What Makes Us Happy?

Train Yourself Ministry exists to encourage the pursuit of Christlike discipline in each area of our lives: spirit, body, mind, emotions and will.

Disciplining our emotions is arguably the oddest item on the list, for we usually think of emotions as something that washes over us, not as something we can control. But we are far from powerless hostages to rogue emotions which overtake us. In fact, the more we learn about emotional health, the more we realize that there is an emotional joystick which we very much have within our control.

King David realized this 3,000 years ago when he wrote in the psalms, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?…Hope in God!” (Ps.42:5,11). And the apostle Paul would have not admonished us to Rejoice in the Lord if we were powerless to summon joy (Phil.4:4).

Scientists have been studying happiness for more than a decade now (imagine taking grant money and paychecks for that line of work!) There is now a growing body of research which gives instruction on how to train our emotions.

One question that is being clearly answered by research is: What gives us the greatest happiness? If we learn what those answers are, we then will have a roadmap of what we ought to pursue in our lives.

Psychologist Edward Diener, also known as Dr. Happiness, has created a list of possible Joy-Givers, and then offers his assessment of what the research shows.


“Can’t buy me love” sang those singing philosophers, the Beatles, and now we’re learning that we can’t buy happiness either.

Up until the point that your basic needs are met, research shows that an uptick in wealth does correspond to an uptick in happiness, but things level off dramatically after that ($75,000 of income seems to be the magic number.) After that threshold is reached however, additional income does little to raise your sense of satisfaction with life. Not even lottery winners show an increase in happiness beyond the rest of us losers.


Raising children is not rated highly on the lists of most positive activities, but when asked “What one thing has brought you the greatest happiness?” children came out first every time, Diener discovered. This finding should remind us that the best things in life are almost always the hardest things in life, which is why people who pursue discipline discover joy at the end of their journey.


Research shows that older people are consistently more satisfied with their lives than the young.  And they’re less prone to succumbing to dark moods. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that people ages 20-24 are sad for an average of 3.4 days a month as opposed to just 2.3 days for people ages 65-74.


Education is generally not a predictor of happiness. Diener has found that Hemingway wasn’t far off the mark when he quipped, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” In survey after survey, “cerebral virtues” almost always rank lower that “interpersonal virtues”.

Working or retired. 

Both are equally happy. However, the unemployed are not. In fact, two of the greatest stressers that knock a person off the happiness charts are the death of a spouse and the loss of a job.

Marriage / Family & Friends. 

“Almost every person feels happier when they’re with other people,” says Diener. “It’s paradoxical because many of us think we can hardly wait to get home and be alone with nothing to do, but that’s a worst-case scenario for happiness.”


Diener finds it useful to compartmentalize happiness coming from three places of origin: Pleasure, Engagement, and Meaning.

Though our culture places a premium on the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, the research clearly shows that “pleasure” is the least consequential to finding lasting happiness. True joy in life comes from engagement with one’s family and community, and from discovering meaning by using your personal strengths to serve something much larger than yourself. Serving others, not ruling over others or being worshipped by others, is the surest way to feeling like a king or queen.

This helps explain why the last item on his list is so critical to finding happiness:


The role of a vibrant faith in God is huge for happiness, and regular church attendance in the key, says Diener. (Interestingly, he found greater happiness in Protestants than Catholics, and in evangelical worshippers over Mainline.)

What has Diener concluded from his research?

“It is important to work on social skills, close interpersonal ties and social support in order to be happy,” he says.

Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself, said another happiness researcher named Moses, about 3,500 years ago.

“It is important to work on social skills, close interpersonal ties and social support in order to be happy.” Edward Diener

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