Can you learn to be happy?


More than two thousand years ago, philosophers were already addressing the subject of happiness. Socrates, Aristotle and Plato were of the opinion that a virtuous lifestyle resulted in happiness and that all behaviour should be oriented towards this goal. By contrast, Epicurus believed that happiness meant experiencing pleasure and the absence of pain. An entirely different view was taken by Lao Tzu, who saw happiness in inaction. He believed that you can really be happy only when you stop chasing happiness or other goals.
Everybody wants to be happy, and everybody tries to achieve this goal in various ways. But what is happiness, exactly? What makes us happy? And can you learn to be happy?

What is happiness?

Everyone defines happiness differently. What does happiness mean for you? Take a little time to think about it.

The sociologist Ruut Veenhoven thinks happiness is the extent to which an individual positively evaluates their overall quality of life. In other words: how much do you like the life you are living? The Duden dictionary defines happiness as the pleasant, joyful frame of mind you find yourself in when you acquire something that you want or benefit from it. It is a state of inner elation and gratification. In psychology, being happy is characterised by experiencing many positive emotions and few negative feelings. Science additionally differentiates between two sorts of happiness, which can mutually affect each other: short-term happiness and lifetime happiness. Short-term happiness means emotional states that may fluctuate wildly during the course of a day. For example, when you are hungry you feel unhappy, but when you have eaten, you feel better again. But, if you then discover that your job interview has been cancelled, you will abruptly feel unhappy again, despite your full stomach. Lifetime happiness equates to being content with your life. Seen over the long term, this is relatively constant.

What is the connection between health and being happy?

The research assumes that disrupted feelings of happiness (being unhappy) are not just the consequence of illness but may also increase the risk of falling ill. The results of observation studies show that happiness in general was associated with lower mortality. However, we cannot therefore conclude that happiness is the only reason for a lower death rate. Different mechanisms are postulated to clarify the relationship between health and happiness. These include lifestyle factors (physical exercise, food choices) and biological processes (e.g., inflammatory processes). More research is required, however, to investigate the exact processes between happiness / being happy and health.

How does happiness arise and what makes us happy?

When you experience something positive, subjectively speaking, or something happens that is better than expected, then the neurons in your brain become active and dopamine is released. An increased dopamine concentration can trigger positive emotions. In the frontal lobe of the brain, the dopamine also boosts attentiveness and consequently, we are better able to remember the incident that made us happy. The feeling of happiness is therefore a by-product of our ability to learn.
Other messenger substances are also involved in feeling happy. The “happiness hormones”, as they are also called, include serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, noradrenaline and phenethylamine. These are produced by the body itself to a certain extent, or consumed in our food. What’s more, certain foodstuffs boost the production of happiness hormones. As a result, you can influence how happy you feel a little with what you eat. You can find out more about this in our blog article “Eat yourself happy”.
Happiness is 50% determined by our genes. For example, there is a gene expression that (if you have it) results in your body containing more serotonin, which in turn results in you having an overall more positive attitude, i.e., you are happier. In addition to genes, our living conditions contribute approximately 10% to our happiness. The remaining 40% depends on us.

“Everyone has his own way of being happy, and no one may demand that another choose his own.”
- Heinrich von Kleist -

What makes you happy can be very personal and also very different from what makes the people around you happy. The UN has, however, basic conditions for happiness, which must be met if people are to be happy. These include the following aspects:

  • Six years of school education
  • Enough food: at least 2500 calories per day
  • Water: water consumption of 100 litres per day
  • A place to cook
  • At least six square metres of living space

As you cansee, the assumption is that basic needs must first be met before you can feel happy.

Happiness research has also confirmed the different factors that make us happy:

  • A stable relationship
  • A social life
  • Friendship
  • Health
  • A job corresponding to your abilities
  • Children
  • Enough money to meet your basic needs

Do these things make you happy too? Or something completely different? Again, take a little time and write down three things that make you happy.

Now we would like to turn our attention to the whole world.

How happy are people globally?

Happiness worldwide: who are the happiest people? You know for sure that not all people in the world feel happy right now. In many countries, meeting even basic needs is already a challenge. The Kingdom of Bhutan, in the Himalayas, seems to be a small exception to this. Although the inhabitants are among the world’s poorest, they are happy. One reason for this is the kingdom’s attitude to the happiness of the population, which is actually very important to Bhutan. In the 1970s, the population’s happiness was even specified as a national goal and a Ministry of Happiness was founded. You can find more information about Bhutan here.
Every year, the World Happiness Report ranks over 100 countries according to the happiness of their populations. Finland held the top spot in 2020, followed by Iceland, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The top 10 have not seen big changes even during the covid-19 pandemic. The six factors enhancing the wellbeing (happiness) of the people questioned remain unchanged from the previous years. They are: income, health, someone you can rely on, trust, freedom and generosity.

But let’s return to the main question of this blog: Can you learn to be happy?

“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
- Abraham Lincoln -

Abraham Lincoln was absolutely convinced that everyone is responsible for their own happiness. As you now know, how happy we feel is determined by our genes, living conditions and ourselves. Almost half of our happiness depends on us. This means that you can actively contribute to increasing your own happiness.
Now you know that happiness can be learned. And if you’re wondering where to start, you will find some ideas, tips and practical everyday exercises at the end of this blog post. Important: if you want to experience feelings of happiness, you must actively create situations in which these feelings can develop. If you only sit on the sofa, bored and unmotivated, your brain will not release any of the messenger substances that supply the happy feelings. This does not mean, however, that you need to constantly do sport or exercise, because stress and hustle and bustle can also reduce or even entirely eliminate your happy feelings.

Tips, ideas and everyday exercises

  • Ask yourself: what is good for me? What do I need to feel good? What makes me happy?
  • Make sure you also look for happiness in brief moments (e.g., your five-minute tea or coffee break) as well as for great happiness.
  • Don’t compare yourself to other people. What seems to make others happy won’t necessarily make you happy. Conversely, when you don’t have something that other people do have, you are not automatically less happy!
  • Meditate or do a mindfulness exercise.
  • Yoga, sport and exercise (e.g., a nice walk): messenger substances such as serotonin and endorphins are increasingly released when you do all these activities (including meditation).
  • Cooking and eating, preferably with people you love
  • Reading
  • Singing, listening to music, playing an instrument
  • Dancing (link to the “Dance yourself happy!” article).
  • Calling or writing to someone
  • Giving someone a present
  • Expressing your thoughts, particularly your worries, and getting support when you need it.
  • Trying to consciously be aware of and use small things in your daily life.
  • Thinking of 3 to 5 things you are grateful for every morning or evening.
  • Remembering what you did well during the day before you go to bed.
  • Giving someone a compliment every day.
  • Going out in the fresh air every day for a bit.
  • Writing down positive things (e.g., experiences, thoughts), and sharing it with people close to you if you want.

You can find many more ideas and exercises on our happiness cards, which are available on our website under Information materials. You can order them free of charge.


Don’t forget that everyone has their own strategies for being happy. Maybe you have some entirely different ideas, tips and exercises?
Likewise, you will very probably not be any happier if you only try out the above tips once. However, if you take the time and practise them over the long term, you will find that you feel happier. Find out what makes YOU happy, and then engineer as many situations and experiences as possible in which you feel happy. You can be the architect of your own happiness!


BR Wissen. (2021, March). Glücksforschung - Was uns wirklich glücklich macht.
Dfarhud, D., Malmir, M., & Khanahmadi, M. (2014). Happiness & health: the biological factors-systematic review Article. Iranian journal of public health, 43(11), 1468.
Helliwell, J. F., Huang, H., Wang, S., & Norton, M. (2021). World happiness, trust and deaths under COVID-19. World Happiness Report 2021, S.13-57.
Miller, A. (2021, May). Macht das Leben wirklich Spass bis zum Lebensende? Tagblatt.
Spiegel Psychologie. (2016, December). Anleitung zum Glücklichsein.
Steptoe, A. (2019). Happiness and health. Annual review of public health, 40, 339-359.
Veenhoven, R. (1984). Conditions of happiness. D. Reidel Publishing Company.
Zimmerli, M. (2017, December). Auf den Spuren des Glücks. Coop Zeitung.

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