We are bombarded almost daily by social media and emails telling us how to be happy.
Much of the advice is contradictory and seldom based on scientific study. It can leave us baffled, doubting whether there is any substance to what we know about living a satisfying life.
And yet that’s not the case. Happiness is well researched, with a vast amount of scientific data going back almost 100 years.
There is much to learn. Even happiness experts recognize that “the good life is a complicated life. For everybody” (Waldinger & Schulz, 2023, p. 2).
In this article, we uncover what science tells us are the predictors of happiness, wellbeing, and life satisfaction.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients build healthy, life-enriching relationships.
This Article Contains:
What Are the Predictors of Happiness?
There is an enormous amount of literature on subjective wellbeing — or happiness. In fact, the longest-running study began as far back as 1938 (Waldinger & Schulz, 2023).
Surprisingly, several generations later, the Harvard Study of Adult Development is still going strong today, with the Harvard Gazette describing it as follows (Mineo, 2017, para. 6):
“Over the years, researchers have studied the participants’ health trajectories and their broader lives, including their triumphs and failures in careers and marriage, and the findings have produced startling lessons, and not only for the researchers.”
This is only one of many studies “The empirical science of subjective wellbeing, popularly referred to as happiness or satisfaction, has grown enormously in the past decade” (Diener et al., 2018, p. 253).
It’s good news for therapists, professionals, and academics because this wealth of data offers incredible insights into how to lead healthy and happy lives (Diener et al., 2018).
Finding the predictors of happiness
Rather than let their own beliefs bias what makes a happy, good, or satisfying life, researchers “rely on the judgments respondents themselves provide, based on whatever criteria research participants deem to be most important” (Diener et al., 2018, p. 253).
The following predictors, therefore, are never right or wrong; instead, they are based on personal judgments of what makes life satisfying, pleasant, and happy. Self-reporting favors individual evaluations and experiences, emphasizing the subjective nature of happiness (Diener et al., 2018).
Based on a recent review of several key studies and more than eight decades of findings from the Harvard research study, the following list captures many of the key predictors of happiness (Diener et al., 2018).
Financial stability helps fulfill our basic needs, giving us regular access to food and shelter, and our psychological needs, such as having autonomy (or control) over what we can or must do. Income only predicts happiness up to a point. Once needs have been met, more money does not mean more happiness (Diener et al., 2018).
People are typically most content one year before and immediately after marriage but then revert to previous levels a couple of years later before dipping further as middle age approaches (Grover & Helliwell, 2017).
- Having children
The data suggests that having children is not associated with increased subjective wellbeing. As every parent knows, other factors may serve as detractors from happiness, including impact on finances, sleep disturbances, and decreasing marital quality (Diener et al., 2018).
- Community and societal factors
Nations differ considerably in terms of their citizens’ degree of life satisfaction, most likely negatively impacted by economic factors, perceived inequality, political issues, and potential corruption. On the other hand, access to green space and appropriate controls over air pollution can enhance subjective wellbeing (Diener et al., 2018).
- Happiness interventions
While we may feel we have only a degree of control over some of the factors above, research suggests that we can learn to be happy using specific strategies. Positive psychology’s Martin Seligman (2011) recognized that life satisfaction, happiness, and flourishing can be built and maintained using techniques such as practicing mindfulness, gratitude, and performing acts of kindness (Robson, 2022).
Research suggests that approximately 30% of our happiness is the product of our genetics (Røysamb et al., 2018). While we may have a starting point for how happy we feel, we still have 70% to figure out and nudge in the direction we want based on our environment and what we do with our lives (Robson, 2022).
The results of the extensive and ongoing research suggest that the factors above meet our basic and psychological needs and align with current thinking on evolutionary and organismic theories: the unified and organized nature of our inner experience (Diener et al., 2018).
What Is the Number One Predictor of Happiness?
The Harvard study, having spanned over 80 years and multiple generations, clearly recognizes good relationships as the most significant predictor of overall happiness, life satisfaction, and wellbeing (Waldinger & Schulz, 2023).
“Good relationships keep us happier, healthier, and help us live longer,” say Waldinger and Schulz (2023, p. 278).
We found some valuable data from healthcare.
Patients who reported strong social connections were happier and healthier than those who didn’t. Along with greater emotional support, they were found to be better at coping with stress and adversity and had increased belonging and purpose, lower blood pressure, and improved brain function (Waldinger & Schulz, 2023).
Satisfying relationships also offer long-term health protection, with individuals less likely to experience a mental decline in their 80s (Waldinger & Schulz, 2023).
Whether or not we are naturally good at building and maintaining relationships, we can learn to improve our social skills and reap the benefits. Simple changes to how we connect with others and the strength of bonds we form can profoundly impact our happiness and life satisfaction (Mineo, 2017).
4 Predictors of a Happy Marriage
“For many years, marriage has served as one of the most meaningful components in individuals’ lives and marital satisfaction has been a strong predictor of life satisfaction” (Sigala, 2019, p. 3).
What do we know of the mechanisms that foster happy marriages?
Research suggests that the likelihood of having a happy marriage can be predicted based on several factors, including the following.
Research suggests gratitude is a vital component of marital bliss. While the same study recognized mindfulness as a contributing factor, an optimal relationship was more strongly linked to how much partners appreciated the role others played in their wellbeing and their motivation to make others happy (Sigala, 2019).
Eyring et al. (2020) identified that along with gratitude, forgiveness also plays a vital role in both sexual and relational satisfaction. The authors suggest that targeting forgiveness skills in relationships could be valuable in creating and maintaining a happy marriage.
- Personality traits
The Big Five personality traits influence how we react and respond to life events and the behaviors of others. When 125 heterosexual couples in long-term relationships were studied, marital satisfaction was predicted by increased extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and reduced neuroticism (Claxton et al., 2012).
Freely giving to one another in a relationship, engaging in small acts of kindness, and being generous with affection and respect are all associated with a solid and satisfying relationship (Wilcox & Dew, 2013).
Happiness vs. Life Satisfaction
In everyday speech, we often use “life satisfaction” and “happiness” interchangeably.
However, “most research views life satisfaction as more complex than happiness” (Badri et al., 2022, p. 1).
Life satisfaction refers to how we evaluate our whole lives, rather than the shorter periods we refer to in everyday speech as happiness or subjective wellbeing, a term often used by psychologists (Diener et al., 2018).
The American Psychological Association makes the following distinction:
- Life satisfaction is “the extent to which a person finds life rich, meaningful, full, or of high quality. […] Improved life satisfaction is often a goal of treatment, especially with older people” (American Psychological Association, n.d.a).
- Happiness is “an emotion of joy, gladness, satisfaction, and wellbeing” (American Psychological Association, n.d.b).
However, readers should take care; even academic literature often uses both terms interchangeably without regard to the duration of the feelings or emotions.
Research in Subjective Wellbeing
According to Ed Diener et al. (2018, p. 253), “the global term ‘happiness’ is used colloquially but is often not the scientific term of choice.” It is more commonly referred to as subjective wellbeing.
Subjective wellbeing (SWB) involves how we appraise and evaluate our lives by assessing pleasant versus unpleasant emotions. It typically comprises comparing where we believe we are now and our perceived standards for the “good life” (Diener et al., 2018).
Researchers, perhaps surprisingly, find only slight differences in life satisfaction between residents of wealthy nations versus the poorest. Further analysis suggests that it is more critical whether individuals feel they can live their lives close to their ideal (Diener et al., 2018).
However, the factors involved in increased SWB vary between cultures. For example, strong religious beliefs are associated with happiness only in religious countries. At the same time, self-esteem is an effective predictor of life satisfaction in the United States, but this is not true for women in India (Diener et al., 2018).
While people in Great Britain, Brazil, and Australia are most unhappy in their 40s (before increasing in later years), the subjective wellbeing of those in Russia and Croatia continues to drop into their 70s (Diener et al., 2018).
Some researchers argue that the satisfaction of basic psychological needs, including relatedness, autonomy, and competence (in line with the self-determination theory; Ryan & Deci, 2018) is universal in predicting SWB (Diener et al., 2018).
One crucial factor to consider is that the meanings of happiness and SWB also vary across countries. As a result, research may not be measuring like for like across the globe (Diener et al., 2018).
4 TED Talks About Happiness and Wellbeing
There are valuable online videos for digging deeper into happiness theory and its practical applications.
What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness
Robert Waldinger explores the findings from the multigenerational Harvard Study of Adult Development and digs deep into the importance of relationships.
He combines long-held wisdom with science-led findings to offer valuable insights into how to build a happy, fulfilling life.
The happy secret to better work
A large percentage of our day is spent working. By implementing possible changes to our environment and how we approach our tasks, we can make our time in the workplace more enjoyable.
Listen to Shawn Achor’s humorous insights to understand how happiness can inspire us to be more productive.
Flow, the secret to happiness
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the most important individuals in the field of positive psychology.
In this fascinating talk, he addresses the question, “What makes a life worth living?” and explores how creating more flow in our lives can boost pleasure and increase lasting satisfaction.
The new era of positive psychology
Martin Seligman, widely considered the founder of positive psychology, offers a powerful and valuable TED Talk to inspire us to move away from fixing what’s wrong in our lives to a focus on “flourishing.”
This is a hugely important talk for anyone interested in how a change in approach and mindset has transformed psychology from focusing on mental illness to the “good life.”
Best Resources From PositivePsychology.com
We have many resources available for therapists and counselors working with clients to understand and increase their happiness and life satisfaction.
As we’ve already seen, strong, healthy relationships are key predictors of happiness. Why not download our free positive relationships pack and try out the powerful tools contained within? Some examples include:
- Connecting With Others by Self-Disclosure
Building deep connections often involves openness about our feelings, emotions, and needs. In this exercise, we learn the importance and practice of being vulnerable as we build lasting relationships.
- The Sound Relationship House Inspection
Relationships rely on trust, friendship, and commitment. This exercise offers a practical approach for therapists helping clients break down barriers to create healthy, satisfying, and enduring bonds.
Our free resources include:
- Basic Needs Satisfaction in General Scale
Consider these 21 questions to understand whether your client’s basic needs are being met.
- Workplace Mindfulness
Use these questions to introduce mindfulness into your working life, improving positive emotions and increasing subjective wellbeing.
- Relationship Authenticity Checklist
Ask your client to reflect on this checklist to understand whether they are being treated and treating others authentically.
More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:
- The Metaphor of David
Over time, we can lose our capacity for authenticity, impacting our wellbeing.
This powerful metaphor highlights the potential of positive psychology to increase authenticity through the following two steps:
- Step one – recognizing our:
- False ideas regarding what happiness means to us
- Negative self-beliefs
- Unrealistic expectations about the future
- Motivations that result from our fear of rejection
- Step two – understanding how positive psychology interventions increase our awareness of:
- Personal values
- Activities guided by intrinsic motivation
- Emotions that signal engagement and enthusiasm
- Emotions that signal disengagement and resistance
- Thoughts that promote wellbeing and self-care
- Step one – recognizing our:
Once aware of the factors representing authenticity, it is possible to start to behave more in line with our values.
- Have-a-Good-Day Exercise
The key to increasing our subjective wellbeing is to focus on what we have control over — our intentional activities — and how to mimic the many healthy thoughts and actions of naturally happy people.
- Step one – Observe your activities on good and bad days. Rate each day between 1 (the worst day of your life) and 10 (the best).
- Step two – Analyze what was happening that caused or was linked to the good and bad days.
- Step three – Based on understanding what was happening, plan to have more days engaging in activities that make for a good day.
A Take-Home Message
Thankfully, happiness and wellbeing have been well studied. It means we have a wealth of data, along with theories and interventions for improving our lives.
Multigenerational and shorter-term studies highlight the many factors that predict a happy and satisfying life. And while genetics clearly has a part to play, most of our subjective wellbeing relies on our environment, how we choose to live, and how we think about our lives.
Whether considering shorter-term happiness or lifelong satisfaction, we can make positive changes to how we live. And while income, marriage, politics, and whether we have children are important factors, our relationships shape how happy our lives are beyond anything else.
And it’s good news. As for most of us, we can make greater efforts to build, maintain, and repair bonds and connections, benefitting our own and others’ wellbeing.
The research shows us that focusing on gratitude, forgiveness, and generosity are within our control and have the potential to deepen our bonds.
Think about the factors in this article and how they impact your and your clients’ happiness and life satisfaction. What changes could you make to give each one a boost and enjoy the “good life”?
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.
Ed: Article updated Mar 2023
- American Psychological Association. (n.d.a). Life satisfaction. In APA dictionary of psychology. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://dictionary.apa.org.
- American Psychological Association (n.d.b). Happiness. In APA dictionary of psychology. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://dictionary.apa.org.
- Badri, M. A., Alkhaili, M., Aldhaheri, H., Yang, G., Albahar, M., & Alrashdi, A. (2022). Exploring the reciprocal relationships between happiness and life satisfaction of working adults—evidence from Abu Dhabi. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(6), 3575.
- Claxton, A., O’Rourke, N., Smith, J. A. Z., & DeLongis, A. (2012). Personality traits and marital satisfaction within enduring relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29(3), 375–396
- Diener, E., Oishi, S., & Tay, L. (2018). Advances in subjective well-being research. Nature Human Behaviour, 2(4), 253–260.
- Eyring, J. B., Leavitt, C. E., Allsop, D. B., & Clancy, T. J. (2020). Forgiveness and gratitude: Links between couples’ mindfulness and sexual and relational satisfaction in new cisgender heterosexual marriages. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 47(2), 147–161.
- Grover, S., & Helliwell, J. F. (2017). How’s life at home? new evidence on marriage and the set point for happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 20(2), 373–390.
- Mineo, L. (2017, April 11). Over nearly 80 years, Harvard study has been showing how to live a healthy and happy life. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/.
- Robson, D. (2022, January 28). What really makes people happy – and can you learn to be happier? New Scientist. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2305173-what-really-makes-people-happy-and-can-you-learn-to-be-happier/.
- Røysamb, E., Nes, R. B., Czajkowski, N. O., & Vassend, O. (2018). Genetics, personality and well-being. A twin study of traits, facets and life satisfaction. Scientific Reports, 8(1).
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory: basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Press.
- Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them. Nicholas Brealey.
- Sigala, A. M. (2019). Thankful marriages: Mindfulness and gratitude as predictors of marital satisfaction in Greek couples. DASH Home. Retrieved February 19, 2023, from https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/37365080.
- Waldinger, R. J., & Schulz, M. S. (2023). The good life: Lessons from the world’s longest scientific study of happiness. Simon & Schuster.
- Wilcox, W. B., & Dew, J. (2013). The social and cultural predictors of generosity in marriage. Journal of Family Issues, 37(1), 97–118.
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