19 Cliché Quotes on Happiness and Do They Hold True?

Happiness Quotes
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You don’t have to look very far to find some of the many, many quotes on happiness that exist.

But do you ever wonder how these quotes hold up when you consider the evidence? There’s nothing wrong with getting a quick mood boost from a quote—no matter how “accurate” it is—but if you’re like this author you always have the urge to dig a little deeper and see whether these statements hold water.

In this piece, we’ll do just that! We’ll share 19 of the most popular—and sometimes cliché—quotes on happiness and do a little fact-checking to see if the literature supports their assertions.


 
There are few among us that haven’t found solace, encouragement, motivation, inspiration, or validation from a spot-on quote. Sometimes we find a good quote that seems to be exactly what we need in that specific moment, and it can help us to feel more in control, less confused, or even less alone. We’ll look at some of the most common happiness quotes and see how they stand up against empirical evidence.

As a reminder, it’s fine to love a quote and continue to draw strength from it even if it’s not 100% in line with current research findings; this exercise is meant to provide an opportunity to familiarize yourself with the literature on happiness and perhaps think a little more critically when you receive cliché or trite advice on how to be happy.

 

Quotes on Finding Happiness

“Happiness is a choice.”

 

“Happiness is not trying or finding, it’s deciding.”

What it means:

You have no doubt heard the first one before. It’s a favorite of frustrated parents and teachers, and it’s certainly popular with a subset of psychologists. Both of these quotes state that happiness is not something that simply falls into our laps or that graces only the luckiest among us; rather, we make a choice to be happy, and we continue to be happy for as long as we choose to be happy.

The evidence:

  • According to two studies conducted on the impacts of music and concerted effort to be happy on participants’ happiness, those who listened to more positive music and made the effort to feel happier were, in fact, happier at the end of the study (Ferguson & Sheldon, 2013).
  • However, there is evidence that people struggling with depression may be unable to make such a choice, as their brain is simply not capable of the same feats of happy thinking as that of people who are mentally healthy (Johnstone, van Reekum, Urry, Kalin, & Davidson, 2007).
  • Further, there is definitely a genetic component to happiness; we’re not exactly sure how much of one’s happiness is determined by their genes, but we know it’s greater than 0% (Nes & Røysamb, 2017).

 

The verdict: Yes and no

It seems that happiness is both a choice and not a choice; as happiness expert Shawn Achor says, “What I want people to realize is happiness can be a choice, and it’s something you can practice. But if you’re feeling unhappy, that’s not failure” (Woodward, 2017). Notice that he uses the word “can”, not “is” to describe whether happiness is a choice; he is saying that it is possible, in at least some situations, to choose the path of happiness.

Although we can make choices that are more likely to lead to happiness, and we have at least some amount of control over the happiness and positivity of our internal monologue, there are times or situations in which we simply cannot choose to be happy—and that’s okay. After all, what would happiness be without some unhappiness to make it all the sweeter?

 

A Quote on When Happiness is Really Happiness

“Happiness is only real when shared.”

What it means:

This quote states that happiness is only truly happiness when it is shared with others—that the idea of being happy by oneself is a paradox.

The evidence:

  • Sharing positive experiences is known to increase positive affect, happiness, and life satisfaction, above and beyond what experiencing them alone can give (Lambert, Gwinn, Baumeister, Strachman, Washburn, Gable, & Fincham, 2012).
  • When pleasing stimuli (like movies, food, vacations, etc.) are shared with others, there is an enhancing affect for each participant (Raghunathan & Corfman, 2006).
  • Happiness seems to spread like a virus; those who interact with happy people are likely to become happier in the near future, and this spread has been observed up to three degrees of separation (e.g., the friends of one’s friends’ friends; Fowler & Christakis, 2008).

 

The verdict: Mostly true

It might be my own personal bias, but it’s hard for me to rate this quote as completely true. In my own life, I have certainly felt happy while alone. True, most of my best experiences are either shared with others or quickly divulged to loved ones in order to enhance the good feelings—but that doesn’t mean that my happiness when alone is not real.

However, the research is clear: sharing our happiness with others is a surefire way to enhance it, spread it, and encourage more happiness in the future.

 

A Quote on What Happiness Actually Is

“Happiness is a state of mind.”

What it means:

This quote proposes that happiness is simply a state of mind—one that we can put on or take off like a hat—which means that we can control our levels of happiness by purposefully entering the happiness state of mind.

The evidence:

  • As noted earlier, we do have some control over our own happiness; simply trying to be happier really can work, at least in some circumstances (Ferguson & Sheldon, 2013).
  • At least some of our happiness is determined by our genetic makeup (Minkov & Bond, 2017).
  • In fact, a not-insignificant portion of one’s happiness comes from genetics; estimates vary (from around 30% of overall happiness up to around 80% of subjective well-being; Nes & Røysamb, 2017), but there is definitely a heritable aspect to happiness and well-being (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996).

 

The verdict: Half true

Although there is some truth to the idea that happiness is a state of mind, the inference that many make from this quote—that therefore we can induce happiness by simply moving into this state of mind—is not entirely accurate.

We can certainly take some action to enter a happiness-boosting state of mind, and we can make the effort to be happier, but it is not entirely our choice to be happy. Genetics, our upbringing, and our circumstances all play a role as well.

Dr. Roger Covin from Medium’s Thrive Global makes an excellent point that relates to this quote:

“We habituate to pleasure and positive emotional states… emotional states are not possible to chronically maintain over time. They wax and wane in response to life events” (2017).

In other words, we can encourage a happy mindset but it is not possible to stay in this mindset 100% of the time.

 

A Quote on Where Happiness Comes From

“Happiness comes from within.”

What it means:

This quote states that happiness does not come from external factors, like money, material objects, status, prestige, or perhaps even from our relationships, but from our own internal factors, like attitude, thought patterns, decision-making, and behavior.

The evidence:

  • As we noted earlier, happiness is heritable, so you could certainly say it comes from within rather than from external factors alone (Nes & Røysamb, 2017).
  • Studies have found that changes in attitude and actions are more impactful on one’s happiness than changes in one’s circumstances (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006).
  • Happy people also tend to be more extroverted and have stronger romantic and other social relationships (Diener & Seligman, 2002).

 

The verdict: Mostly true

Happiness certainly does come from within, and few would argue that luxury and extravagance provide happiness. Our happiness depends on several factors, but many of them are internal: our attitude, our genetic predisposition towards happiness, our own decisions about how we respond to our thoughts and feelings, and how we behave.

However, that’s not to say that external factors don’t matter at all. In fact, some researchers might say that pushing the “happiness comes from within” narrative blames the unhappy person for being unhappy and dismisses legitimate concerns about factors that contribute to unhappiness, such as economic trends or racism.

As author Bella DePaulo points out:

“If you want to look within for the source of your unhappiness, go for it. But don’t look just there. Don’t accept the blame for external conditions that you had no role in creating. And if you want to do something about the circumstances of your life and many other people’s, too, that’s what social change is made of” (2016).

 

A Quote on the Formula for Happiness

“Happiness is reality minus expectations.”

What it means:

This quote means that our happiness is a direct result of our expectations and our reality: if our expectations are high and our reality does not measure up, we will be unhappy, but if our expectations are low and our reality exceeds them, we will be happy. Essentially, it means that happiness is relative, not absolute.

The evidence:

  • Happiness seems to be about as high in low-income countries as it is in high-income countries, suggesting that its basis is more relative and subjective than objective (Easterlin, McVey, Switek, Sawangfa, & Zweig, 2010).
  • Further, happiness tends to increase in a country’s economic boom and decrease in a recession (Easterlin et al., 2010).
  • Research has shown that lottery winners are, on average, no happier than those who have not won the lottery, and that they are only marginally happier than victims of an accident that left them paralyzed (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978)!
  • Those who are optimistic (i.e., have high expectations about life) are more likely to be happy than those who are pessimistic (Conversano et al., 2010).

 

The verdict: Half true

Although the distance between our expectations and our reality certainly factors into our happiness, it’s clear that the relationship is not so cut and dry.

From research on differences in happiness across countries, we know that happiness is relative—it doesn’t really depend on objective factors like quality of life or income in the long term, but on the difference between one’s expectations and one’s reality. Further, we know that lottery winners and paraplegics don’t differ much in overall happiness, which suggests that happiness is not solely dependent on one’s reality.

However, happiness cannot be defined by such a simple formula; if the quote were true, then optimists would be far unhappier than pessimists in general, because they would more frequently find that their expectations exceeded their reality. This is not the case, indicating that high expectations alone do not guarantee unhappiness should one’s reality fail to meet those expectations; it’s how we react that really makes a difference.

 

A Quote on What Our Happiness Depends On

“Happiness depends upon ourselves.”

What it means:

This quote means that our happiness is dependent upon ourselves and our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, rather than the people or events around us.

The evidence:

  • As noted earlier, happy people tend to have good relationships; it’s not entirely clear which way the connection goes, but it’s likely that it works in both directions (i.e., happier people cause happier relationships, and happier relationships contribute to higher general happiness; Diener & Seligman, 2002).
  • As we also noted earlier, we know that the decisions we make and actions we take have a greater impact on our happiness than changes in our circumstances (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006).
  • Integrating more positive affect (good moods, positive experiences, and fun) into our lives can increase our happiness (Lyubomirsky, King, & Deiner, 2005).

 

The verdict: Yes, but with a caveat

True, our happiness does depend on ourselves and our actions. In fact, influential positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky estimates that around 40% of our happiness is due to the decisions we make (Garcia, 2017). That is a huge amount of leeway we have to influence our own happiness! We know that including more positive experiences and boosting our mood can increase our overall happiness, so it’s clear that at least some of our happiness depends upon ourselves.

However, we also know that external factors like relationships, income, and work contribute to our happiness. It would be disingenuous to say that our happiness depends only upon ourselves.

 

A Quote on What Accompanies Happiness

“Happiness never comes alone.”

What it means:

This quote can be interpreted many different ways, but here’s our take on it: happiness does not show up as our one and only emotion—it cannot exist without negative and neutral emotions like sadness, fear, anger, and pain.

The evidence:

  • The simple fact that we can have mixed emotions seems to reinforce the truth of this quote; we can all think of times we have felt both happy and sad, like when a child moves away to college or a beloved coworker and friend leaves to pursue a wonderful career opportunity.
  • There is empirical evidence for the possibility of happiness and sadness co-occurring (Larsen & Green, 2013).
  • There is no person on earth who has never felt sadness in their life!

 

The verdict: True

This is an easy one—it’s clear that happiness can coexist with other emotions, and that it will never be your sole emotion or your only state of mind. You may experience intense happiness, but that happiness is only meaningful because you have experienced sadness and a neutral state in between the two.

 

Quotes on The Key to Happiness

“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” — Socrates

 

“Happiness can exist only in acceptance.” – George Orwell

 

What it means:

These quotes posit that happiness can only be achieved when we have accepted ourselves and our reality, and learn how to appreciate our life as it is.

The evidence:

  • Self-acceptance is strongly related to life satisfaction and affect (i.e., mood; Ryff, 1989).
  • Unconditional self-acceptance is also positively correlated with state mood and negatively correlated to symptoms of anxiety (Chamberlain & Haaga, 2001).
  • As we saw earlier, happiness is more dependent on our reaction to reality (e.g., accepting it versus denying or fighting it) than the actual objective reality (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978).
  • Being grateful for what we have—even if it’s not as much as we want—makes us happier (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

 

The verdict: True

Although it’s not necessarily true that you cannot experience any happiness if you are not completely self-accepting, there is certainly truth to be found in this quote; the robust relationship between self-acceptance and acceptance is too strong to indicate otherwise.

When we learn to accept ourselves as we are and our reality as it is, we open ourselves up to much greater happiness. If you want to be happier, the science is clear: work on being authentic and loving yourself as you are!

 

Quotes on Seeking Happiness

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” – Albert Camus

 

“Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue.” – Dr. Viktor Frankl

What it means:

These quotes are based on the idea that a life of meaning is the way to a happy life, rather than the pursuit of happiness itself; they mean that happiness will not come to us if we chase it, but it is a positive byproduct of living a meaningful life.

The evidence:

  • Happiness and meaning in life overlap significantly (Kashdan, Biswas-Deiner, & King, 2008).
  • Those who seek happiness seem to have the most trouble actually gaining it (Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, & Savino, 2011).
  • Trying to be happier can actually make us happier, as we noted earlier, which suggests that happiness can be pursued—at least in the moment (Ferguson & Sheldon, 2013).
  • However, trying too hard can backfire; people who place too much emphasis on seeking positive emotion and avoiding negative emotion end up less happy (McGuirk, Kuppens, Kingston, & Bastian, 2018).

 

The verdict: Mostly true

Research shows that true happiness comes from pursuing more impactful and deeper things in life, like meaning. Simply trying to be happy does not really work in the long-term, although you might see short-term gains in happiness by just focusing your effort on being happier.

When we pursue a life of meaning, we may not experience greater positive affect and avoid negative affect as effectively, but we will improve our sense of purpose and overall well-being.

 

Quotes on Pursuing Happiness vs. Being Present with Happiness

“There is no path to happiness: happiness is the path.”

 

“Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you design for the present.” – Jim Rohn

What it means:

The first quote from Buddha and the second quote on finding happiness states that happiness is not something that should be an end-goal, but something that you can make, right in the here and now.

The evidence:

  • We know that pursuing happiness has mixed results, but that pursuing happiness simply for the sake of being happy is often an exercise in futility—or worse, an opening to depression and anxiety (McGuirk, Kuppens, Kingston, & Bastian, 2018).
  • Further, as we saw above, we know that happiness can be a byproduct of what we are already doing with our lives, especially if what we are doing brings us a sense of meaning.
  • Being mindful of and appreciating our present makes us happier in the moment and improves our overall well-being (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Hollis-Walker & Colosimo, 2010).

 

The verdict: True

Quotes Happiness
Photo by Natalya Zaritskaya from Unsplash

Happiness is certainly something that we can influence in the here and now; further, we know that happiness as an end-goal in and of itself is unlikely to boost our happiness in the long- or short-term. When we focus on being happy in the future, we tend to ruminate. When we focus on enjoying and appreciating what is happening in the here and now, we tend to be happier!
 

A Happy Life Quote

“A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.” – Seneca

 

What it means:

This quote from Seneca means that knowing oneself and staying true to one’s authentic self is the key to living a happy life.

The evidence:

  • One early study of authenticity and subjective well-being (aka, happiness) and psychological functioning reported that authenticity is significantly related to life satisfaction, self-esteem, and negative affect (inverse relationship; Goldman & Kernis, 2002).
  • A later study of authenticity and subjective well-being, psychological well-being, and self-esteem found that there is a strong correlation between authenticity and each of the three outcomes (Wood, Linley, Maltby, Baliousis, & Joseph, 2008).

 

The verdict: Totally true!

The lack of studies that test a link between authenticity and happiness and the plethora of studies that find the two are significantly correlated lead to only one conclusion: living a life that is authentically you is indeed an effective way to achieve happiness.

 

A Quote on Discipline and Happiness

“A disciplined mind brings happiness.” – Buddha

What it means:

This quote is pretty direct; it means that happiness results from having a mind that is disciplined and controlled—as much as one can control one’s own mind.

The evidence:

  • People who exhibit self-discipline in their lives enjoy greater well-being and happiness (Hofmann, Luhmann, Fisher, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2014).
  • Adolescents who are committed to their goals as they transition to adulthood report greater well-being and self-efficacy than those who do not strive toward their goals effectively (Messersmith & Schulenberg, 2015).

 

The verdict: True

Those who practice self-control and self-discipline are indeed more likely to feel happy, according to research. This is intuitive—when we have meaningful goals, make meaningful progress towards them, and eventually attain those meaningful goals, we can’t help but feel happy about our efforts and the outcomes!

 

A Quote on Success and Happiness

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success.” – Albert Schweitzer

What it means:

This quote states that experiencing success—whether in business, your relationships, or your personal goals—will not necessarily bring you happiness, but that happiness can help bring you success.

The evidence:

  • A study on happiness and career success found that the two are highly correlated, but that happiness often precedes objective measures of career success (Boehm & Lyubomirsky, 2008).
  • When the authors revisited their question a decade later, they found even further evidence that happiness and positive emotions in the workplace lead to greater success (Walsh, Boehm, & Lyubomirsky, 2018).
  • As noted earlier, people tend to adapt to changes in their lives, whether they are positive (like winning the lottery) or negative (like being involved in an accident that left them paralyzed), no matter how much they expect their lives to change (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978).

 

The verdict: True

The literature is quite clear in this case: success may or may not bring you happiness, but happiness is very likely to bring you success. If you believe that getting that one thing you’ve always wanted will make you happy—and that not getting that one thing will forever trap you in unhappiness—you might want to work on changing your mindset instead of striving toward that one, all-important desire.

 

A Quote on Happiness, Freedom, and Courage

“The secret to happiness is freedom… and the secret to freedom is courage.” – Thucydides

What it means:

The meaning to a scholar of philosophy may differ, but we here at PositivePsychology.com tend towards the more practical interpretation: that freedom contributes to happiness, and courage contributes to freedom.

The evidence:

  • There is indeed a link between freedom and happiness; according to data from the World Database of Happiness, countries with greater freedom in society are also generally higher in happiness (Rahman & Veenhoven, 2017).
  • However, freedom is certainly not the only important factor; another study found that freedom and happiness are correlated in rich nations, but not so much in poor nations (Veenhoven, 2000).
  • It certainly takes courage to lead a country towards greater freedom on a national level, and it takes courage to be free in your own life and in your own mind on an individual level.
  • However, having greater freedom and greater choice does not necessarily lead to greater happiness; in fact, in some cases, it can lead to greater dissatisfaction (Schwartz, Ward, Monterosso, Lyubomirsky, White, & Lehman, 2002)!

 

The verdict: Mostly true

Happiness Freedom
Photo by free-photos from Pixabay

We’re going with “mostly true” for this quote. It’s true that happiness is significantly related to happiness, and that countries where an objective measure of freedom is high also enjoy more happiness than countries with a lower level of freedom. It’s easy to see why this is true: when we are free to go where our heart leads us and pursue any of our goals, we are more likely to stumble upon happiness on the way.

However, the relationship is not as black and white as that; the relationship between happiness and freedom is not consistent across all situations, and we know that more options does not equal more happiness!

 

A Quote on Happiness and the Brain

“Happiness is just a positive perception from our brain. Some days, you will be unhappy. Our brain is a tool we use. It’s not who we are.” – James Altucher

What it means:

James Altucher is saying that happiness is not some unobtainable, all-important thing to be desired and pursued, but a temporary, positive signal from our brain. As such, we shouldn’t become too invested in controlling our emotions, which are fleeting by nature.

The evidence:

  • Happiness is certainly a perception in the brain—after all, where else would it come from? Happiness, depending on how you define it and how you limit it in time, is created by four primary chemicals: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins (Buckner, 2017).
  • Further, we know from neuroscience studies that the amygdala, hippocampus, and limbic system are involved in the perception of happiness (Dfarhud, Malmir, & Khanahmadi, 2014).
  • As noted earlier, everyone will feel a negative emotion at one point or another; it’s impossible to be happy all the time!

 

The verdict: True (with a caveat)

The first and second sentences are certainly true: happiness is an experience that comes from the brain, and we will certainly experience unhappiness at some point in our lives. We know from research on the brain that there are certain areas and chemicals that are hallmarks of happiness.

However, the final part of the quote dives into a discussion of philosophy rather than science. Are we our brains? Or do we use our brains? That’s a question that this author is not prepared to offer a scientific perspective on!

 

A Take-Home Message

My hope is that you walk away from this piece with a greater understanding of what happiness is, what happiness is NOT, and how it all works.

However, please keep in mind that this is only a brief look at the literature; to get a deeper understanding of each quote and the evidence behind it, I invite you to take a dive into the research! The intention of this piece is certainly to start a conversation, not to finish it.

If you do engage in any further research, I’d love to hear about it. Let us know what you find in the comments!

Thanks for reading, and happy hunting for findings on happiness!

 

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About the Author

Courtney Ackerman is a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University. She is currently working as a researcher for the State of California and her professional interests include survey research, well-being in the workplace, and compassion. When she’s not gleefully crafting survey reminders, she loves spending time with her dogs, visiting wine country, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book or video game.

Comments

  1. Fr. Singarayar Arockiam

    Dear Courtney Ackerman,I liked these quotes giving some light, though none of them can match a situation or condition perfectly in experiencing happiness. Happiness is such. All these quotes and a hundred-and-one other things as well. Example:You are researching on COMPASSION.Is this spiritual virtue, philosophical virtue, or just a human quality with no reference to any specific domain. Or, could being spiritual or practicing acts of spirituality with a specific religious orientation influence one’s happiness. It will, if he or she is a believer. It can’t, if he or she is not a believer. I am currently engaged in one such study with sample in India. I predict that happiness has much to do with the social environment in the presence of things such as forced discrimination on weaker individuals (e.g.caste system) that results in deprivation on all levels – physical, emotional, intellectual, environmental, spiritual.
    Hence, we can add many more quotes, with rich meanings, of course. But happiness eludes; can’t be captured within these ideas. Nonetheless,the above attempt is helpful for those who want to explore more and more.
    One last thing, though a lot more can be written: Genuine Spirituality (not sectarian religious practice) would play a greater role in enabling individuals and groups in their experience of happiness.

    Reply
  2. Peter Kouwenberg

    Great grand buffet. A find for the eclectic!

    Reply
  3. Debbie Walker

    Hello Courtney, thankyou thankyou thankyou, this was very enlightening for me. I recently ended a relationship that came with a man with depression. I couldn’t understand how he couldn’t wake up happy and smiling as I did every morning. Yes things happen each day that challenge us in our happiness but its the way we deal with these challenges that continue with our ongoing happiness towards life and what it brings. Now I do understand that with depression we may not be able to make this choice as we mentally may not be capable and therefore i as a person needed to understand this and show compassion. thankyou as i have now gained a better understanding towards what true happiness is and that everyone experiences this differently.

    Reply
  4. Millie

    Happiness comes from giving!

    Reply

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