What are 3 things happy people have in common?

Back in graduate school, one of my favorite professors posed this question to our class: “What are three things that happy people have in common?”

Multiple people from our struggling student demographic quickly chimed in with the same first answer: Money! “NOPE” said our professor. While, arguably, there is a certain amount of money needed to cover basic life expenses, there are happy people living in poverty and miserable people living in wealth. Money does not buy happiness.

Our class of budding therapists engaged in discussing this essential question. The professor was broadly summarizing the findings from decades of research in the field of positive psychology — these three things that happy people have in common.

1. Relationships that work

The first thing happy people have is good relationships. It isn’t the number of relationships or the type of relationships that matter, but the quality.  Someone with 1,000 Facebook friends can feel lonely and someone unmarried with good friends can be happy. Happy people have and maintain relationships that work.

2. Work that matters

Happy people also have work that is meaningful to them. They are more likely to be in the types of roles that are in synch with their passions and talents that meets the needs of others. This is so uniquely personal and not about the job itself — the same job that can be monotonous and boring to one person can bring meaning to someone else.

3. Belief in something greater than yourself

Happy people believe in something larger than themselves. This isn’t necessarily about religion, but it is for many, and it definitely isn’t about what type of religion. This can be called a lot of different things, depending on the individuals beliefs; for example, Alcoholics Anonymous famously refers to this as “higher power”. Overall, happy people have coherent beliefs about the purpose and meaning of life.

For more than a decade now, I’ve spent time researching positive psychology, pondering these specific things, and posing this question to others. I believe it’s not only thought-provoking, but also a great guide to check in with yourself when things feel out of whack in your life — are these three things in balance for you and if not, what can you do to fine-tune them? Most of this work can be done on your own and in your own reading, but deeper work on happiness can be done with a trained therapist.

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