Illustrations by Arielle Trenk

What Happy People Do Ed Diener, aka Dr. Happiness, gleans wisdom from decades of research on well-being.

Pharrell Williams was on to something with the lyrics to his hit song “Happy.”

… Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof (Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth (Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you know what happiness is to you….

Ed Diener


Ed Diener has devoted his academic career to figuring out what makes people happy and how to measure it, and he says the secret lies in that last line: happiness is subjective.

Each of us defines and evaluates happiness in our own way, though the happiest people share common characteristics, says Diener, a University of Utah psychology professor. His popular term for it—and he invented it, by the way—is “subjective well-being.” Boil down all Diener’s decades of research and you get a formula that looks like this: subjective well-being = positive affect – negative affect + life satisfaction + flourishing.

Which means you take your positive emotions, subtract the negative ones, evaluate your satisfaction with life and areas where you are flourishing, and it adds up to how happy you consider yourself to be.

Diener, who is often referred to as Dr. Happiness, is a pioneer in the field and a go-to expert on the subject. This spring, the United Arab Emirates, which is trying to encourage governments around the world to pay more attention to their citizens’ well-being, gave Diener a key role on the World Happiness Council as head of a subcommittee on personal happiness.

The council’s six subcommittees will produce an annual report that highlights best practices by governments in promoting wellbeing and happiness and, through an annual summit each February, encourage world leaders to “look for a new way to bring happiness to their people.”

And that, well, makes Diener happy.

“When I started studying happiness scientifically 35 years ago, it was a nonexistent field, and everyone thought I was crazy,” Diener says. “Now it has taken off. It’s amazing how this field all of a sudden is having a big impact.”

To be honest, he says, it hasn’t been easy to get happiness taken seriously. Happiness, he says, “sounds flaky, kind of frivolous. But what we’re talking about is sustainable happiness—what you get from your family, work, meaning and purpose, having goals and values. We’re not just talking about having fun. Well-being is much, much more than having fun.”

Individual happiness, he says, is to some degree a result of your inborn temperament, where you live, your financial circumstances, etc. But some good news from Diener’s studies is that there are conscious decisions and choices you can make to increase and cultivate your level of happiness.

The happiest people actively work at and make decisions that impact their wellbeing. It is a process, he says. A caveat: Diener’s findings are based on group averages, and specific findings may not apply to every individual. That said, here are the four X factors Diener’s research has shown to be key to a happy life:

1. Build up your social capital

You need enough money to meet your basic needs and then some, but after a certain point, more money results in only a modest increase in happiness. What happy people invest in—and what brings them even greater happiness—are social relationships.

Happy people are committed to making time for and enjoying friends and family. They have people they count on and trust. They are more likely to get married and less likely to get divorced. They get along with others, and they tend to volunteer and donate more, which is good for society.

Here is an important point, especially in Utah, the state with the highest marriage rate in the country: This doesn’t mean you have to be married to be happy, but you do need to surround yourself with a supportive social network. It also doesn’t mean you need to have children. On average, children don’t contribute to or detract from personal happiness. To some people, having children means everything; to others, it is not as important. The key is understanding yourself and what will bring you happiness.

2. Boost body and soul

It works both ways: happy people are healthier and live longer, and people who take care of themselves physically and spiritually—whether that’s religious engagement or communing with nature—are happier. Positive emotions that connect you to things larger than yourself boost happiness: awe, gratitude, thanksgiving, wonder at the universe, seeing beauty outside yourself.

The bottom line is that getting happy is good for you. There is clear and compelling evidence from numerous scientific studies showing that happy people have stronger cardiovascular and immune systems, and are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors and live longer.

Happy people also set goals and engage in work they enjoy and feel has value. They tend to take fewer sick days and are more productive at work—all reasons for businesses to invest in supports that make people happier. That includes good pay and benefits, yes, but also flex time, day care, building a culture of respect and equality, ensuring employees have the right tools, and clearly communicating the organization’s aims as well as what’s expected of them individually.

This does not mean you have to be employed to be happy. What matters is being engaged in activities you enjoy. For some, that will be filling a role as a homemaker or as a volunteer. For retirees, it means engaging in hobbies, second-act work, and active leisure pursuits that are enjoyable.

Governments also have a role to play in this area through policies that affect well-being, especially related to such things as air quality, zoning laws, transportation, access to greenspace, etc. Difficult commutes, lack of greenspace, and bad air quality are just some environmental elements that generally negatively impact life satisfaction. “We’ve always had this idea that the pursuit of happiness was what people had a right to, and that meant each person was to pursue it on their own,” without government interference, Diener says. “Individual happiness does depend on making good decisions in your life, and to some degree your inborn temperament, your marriage, and so forth, but happiness [also] depends a lot on where you live, the conditions and the policies.”

3. Engage your mind

When we look around the world at what happy people do, we find that universally, these are people who like to learn new things and who are engaged in the world beyond themselves. They set long-term goals. They value helping others. We humans are designed to learn new things and to seek challenges, whether that’s on the playing field or in the lab. It doesn’t matter what it is. Happy people are constantly learning, facing new challenges, and having new experiences. And people who try more things are more creative, which is a trait also found in happy people.

Happy people pay attention to the good in others and the things that are going right. That’s part of Diener’s AIM model, which stands for Attention, Interpretation, and Memory. They interpret other people and events around them in a positive light, and see opportunities and possibilities. And they take time to remember and be grateful for the good things in their lives.

4. Develop resilience

The good news is that a majority of people rate themselves as “pretty happy.” And while each of us has a genetically based disposition, that doesn’t mean you’ll always be happy or depressed. It is possible to move the needle to the sunny side. Conversely, everyone experiences problems and sadness at some point in their lives. The difference is that happy people build resilience to life’s challenges by learning to experience, not bury, negative emotions. Happy people don’t let disappointments define them, and they are better able to work through difficult situations—to move forward, embrace a positive attitude, and know that life is still full of joy.

Happy people are better able to control their world view, Diener explains. “They train themselves to not make a big deal out of trivial hassles and to keep working toward their goals while focusing on the good things in their lives,” he says.

—Brooke Adams BS’91 MS’12 is a communications specialist with University Marketing & Communications.

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2 thoughts on “What Happy People Do

  • Dr. Ed Diener, I read and liked your article on “What Happy People Do”. There is a “Happiness program” offered by the Art of Living Community in SLC which involves advanced breathing techniques. This workshop is from October 5th – October 7th. If you get a chance, I would highly recommend you to attend this workshop and you will get a deeper understanding of Happiness. Thanks for taking your time on reading this.

  • The deepest layer of happiness is transcendental bliss. I don’t mean superficial techniques, such as mindfulness, which keep the mind on the surface through contemplation and concentration, but traditional meditation techniques, which transcend the finest levels of thought and plumb the ocean of bliss that lies within all of us. If you want to be a true researcher in happiness, you shouldn’t ignore this most basic level of life.

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