Once upon a time there was a little prince. According to prophecy, he was to become a powerful king or a great holy man. His father feared he would follow the spiritual path. To prevent this, the prince was protected from the outside world. He grew up surrounded by wealth, beauty, and happiness.

One day, the prince ventured outside the palace walls for the first time. He was shocked to encounter old age, sickness, and death. He returned to the palace a changed man. Determined to overcome suffering, the prince renounced his title and left the palace.

For 6 years, the prince lived a life of poverty and religious contemplation. After fasting near death, he wondered if there might be a middle way between the extremes of self‐indulgence and self‐mortification.

After recovering, the prince decided to meditate under a fig tree until he solved the problem. After 49 days, he reached Enlightenment—he realized suffering is caused by attachment to impermanent things. From then on, he was known as the Buddha or “Awakened One”. For the rest of his life, he taught others to free themselves from suffering.

The Buddha’s lessons have been confirmed by science. Let’s dig deeper.

Life is suffering.

Suffering arises from attachment to desires.

Suffering can be ended by letting go of attachment.

Follow the Eightfold Path to let go of attachment and end suffering.


Happiness factors

Around the world, people rate their happiness an average of 5.5 out of 10. This is influenced by 3 major factors:

  • Genetics

  • Life circumstances

  • Activities and attitudes

First, researchers have found that happiness is 35% inherited.

Second, the most influential life circumstances are income, strong social relationships, and good health. For income, there is a large improvement from escaping poverty and then diminishing returns for more money. Poverty and poor health explain why average happiness is 4.3 in Africa versus 7.0 in the United States.

Money doesn’t make you happy. I now have $50 million but I was just as happy when I had $48 million.

-Arnold Schwarzenegger

Finally, thousands of studies have shown that the following activities and attitudes boost happiness:

  • Good sleep

  • Exercise

  • Healthy diet

  • Gratitude

  • Meditation

  • Hobbies, sports, gardening

  • Being in nature

  • Acts of kindness

  • Forgiveness

  • Spirituality

  • Optimism and hope

The first 5 activities are part of the “Daily habits” section in this book.

Notice that material possessions are not on this list. Materialism lowers happiness. For example, buying a Ferrari is a thrill that wears off quickly. Then it takes a bigger purchase to get the same thrill.

Money doesn’t buy happiness—it buys freedom.

-Naval Ravikant

Of all the virtues we can learn no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.

-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Beyond happiness

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who theorized that people must satisfy basic needs before moving to higher needs.

Basic needs

  • Survival: air, water, food, shelter, sex, sleep

  • Safety and security: law and order, healthcare, financial security

Psychological needs

  • Love and belongingness: family, friends

  • Esteem: freedom, independence, respect, status

Self-actualization needs

  • Personal growth, achieving full potential

Maslow’s self-actualization concept was inspired by ancient Greek philosophy. For example, Aristotle proposed that true happiness arises from eudaimonia, being true to one’s daimon or inner self. In Aristotle’s view, you should develop what is best within you. Then use your talents in service of humanity.

It is quite true that man lives by bread alone—when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled? At once other (and “higher”) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new (and still “higher”) needs emerge and so on.

-Abraham Maslow

Meaning of life

People with a purpose in life are happier and live longer. How do you find your purpose?

In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams says that “follow your passion” is terrible advice because passion usually follows success rather than causing it.

Instead, Adams suggests focusing on things that energize you. For example, some people are energized by talking. Others by reading or making things. Notice what energizes you and develop that talent.

What feels like play to you, but looks like work to others?

-Naval Ravikant

Another way to discover your purpose is asking your subconscious mind. In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends an exercise called “Morning Pages”. Every morning, write 3 pages by hand. Write whatever comes to mind—no filter. Over time, your subconscious will tell you what you need to know.

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

-Carl Jung

The secret of happiness is: find something more important than you are, and dedicate your life to it.

-Daniel Dennett


Gautama Buddha. (2021, January 28). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gautama_Buddha

Happiness factors

Geerling DM, Diener E. (2020). Effect size strengths in subjective well-being research. Applied Research Quality Life. 15: 167–185.

  • From 2005 to 2015, a Gallup World Poll sampled 1,551,362 adults from 166 nations and found that average happiness was 5.5 on a 10-point scale (7.02 in the United States)

  • Happiness was associated with income (effect sizes = 1.39 for life satisfaction and 0.47 for positive affect); social support (effect sizes = 0.77 for life satisfaction and 0.59 for positive affect); ability to meet basic needs (effect sizes = 0.56 for life satisfaction and 0.26 for positive affect); and health (effect sizes = 0.34 for life satisfaction and 0.32 for positive affect)

  • Marital status had a small effect on happiness (effect sizes = 0.05 for life satisfaction and 0.12 for positive affect)

Bertels M. (2015). Genetics of wellbeing and its components satisfaction with life, happiness, and quality of life: A review and meta-analysis of heritability studies. Behav Genet. 45(2): 137–156.

  • A meta-analysis of 10 studies with 55,974 twin-family individuals found that heritability of wellbeing was 36%

  • A meta-analysis of 9 studies with 47,750 twin-family individuals found that heritability of satisfaction with life was 32%

Kahneman D, Deaton A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 107(38): 16489–16493.

  • A survey of 450,000 Americans found that high income increased life satisfaction but not happiness (beyond an annual income of $75,000)

  • Low income was associated with low life satisfaction and low happiness

Killingsworth MA. (2021). Experienced well-being rises with income, even above $75,000 per year.

Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 118(4): e2016976118.

  • A study of 33,391 employed Americans found that well-being rose linearly with log(income), but not raw income

  • There was no evidence for a plateau above $75,000 per year

Howell RT, Howell CJ. (2008). The relation of economic status to subjective well-being in developing countries: a meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 134(4): 536–560.

  • A meta-analysis of 111 independent samples from 54 developing countries found that happiness had a stronger association with economic status in low-income countries (effect size = 0.28) vs. high-income countries (effect size = 0.10)

Ngamaba KH, Panagioti M, Armitage CJ. (2017). How strongly related are health status and subjective well-being? Systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur J Public Health. 27(5): 879–885.

  • A meta-analysis of 29 studies found that health status was associated with happiness (effect size = 0.35)

  • The association was stronger in developing countries (effect size = 0.42) vs. developed countries (effect size = 0.34)

Jebb AT et al. (2020). Subjective well-being around the world: Trends and predictors across the life span. Psychol Sci. 31(3): 293–305.

  • A survey of 1.7 million people from 166 countries found the average happiness rating in the United States was 7.0 out of 10 vs. 4.3 in Africa

Weingarten E, Goodman JK. (2021). Re-examining the experiential advantage in consumption: A meta-analysis and review. Journal Consumer Research. 47(6): 855–877.

  • A meta-analysis of 141 studies found that consumers received greater happiness from purchasing experiences vs. material possessions (effect size = 0.38)

Lee JC, Hall DL, Wood W. (2018). Experiential or material purchases? Social class determines purchase happiness. Psychol Sci. 29(7): 1031–1039.

  • A series of 3 studies with 1,111 participants found that individuals with higher social class gained more happiness from purchasing experiential vs. material goods

  • There was no experiential advantage for individuals with lower social class

Dittmar H et al. (2014). The relationship between materialism and personal well-being: A meta-analysis. J Pers Soc Psychol. 107(5): 879–924.

  • A meta-analysis of 175 studies found that materialism decreased well-being (effect size = 0.19)

Activities and attitudes

Paunio T et al. (2009). Longitudinal study on poor sleep and life dissatisfaction in a nationwide cohort of twins. Am J Epidemiol. 169(2): 206–213.

  • A study of 18,631 twins found that poor sleep predicted a consistent pattern of life dissatisfaction (210% higher risk), whereas life dissatisfaction did not consistently predict poor sleep

Wiese CW, Kuykendall L, Tay L. (2018). Get active? A meta-analysis of leisure-time physical activity and subjective well-being. Journal Positive Psychology. 13(1): 57–66.

  • A meta-analysis of 12 studies found that exercise increased positive affect (effect size = 0.21) and life satisfaction (effect size = 0.12)

Veenhoven R. (2021). Will healthy eating make you happier? A research synthesis using an online findings archive. Applied Research Quality Life. 16: 221–240.

  • A research synthesis of 20 studies with 149,880 participants found a strong causal effect of healthy eating on happiness

  • Eating >3 servings/day of fruits and vegetables was associated with highest happiness

Dickens LR. (2017). Using gratitude to promote positive change: A series of meta-analyses investigating the effectiveness of gratitude interventions. Basic Applied Social Psychology. 39(4): 193–208.

  • A meta-analysis of 38 studies with 5,223 participants found that gratitude improved quality of relationships (effect size = 0.51)

  • Gratitude also increased grateful mood (effect size = 0.31), well-being (effect size = 0.30), happiness (effect size = 0.25), grateful disposition (effect size = 0.23), and optimism (effect size = 0.22)

Khoury B et al. (2015). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. J Psychosom Res. 78(6): 519–528.

  • A meta-analysis of 29 studies with 2,668 participants found that mindfulness meditation reduced stress (effect size = 0.74–0.83) and improved quality of life (effect size = 0.44–0.53)

Kuykendall L, Tay L, Ng V. (2015). Leisure engagement and subjective well-being: A meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 141(2): 364–403.

  • A meta-analysis of 27 studies with 11,834 participants found that leisure engagement increased happiness (effect size = 0.26)

Soga M, Gaston KJ, Yamaura Y. (2017). Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis. Prev Med Rep. 5: 92–99.

  • A meta-analysis of 21 studies found that gardening increased happiness and well-being (effect size = 0.47)

Capaldi CA, Dopko RL, Zelenski JM. (2014). The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: a meta-analysis. Front Psychol. 5: 976.

  • A meta-analysis of 21 studies with 8,523 participants found that nature connectedness increased happiness (effect size = 0.19)

Curry OS et al. (2018). Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. Journal Experimental Social Psychology. 76: 320–329.

  • A meta-analysis of 27 studies with 4,405 participants found that performing acts of kindness increased happiness (effect size = 0.28)

Akhtar S, Barlow J. (2018). Forgiveness therapy for the promotion of mental well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Trauma Violence Abuse. 19(1): 107–122.

  • A meta-analysis of 15 studies found that forgiveness reduced stress and distress (effect size = 0.66), anger and hostility (effect size = 0.49), and depression (effect size = 0.37)

  • Forgiveness also increased positive affect (effect size = 0.29)

Sawatzky R, Ratner PA, Chiu L. (2005). A meta-analysis of the relationship between spirituality and quality of life. Social Indicators Research. 72: 153–188.

  • A meta-analysis of 51 studies found that spirituality increased quality of life (effect size = 0.34)

Alarcon GM, Bowling NA, Khazon S. (2013). Great expectations: A meta-analytic examination of optimism and hope. Personality Individual Differences. 54(7): 821–827.

  • A meta-analysis of 489 samples found that happiness was associated with hope (effect size = 0.59) and optimism (effect size = 0.36)

Beyond happiness

Huta V, Waterman AS. (2014). Eudaimonia and its distinction from hedonia: Developing a classification and terminology for understanding conceptual and operational definitions. Journal Happiness Studies. 15: 1425–1456.

  • Aristotle’s philosophy of eudaimonia influenced modern psychology, including Maslow’s concept of self-actualization

Meaning of life

Adams S. (2013). How to fail at almost everything and still win big: Kind of the story of my life. Portfolio.

Pinquart M. (2002). Creating and maintaining purpose in life in old age: A meta-analysis. Ageing International. 27: 90–114.

  • A meta-analysis of 70 studies found that purpose in life increased positive affect (effect size = 0.47), social integration (effect size = 0.27), and socioeconomic status (effect size = 0.20)

Cohen R, Bavishi C, Rozanski A. (2016). Purpose in life and its relationship to all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events: A meta-analysis. Psychosom Med. 78(2): 122–133.

  • A meta-analysis of 10 prospective studies with 136,265 participants found that purpose in life reduced risk of mortality by 17%

Curran T et al. (2015). The psychology of passion: A meta-analytical review of a decade of research on intrapersonal outcomes. Motivation Emotion. 39: 631–655.

  • A meta-analysis of 94 studies found that harmonious passion increased intrinsic motivation (effect size = 0.57), flow (effect size = 0.51), positive affect (effect size = 0.41), life satisfaction (effect size = 0.39), and deliberate practice (effect size = 0.39)

  • Harmonious passion occurs when an activity aligns with a person’s values and goals

Sutton A. (2020). Living the good life: A meta-analysis of authenticity, well-being and engagement. Personality Individual Differences. 153: 109645.

  • A meta-analysis of 75 studies with 36,533 participants found that authenticity increased well-being (effect size = 0.40)

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