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And what brings happiness to those who are least happy?

New research shows 5 common factors—and 4 differences—in the factors that bring happiness to people with mental illness and everyone else. Plus, learn 6 takeaways to increase happiness.

Happiness is one of our greatest needs.

We all long to be happy, something the founders of the United States recognized when they asserted in the Declaration of Independence that all individuals had an “unalienable” right for “the pursuit of Happiness.”

Still, happiness can be elusive. One day we can be brimming with joy and happiness, and the next day we discover the delightful feeling has slipped away. Or, during dark days, even the possibility of feeling happy can seem far beyond our reach.

Fortunately, we can help create our own happiness. Considerable research in psychology in the past thirty years has identified some of the activities that foster happiness.

Unfortunately, however, nearly all of the research has been conducted with college students or the general population. Largely overlooked in the pursuit of happiness research has been the lives of people with mental health disorders—people who most need a boost in feeling good, as these individuals are on average significantly less happy than the general population, though still capable of experiencing happiness.

My colleagues at Places for People and I recently conducted and published new research identifying major sources of happiness for people with serious mental health disorders. We found the things that bring happiness for people with mental health disorders are similar to the general population, with a few notable exceptions. These results also point to ways that we all—people with or without mental health disorders—can be happier.

5 Common Sources of Happiness

Our study found five major sources of happiness for people with serious mental health disorders—factors that (by and large) are similar for people in general.

1. Human connection brings happiness.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao,

Relationships and social contact was the strongest factor for feeling happy for people with mental health disorders. The range of relationships was wide, including with parents, spouses, children, grandchildren, extended family, and friends.

Some of these accounts were especially poignant, such as the man who talked about the love and happiness he shared with his wife. As for people in general, the giving and receiving love was an important component in relationships and creating happiness.

2. Engaging in meaningful, productive activities and gaining a sense of accomplishment fosters happiness.

For some individuals, having a job and working was a huge source of accomplishment and happiness. For others, volunteer activities or educational activities—ranging from going to college to pursuing a GED—created a sense of pride, accomplishment, and happiness.

3. Practicing coping skills also contributed to feeling happy.

Individuals used a variety of skills—from laughing things off and learning not to take things too seriously to replacing negative thoughts with positive ones—helped people to feel happier.

4. Recreation helps happiness.

Photo by Benjamin Hershey,

Individuals engaged in a wide range of activities—from sports to playing with their children to community events—that added happiness to their lives.

5. Having adequate material resources provided important support for happiness.

Four Key Differences in Happiness

The five factors described above are also major sources of happiness for people in general, as shown by previous research. However, our research also revealed four nuanced but important differences in what brings happiness for people with mental health disorders and most other people.

1. The importance of mental health staff for human connection.

While many people with serious mental health disorders found family and friends critical to their happiness, others talked about the importance of relationships, support, and contact with mental health staff for helping them to be happy.

2. Everyday self-care activities also provide a sense of accomplishment for some people with serious mental health disorders.

Photo by Conscious design,

Traditional social roles, like employees and students, brought a sense of meaning for some people with mental health disorders, but others found pride in completing everyday tasks—such as exercising or cooking for themselves or their children. Serious mental health disorders often create disabilities that interfere with normal activities of daily living. The ability of these individuals to perform essential daily tasks speaks both to their rehabilitative progress and their ability to find meaning in the everyday activities that most of us take for granted.

3. The type of problems faced.

Coping with stress, anxiety, depression is crucial for the happiness of both people in general and for those with serious mental health disorders, but the latter group also faced the challenge of coping with much more serious symptoms. Specifically, people with serious mental health disorders also frequently needed to learn to cope and manage with symptoms like hallucinations in order to feel happy.

4. Getting basic material needs met.

Decades ago, Abraham Maslow theorized that the first and fundamental step in well-being for all people was getting one’s basic needs met. For most people in the United States, this is an unquestioned given. But for people with serious mental health disorders—who typically face poverty and often homelessness—having their basic needs meet—such as a home, food, a monthly income—was something they appreciated and which improved happiness.

Six Takeaways for Increasing Happiness

Descriptive research revealed five common sources that bring about happiness but we are not just passive recipients of our emotions (though sometimes it feels that way). We can actively increase our happiness. We can cultivate the five common factors helpful to happiness and we can practice a number of other skills that also make us happier. Here are six ways we can be improve happiness for people in general and those with serious mental health disorders. First, let’s identify three ways to improve happiness for people with mental health disorders.

1. Advocate for accessible services.

Sometimes policy seems beyond our personal influence, but even a small number of citizens advocating for governmental action can have a positive effect. Local communities and the federal and state governments must ensure effective mental health services are accessible and delivered to people with mental health disorders. Services that bolster coping skills will decrease suffering and increase happiness. Further, providers need to be mindful that happiness is improved not only through specific mental health interventions but that the very formation of a caring, supportive relationship with people with mental health disorders is often crucial for bringing out happiness.

2. Advocate for employment assistance programs.

Local providers and government funders also support efforts to help people with mental health disorders find activities that enhance meaning. Employment programs, such as the Individual Placement and Support model are especially important. So are programs that support individuals to further their education or find volunteer roles.

3. Ensure basic resources for those who need them.

It is difficult to be very happy if you homeless and hungry. Homelessness among people with serious mental health disorders is epidemic in the United States, even though service programs and housing assistance can end homelessness. Service and housing programs work—but there are too few for the level of need. Greater advocacy is needed to ensure everyone has access to affordable housing. Three additional actions can help improve the happiness of people in general.

4. Learn to appreciate even the small things.

Some people with serious mental health disorders feel happier by appreciating simple things, like being able to cook for their family or having a place to live. We can all take a lesson from this approach and learn to live with greater awareness and appreciation for what we do have in life, instead of being dissatisfied about what we don’t have or craving something more.

Gratitude is a particularly important way to feel happy. Even a simple practice, such as jotting down three things each day that you are grateful for, increases happiness. A simple worksheet for practicing gratitude is shown in the tools and resources (Resources page.)

5. Allow your compassion to grow.

If we open first our eyes to seeing the serious challenges that some people face–e.g., dealing with hallucinations or being homeless—and then open our heart, we are likely to feel much greater compassion. And compassion is a quality that in and of itself increases happiness for those who feel it.

Our compassion can also grow if we recognize the commonality of humanity among people with serious mental health disorders and ourselves. After all, we all share the common factors that bring happiness—and we share so much more. It is not us and them. It is all of us.

Photo by Priscilla du Preez,

6. Befriend someone with mental health disorders.

Human connection creates happiness. This is true both for people with mental health disorders and everyone else. Most people know one or more people within their families or social circles who struggle with mental health disorders. Many of these individuals suffer not only from mental health disorders but from stigmatization and social isolation.

Simply spending a little more time together, not as a counselor but as a friend who cares, can provide a boost to their happiness.

In addition, many communities have—or, can create, if they don’t already exist—“friendly visitors” programs where lay citizens can volunteer to meet an individual with serious mental health disorders for basic social activities, like getting a cup of coffee, running an errand, having a simple conversation, or just sharing companionship.

Providing small acts of kindness is good for both the giver and the receiver, as research shows people who do acts of kindness for others feel happier themselves. In addition, the new or deeper human connection can bring greater happiness to both people, for positive relationships foster healing and happiness.

Those six steps—and there are many more—can bring greater happiness to the lives of people with mental health disorders and anyone else, yourself included.

Which ones can you commit to try?


Photo by Lesley Juarez,
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