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What is the path to happiness? The science is still not clear

For many years, experts have attempted to understand the science of happiness. But how strong is the evidence behind some of the most commonly promoted strategies for achieving happiness? A new review suggests that the road to happiness might be less clear than we thought.

The analysis, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, was conducted by researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Dunigan Folk.

The study presents a compelling examination of happiness interventions. The findings indicate that most experiments on popular happiness strategies – such as spending time outdoors, physical activity, and mindfulness practices – fail to meet the current best practices in psychological research.

Focus of the study

Around a decade ago, the scientific community grappled with what became known as the “Replication Crisis.” Many research outcomes from pivotal studies were suddenly put under the microscope, with results proving difficult to replicate consistently. Several factors were identified, including small sample sizes and methodological flaws.

As the world of science reeled from these revelations, there was a paradigm shift in research methodologies. Dunn and Folk’s work is representative of this newer, more rigorous approach

The experts set out to present new insights and to assess older research through the lens of these stringent standards.

Strict criteria 

Before delving into happiness research, Dunn and Folk set stringent criteria. One cornerstone of their assessment was statistical power. 

Dunn explained: “If we have studies that have samples that are too small, we can end up failing to detect effects that really exist.” Conversely, overly small samples can also lead to misleading “false positives.”

The researchers also emphasized the importance of pre-registration, a process wherein scientists detail their research plans and hypotheses for public scrutiny before embarking on experiments. 

“In the absence of pre-registration, researchers can kind of shoot darts at the wall and then draw the bull’s eye on afterward,” said Dunn. “We have to draw bull’s-eye, shoot our dart and then be pretty honest and transparent about whether it hit.”

Subjective well-being 

To standardize their assessment, the researchers anchored their review to a universally recognized definition of happiness: subjective well-being (SWB). This includes both emotional aspects of well-being, such as the prevalence of positive over negative emotions, and cognitive facets like life satisfaction.

Happiness-boosting tactics 

The experts evaluated five widely recommended happiness-boosting tactics: gratitude, physical activity, nature exposure, meditation, and social interaction. Their findings include:


Writing thankful messages appears to foster short-term positive shifts in mood.

Social interaction

Engaging with strangers or adopting extroverted behaviors can elevate mood, albeit based on a limited set of studies.

Mindfulness and meditation

Among a handful of robust studies, six found that mindfulness practices can foster happiness. However, these could potentially blur the lines between social interactions and the mindfulness exercises themselves.


While a single workout session might lift spirits, evidence for its long-term impact on happiness remains insubstantial.

Time in nature

Contrary to popular belief, the connection between nature and happiness was less substantiated than one might expect.

In conclusion, Dunn and Folk’s work reminds us of the significance of robust, transparent research. The study highlights the importance of critically evaluating the strategies we adopt in our journey toward well-being.

More about the pursuit of happiness

The pursuit of happiness transcends cultural, social, and economic barriers. Often seen as the ultimate goal of life, this pursuit has been the subject of philosophical debates, scientific inquiries, and artistic expressions for millennia. 

Philosophical context

From the ancient Greeks to modern thinkers, the pursuit of happiness has been a central theme in philosophy:

Aristotle believed that happiness, or eudaimonia, was the highest good in life. To him, happiness wasn’t about fleeting pleasures but rather leading a life of virtue and purpose.

Utilitarian philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham posited that the best action is the one that maximizes utility, typically framed as that which produces the greatest well-being of the greatest number.

Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche emphasized individual freedom and responsibility, suggesting that happiness is deeply personal and often found in the act of seeking meaning, even in the face of absurdity.

Psychological insights

Modern psychology has contributed a great deal to our understanding of happiness:

Positive psychology

Spearheaded by Martin Seligman, this field focuses on strengths, virtues, and factors that contribute to a fulfilling life. Concepts like flow, gratitude, and strengths-based approaches are foundational.

Set point theory

This theory posits that our level of subjective well-being is determined primarily by heredity and by personality traits ingrained in us early in life, and remains relatively constant throughout our lives.

Adaptation principle

We quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes, a phenomenon often called the “hedonic treadmill.”

Socio-cultural perspectives

Different cultures have unique perspectives on happiness:

Eastern philosophies

Concepts like ‘nirvana’ in Buddhism or ‘Tao’ in Taoism emphasize contentment, detachment, and balance as pathways to happiness.

Western cultures

Often emphasize individual achievement, freedom, and autonomy as key components of happiness.

Collectivist societies

Emphasize community, harmony, and collective well-being over individual success.

Economic and political viewpoints

The connection between wealth and happiness has been a subject of much debate. While higher income can lead to increased well-being to a certain extent, after a certain point, additional income has a minimal impact on subjective well-being. 

The famous saying, “money can’t buy happiness,” captures this sentiment, although it might be more accurate to say “money can buy happiness, but only up to a point.”

Furthermore, the “pursuit of happiness” is mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right, reflecting the importance of this pursuit in the foundational values of the nation.


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