There is no grander goal in life than the pursuit of happiness.
We all want to be happy, but we all have slightly different ideas of what it is. Even psychologists use various definitions of the term. It could simply be that happiness is as unique as the people that try to define it.
For many of us, though, it's more than just a short burst of joy or a quick laugh at the latest cat video on the internet.
We mean real happiness. The kind of happiness where we look back at our life and feel contentment, meaning, and accomplishment. Something commonly referred to as "well-being" by many psychologists.
Finding happiness is not as easy as it sounds. People have even wondered if we can predict who's going to be happy and who isn't. That might sound crazy, but a recent analysis by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman finds that there are two traits that could predict happiness.
Well-being is a particular area of research that is studied by positive psychologists. It includes not only positive moods - which can be temporary - but a general satisfaction with one's life.
If you haven't heard of positive psychology, it's the branch of psychology that explores the positive areas of human development. Things like happiness, flow, and optimism. They also have a classification handbook - co-authored by Martin Seligman - that spells out a total of 24 character traits that a person can exhibit under 6 broad virtues.
It was these characteristic traits that Dr. Kaufman was curious about. Using data from a larger project - which included 517 individuals ranging from the ages of 18 to 71 - he wanted to see if he could find any associations to happiness.
Of the 24 traits that he analyzed, he discovered two that were significant predictors of well-being. For a deeper look at the details of his analysis, you can check out his article over at Scientific American.
The Obvious Candidate
The first trait won't be a surprise to many of you. The single best predictor of well-being was gratitude.
Gratitude has been found in many studies to increase happiness and well-being. It can also give a boost to romantic relationships, mental health, and heart health. If you're unaware of how the practice of gratefulness can benefit you, I highly encourage you to check it out.
This simply chalks up another victory for gratitude and shows how important it can be towards contributing to your own happiness.
The Dark Horse
The other trait is a bit more surprising. Dr. Kaufman found that "love of learning" was the second characteristic that could independently predict well-being.
While I've always been a promoter of lifelong learning, it's interesting to see it was the only other trait that predicts well-being (although there were a few close contenders.)
Love of learning, as defined by the classification book, means mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one's own or formally.
This mean that happiness is predicted by more than just having years of formal education. Yes, formal education is associated with better habits, health, and overall longevity. But we're also talking about lifelong learners. Individuals who explore new hobbies, master new skills, and engage in mentally stimulating activities. People who learn for the fun and challenge of it.
Mastery is one of the great intrinsic motivators - as pointed out by Daniel Pink in his book Drive. This shows that the pursuit of knowledge is deeply motivating and also has profound implications for our happiness and well-being.
A Hidden Lesson
There was another result from Dr. Kaufman's analysis, but he touches on it only briefly.
He found evidence that working on your character strengths is predictive of well-being - one of the main tenets of positive psychology. That means practicing or training these character strengths can result in higher well-being also.
Other research backs up this claim. In a study looking at practicing optimism and gratitude, people with depression were part of 6 week program that practiced good deeds and activities like writing gratitude letters. The people who stuck with the program saw improvements in mental and physical health.
Psychologists from Zurich have also tested the effect of practicing these traits. Over 10 weeks 178 adults were separated into three groups. One group was used as a control and didn't do any character exercises, while the other 2 groups trained different character strengths. The researchers found that anyone that did any training, whatsoever, had a boost to their well-being.
A World in Pursuit
It's not just Americans that want to be happy. Happiness is something that is sought after by people of all cultures in every corner of the globe.
In a study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, researcher Ed Diener cites a survey he conducted among 10,000 people in 48 countries. Happiness was rated as the most important out of 12 possible outcomes.
Happiness is important to us as individuals and society as a whole. While finding out which traits can predict levels of happiness is a fun exercise, maybe there's a bigger lesson to be learned.
If you want to be happy, you should practice positive traits.