I have often wondered, "What does it actually mean to be happy? How do I know if I am happy? How can I change my level of happiness?" After reading through lots of research in various studies, here's what I have found.

Happiness = strong relationships

Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert said, "If I wanted to predict your happiness, and I could know only one thing about you, I wouldn't want to know your gender, religion, health, or income. I'd want to know about your social network-about your friends and family and the strength of your bonds with them," (emphasis added).

Quality of relationships is one of the strongest predictors of an individual's happiness. You feel greater peace and well-being when you are connected to other people and when you have someone to count on.

The 2015 World Happiness Report states, "When individuals are made to experience social isolation, many of the same brain regions become active that are active in the experience of physical pain." Essentially, it is NOT good for you to be alone or isolated. It doesn't make you happy.

As human beings we are not meant to live independent of each other; we need relationships for ultimate happiness. Husbands, wives, children, parents, extended family and friends-you need them. You can't be happy all on your own.

Happiness = plasticity: the ability to grow and change

Life is full of stressful moments, tragedies and adversities beyond your control, and these situations definitely impact your happiness. However, recovering effectively from these negative events will determine your overall well-being.

Plasticity, or the ability to grow and change through unforeseen circumstances, can be learned through practice. It can be cultivated through psychotherapy and/or meditation. It's all about perspective and awareness. It's accepting setbacks as they arise and learning from mistakes.

Happiness isn't the absence of hard times. When you learn to face trials head-on and then move forward with greater strength and understanding, you will find the secret to happiness.

Happiness = mindfulness

"Live in the moment."

"Be where your feet are."

"Make the most of today."

You've heard these phrases over and over. But, according to science, that's exactly what you need to do in order to be happy.

According to "The Mindful Way Workbook," mindfulness is "being able to bring direct, open-hearted awareness to what you are doing while you are doing it: being able to tune in to what's going on in your mind and body, and in the outside world, moment by moment."

Mindfulness also takes practice, focus and effort. It's enjoying each bite of your breakfast and noticing the color in your spouse's eye. It's turning off your auto-pilot mode and really living life as it happens. Mindfulness is the essence of living life to its fullest, which ultimately creates a life of contentment and joy.

Happiness = empathy and altruism

Empathy is recognizing and sharing the feelings of others, and altruism is a selfless concern for the welfare of others.

The most selfish thing you can do for your happiness is to help others. It's a paradox-turning outward in service to other people will ultimately help you. Science has proven happiness is sustained through meaningful acts of compassion and connection.

Happiness = continual positive experiences

According to psychologist Ed Diener, the frequency of positive experiences is a much stronger predictor of happiness than the intensity of positive experiences.

Noticing and savoring the little things like finding money in your pocket, wearing a comfortable sweater or hugging your friend bring sustained happiness. This is the opposite of what we tend to think will make us happy-big events like buying a new car or going on a date with a celebrity. Science has proven that how good your experiences are doesn't matter as much as how many good experiences you have.

Happiness is the sum of thousands of small things. It's creating and nourishing strong relationships, learning to grow and change, living in the moment, serving others and filling your life with positive experiences. Happiness is an emotion, but it's also a choice and a lifestyle. You have the potential to truly be happy.

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