.
  • Stronger ability to cope with stress, anxiety, and trauma. While we all will face tribulations in our lives and no one is happy all the time, positive people know that the storm will pass and that light will return after a dark situation. They are more resilient when faced with life’s problems.
  • Greater creativity and increased awareness of the “big picture.” When researchers in a University of Toronto study induced happy, sad, and neutral emotions in study participants, the happy group was most likely to solve a puzzle requiring creative thought. These results “suggest that an upbeat mood makes people more receptive to information of all kinds,” according to a Scientific American article by JR Minkel.
  • Business success: Research performed by Shawn Achor, a Harvard researcher and author of two books on happiness, shows that professionals who are happy experience greater success in the business world. Instead of thinking that you’ll be better off when you advance in the workplace hierarchy, be positive in the first place and you’re much more likely to get a promotion. As Achor wrote in a 2013 Psychology Today article, “Every single relationship, business, and educational outcome improves when the brain is positive first.”

How happy are you? Even though there are many benefits to being happy, some people continue living in a state of misery. There are those who actively choose that path, but many are simply unaware that they’re not truly happy.

After extensively researching happiness in the available literature, we worked with Felix Blumhardt, Ph.D. of The Evaluation Group (which is a member of the DuBose Family of Companies) to construct a simple test that may give you a broad indication of your happiness levels. This quiz is designed to be taken with the last three years of your life in mind. You may have experienced some difficult times in the past or even recently, but try to consider each question in the context of your feelings on an average day in the past 36 months. (We recommend against taking the test on Monday, since this is the least happy day of the week for most humans!)

Answer each of the questions below on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1=Rarely, 2=Occasionally, 3=Roughly half the time, and 4=Most of the time. (Please note: these questions are not weighted, and no one question is given more importance than any other.)

  1. I feel happy and fortunate.
  2. I am excited about most of the things that I do.
  3. I smile frequently.
  4. I feel a connection to something greater than myself (i.e., spiritual beliefs, a desire to help mankind, etc.).
  5. I understand my purpose in life and have a plan for how to achieve it.
  6. I am grateful for the things I have, and I don’t worry about what I don’t have.
  7. I build relationships with people who are positive and happy, rather than negative individuals.
  8. I have strong connections to my friends, partner, and/or spouse.
  9. I enjoy helping others and making other people happy.
  10. I generally see the good in people.
  11. I regularly do things that are fun for me.
  12. I plan several activities annually that I can look forward to doing.
  13. I enjoy a balance between my work and personal lives.
  14. When I experience mistakes, failures, disappointments, and misfortunes, I learn from them and then move on—I don’t let it keep me down.
  15. When I have a problem or need help, I am receptive to assistance and advice from others.
  16. I face situations I can’t change with acceptance and positivity.
  17. I realize that not everyone thinks or feels the way I do, and I am open to compromise.
  18. I don’t hold onto resentment or grudges.
  19. I accept responsibility for my problems rather than blaming them on others.
  20. Most of my thoughts are positive.
  21. I have identified things that cause unnecessary stress in my life, and I am working toward reducing or eliminating them.
  22. I know that I can’t please everyone, and I don’t stress myself out by trying.
  23. I spend quality time with those who care about me.
  24. I feel loved.
  25. I love the person that I am.

Generally, folks who score 80-100 are very happy people. Individuals with scores of 60-79 are fairly happy, and those with scores of 40-59 are occasionally happy (they can sometimes “see the light,” but it’s inconsistent). If you score below 40, you are probably not a very joyous person.

In July 2014, my wife Debra and I took the test, and we both scored pretty high. We are very happy as individuals and as a couple, but we know we are far from perfect and there have been many tragedies, mistakes, failures, and bumps along the journey of our lives. In 2006, for example, our scores were much lower! Clearly, our work together toward achieving happiness is paying many positive dividends. Of course, some days are harder than others, but it’s best to focus on our general feelings overall.

If you took the quiz, examine the questions on which you scored lowest. You may want to seek ways to improve your outlook on these facets of life. It’s never too late—at age 64, I began my happiness journey eight years ago, and I’m still working at it! We should all work to improve ourselves, taking “baby steps” as Harvard Medical School professor and psychiatrist Dr. Alexander Vuckovic suggests.

For additional insight, you may also want to take some of the science-based happiness assessments listed below:

  • The Satisfaction with Life Scale (by Diener, Emmons, Larsen, and Griffin)
  • The Scale of Positive and Negative Experience (by Diener and Biswas-Diener)
  • The Flourishing Scale (by Diener, Wirtz, Tov, Kim-Prieto, Choi, Oishi, and Biswas-Diener)
  • The Subjective Happiness Scale (by Lyubomirsky)
  • The Positivity Self Test (by Fredrickson)

The first three, which were created by Dr. Ed Diener and his research partners, may be found at The Subjective Happiness Scale can be viewed at, and the Positivity Self Test is located at

The bottom line: Happiness can be affected by forces outside of our control, like genetics and circumstances. However, the greatest factor in whether or not we’re happy is directly related to our own attitudes, habits, viewpoints, and beliefs. If we’re willing to try, we all have the choice to take our happiness to a higher level. It requires work and dedication to create positive habits, but it reaps great benefits! Learn more about the habits of happy people in the next installment of this series.

About the Authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, experience, success, research, and mistakes.

Mike DuBose, a USC graduate, is a former licensed counselor and author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of four debt-free corporations, including Columbia Conference Center, Research Associates, and The Evaluation Group. Visit his nonprofit website for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, and personal articles.

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group. View our published articles at

Debra DuBose has been married to Mike for 42 years and co-writes articles with him. She holds college and graduate degrees from Winthrop University and Francis Marion University. She is a former elementary and middle school teacher.

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

© Copyright 2014 by Mike DuBose—All Rights Reserved. You have permission and we encourage you to forward the full article to friends or colleagues and/or distribute it as part of personal or professional use, providing that the authors are credited. However, no part of this article may be altered or published in any other manner without the written consent of the authors. If you would like written approval to post this information on an appropriate website or to publish this information, please contact Katie Beck at and briefly explain how the article will be used and we will respond promptly. Thank you for honoring our hard work!