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Five Pathways to Happiness

We all yearn for happiness, but many of us go about it the wrong way. For instance, acquiring things makes us happy in the short-term. Even winning the lottery is a quick fix. Research has found that a year later, people who win the lottery aren’t any happier than people who didn’t win.

In fact, just 10 percent of our happiness is determined by our circumstances, such as how much money we have, the type of work we do and whether we have kids or not. (Some research has found that 50 percent of happiness is inherited but 40 percent has everything to do with our attitudes.)

In today’s society, flashy ads proclaim and promise that we’ll be happier once we have a new car, lose 10 pounds or take that vacation to Maui. Our culture “tends to reinforce the things that don’t work,” for happiness, according to Ronald Siegel, PsyD, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

“It fools us into thinking that [happiness is] all about these external matters,” and “We don’t have very many messages that point us to a different direction for finding happiness.”

A concept called the “hedonic treadmill” explains why material things don’t mean much for happiness. “We become accustomed to what we have and need more and more to feel good,” Siegel said.

So what undermines the hedonic treadmill? What does sustain happiness beyond the short-term?

Research has found several enduring pathways to happiness: using our strengths, gratitude, savoring, flow and living a meaningful life.

1. Using our strengths.

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Cultivating your strengths can lead to happiness. If one of your strengths is curiosity, think of how happy you get to read about a new topic or embark on a new project. If you’re a strong leader, you may feel happy when you’re leading a project at work or organizing a special event.

Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson have created a list of science-based strengths along with a questionnaire to help you identify your strengths. You can learn about it here. But knowing your strengths doesn’t make you happier. It’s using them that does.

For instance, in the Harvard Medical School’s special report on positive psychology, it’s suggested that after you find out your strengths, you use one strength in a new way daily for a week. If your strength is curiosity, you might “Read an article or watch a documentary on something you know nothing about.”

2. Gratitude.

Siegel described gratitude as simply “appreciating what you’ve got and being able to reflect on that.” Numerous studies have shown the benefits of gratitude for creating positive emotions, better relationships and even better health.

You can cultivate gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal, which studies have shown leads to happiness.

Also, being grateful involves expressing your appreciation to others. For instance, you might send a loved one a card or give your spouse a compliment.

3. Savoring.

This is “being in the moment, smelling the roses and tasting your coffee,” Siegel said. It’s savoring everyday moments. Mindfulness helps us learn how to savor situations.

Mindfulness involves “training the mind to be more in the present moment,” and to “be open to whatever is happening each moment,” according to Siegel, who’s also a mindfulness expert and author of The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems.

In fact, mindfulness supports each pathway to happiness. Many people have a narrow definition of mindfulness, such as you must banish all thoughts from your mind and become a blank slate. But being mindful is as simple as bringing your attention to walking, instead of continuing to get lost in thoughts about your to-list and what happened yesterday, Siegel said.

This is a skill that you can practice with various exercises. “The same way you can develop physical fitness, you can develop psychological fitness,” Siegel said. Mindfulness exercises help people step out of your thoughts and be fully engaged in the here and now. You can download or play many meditations that can help you to develop mindfulness on Siegel’s website.

According to recent research, we spend almost 47 percent of our time “mind-wandering,” or having thoughts about something other than what we’re currently doing. And this makes us unhappy.

“In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged,” said Matthew A. Killingsworth, one of the study’s researchers, in a statement.

Even something as tedious as shoveling snow can make us feel happy, if we’re fully engaged in it, Siegel said. In the same way, something as pleasant as talking to a friend, if your mind is wandering, won’t make you happy.

4. Flow.

Researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found that people are happy when they’re immersed fully in what they’re doing. He introduced the concept of flow in his groundbreaking book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Flow means being full engaged in an activity, Siegel said. It’s being in the zone. Flow occurs when we’re skiing down a mountain or playing a piece of music, Siegel added. You can have a flow experience when you’re doing something by yourself or even with others.

Flow experiences share the following characteristics:

  • The activity requires skill but isn’t too challenging that you become overwhelmed
  • It has clear-cut goals
  • You’re able to lose yourself in the activity, so you aren’t thinking about anything else but the present activity
  • Your attention is completely absorbed
  • You’re not self conscious or thinking about yourself
  • You lose track of time.

5. A meaningful life.

“We don’t feel happy very long when we do something just for ourselves,” Siegel said. Being part of something outside yourself that gives you purpose is also key to happiness. It’s using your strengths for the greater good. For instance, you might join an organization, run a race for charity or create art that inspires others.

Again, outside factors don’t mean much for our happiness, contrary to popular belief. It’s cultivating happiness and a positive attitude on the inside that counts. “Relatively small changes in our attitudes can yield relatively big changes in our sense of wellbeing,” Siegel said.

Photo by PhotoVandal, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Five Pathways to Happiness

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Five Pathways to Happiness. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.