Photo: Moyan: goo.gl/HAeNEG /CC

What Really Makes Us Happy - The Findings of the 21st Century Science of Positive Psychology

The History of Positive Psychology


Since the 5th Century B.C. in Ancient Greece philosophers have asked: “What is the good life?”


Socrates famously made the point in one of Plato’s Dialogues, quipping: – “We are discussing no small matter; but how we are to live.”


Many thinkers in the west, and elsewhere, have speculated ever since what leads to human flourishing.


Since the birth of the study of the human mind (psychology) in the 19th Century with thinkers like Freud, the focus of the subject had been on the study of and treatment of mental disorders. Following on from Freud, up until quite recently, the focus of psychology in the west had been solely on pathology.


 It took the subject of psychology a number of years before thinkers such as Abraham Maslow (in the 50’s) begun to focus on what leads to a flourishing life, rather than what makes a person unhappy.


In the 1990’s, researchers began to focus on the systematic study of what actually make us happy, rather than what made us miserable. So the new branch of Psychology called Positive Psychology was born. 


The first Positive Psychology Summit took place in 1998; many papers on the subject begun to appear in the late 90’s and early 00’s. Since then this new branch of psychology has grown rapidly – there are now thousands of books and papers published on the subject every year.


Positive Psychology in the UK


In 2010 the UK charity “Action for Happiness” was set up. Action for Happiness is, in their own words:


“…a movement of people committed to building a happier and more caring society. We want to see a fundamentally different way of life - where people care less about what they can get just for themselves and more about the happiness of others.”


Part of their mission to inspire a happier UK (and world) is to list the 10 Keys for happiness – despite everyone’s life being different, these ten keys are backed up by research, and are a great way to introduce the findings of positive psychology.


Together these 10 Keys (http://www.actionforhappiness.org/10-keys-to-happier-living) are 21st Century Science’s best answer to Socrates question of what is the good life…


  • Do Things for Others - “Our generosity is hard-wired to the reward mechanisms in our brains. When we give our time, energy and kindness to others it not only helps them, it's also great for our wellbeing too.”


  • Connect with People – “People with strong and broad social relationships are happier, healthier and live longer. Close relationships with family and friends provide love, meaning, support and increase our feelings of self-worth. Broader networks bring a sense of belonging.”



  • Take Care of Your Body – “Our body and our mind are connected. Being active makes us happier as well as being good for our physical health. It instantly improves our mood and can even lift us out of a depression.”


  • Live Life Mindfully – “Ever felt there must be more to life? Well good news, there is! And it's right here in front of us. We just need to stop and take notice.”


  • Keep Learning New Things – “Learning affects our well-being in lots of positive ways. It exposes us to new ideas and helps us stay curious and engaged. It also gives us a sense of accomplishment and helps boost our self-confidence and resilience.”


  • Have Goals to Look Forward to – “Feeling good about the future is important for our happiness. We all need goals to motivate us and these need to be challenging enough to excite us, but also achievable. If we try to attempt the impossible this brings unnecessary stress.”


  • Find Ways to Bounce Back – “All of us have times of stress, loss, failure or trauma in our lives. But how we respond to these has a big impact on our wellbeing.”


  • Look For What’s Good – “Positive emotions - like joy, gratitude, contentment, inspiration, and pride - are not just great at the time. Recent research shows that regularly experiencing them creates an 'upward spiral', helping to build our resources.”


  • Be Comfortable with Who You Are – “No-one's perfect. But so often we compare our insides to other people's outsides. Dwelling on our flaws - what we're not rather than what we've got - makes it much harder to be happy.”


  • Be Part of Something Bigger – “People who have meaning and purpose in their lives are happier, feel more in control and get more out of what they do. They also experience less stress, anxiety and depression.”


This list gives you a flavour about what positive psychologists have found in the last 20 years of research in the field. 


One thing this list does not include is the influence of money of our happiness – one of the most debated questions in history…


Money – Does It Make Us Happy?


This is an old one – does money bring happiness? Prior to a few years ago, the subject was a matter of debate. But now science has some light to shed on it.


The scientific answer to this question is yes…and no.


The studies and evidence points towards the following -  that yes, money does increase happiness – if you are coming from a low base. If you are homeless, getting £20k a year makes a big impact on your happiness.


If you are earning £20k a year, then getting £30k will make a big, but somewhat smaller impact on your happiness.


The rule is, more money contributes more to your happiness up to about £40k a year. After that, the impact is negligible.


So - yes, money does make you happier; but only up to a certain limit. Becoming a millionaire, according to the science, will not make you much happier. 


Where to find out more


Just try a few Google searches for Positive Psychology topic areas that might interest you. For general information, Wikipedia is always a good place to start - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_psychology