By Louise Stanger Ed.D., LCSW, CDWF, CIP and Roger Porter


For the person in recovery, happiness can be a fleeting notion; happiness for anyone can be hard to claim. What does happiness even look like?

I define happiness as a feeling of contentment and peace about oneself. It’s the emotional response that the world is okay, there are better days ahead, and there’s room for possibility. Sure, anyone can have a bad mood, a bad day or even a bad date. True happiness lives in the moments when we feel good about our lives.

In recent years, behavioral healthcare scientists and researchers have looked at the science of happiness and have uncovered steadfast truths about how we live and interact in an increasingly hyper-connected world. These science-backed truths can help you find happiness, stay in recovery, and live your best life.

Business Insider reports that “40% of our happiness is under our control.” That’s a huge amount of control that we have over our own happiness! The other 60% is attributed to external factors such as the behaviors of others, unforeseen events and genetics. The key insight is that nearly half of what makes us happy through our daily activities, thoughts, and interactions with friends, family and coworkers gives us the power to harness happiness.

The following looks at these behaviors to unlock how we can live happier lives. In conjunction with Time Magazine’s Special Edition on The Science of Happiness, top-notch researchers from UC Berkeley to Harvard Business School and beyond, pulled together key findings related to behaviors that bring a spirit of happiness.

Finding Happiness

For many of us, there’s an assumption that happiness only comes from life’s major milestones- weddings and birthdays, going to college and grad school, first cars and homes, vacations and kids. This false narrative, coupled with the idea that we have to constantly move to accomplish our goals foregoing happiness, enduring stress and weathering negative feelings, may be why many Americans feel overworked and stressed out. Let’s break through these assumptions and take a look at the ways we can find lasting happiness:

Social Bonding. Human connection is in our DNA. According to The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which followed hundreds of men for over 70 years, the happiest were those who cultivated strong relationships where there was a bond of trust and commitment. Moreover, focusing your energy, time and money on social bonding rather than material goods maximizes pleasure and vitality. Why? Because developing cherished memories stay with us long after we experience them. Even “the anticipation of an experience can be as valuable a source of happiness as the experience itself,” says Michael Norton, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. “And for months afterward, recalling the event continues to make you happy.”

Empathy. Like Atticus Finch says in the classic children’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird, empathy is the ability to “climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it.” And research shows exercising empathy in the form of love and compassion toward others makes us happy.

According to Brene Brown’s article published in Psychology Today, who references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s research on the four attributes of empathy, there’s a lot we have in our power to use empathy toward a happier well-being:

    1. • See the world as others see it (i.e. the Atticus Finch view).
    1. • Leave your personal judgments at the door.
    1. • Focus on understanding your own feelings in order to understand the feelings of your loved one.
    1. • Communicate love and understanding as a way of showing support and validation for their feelings.

Focus. Psychologists at Harvard University studied 5,000 people and found that “adults spend only about 50% of their time in the present moment.” As such, we look for distractions through digital devices, media and escapist fare, which in turn only makes us more anxious and depressed. In fact, “the more people engaged in media multitasking (from word processing to text messaging and email), the higher their anxiety and depression levels tended to be.” One study cited in Time Magazine and published in the scientific journal PLOS One found “the more people spent time on Facebook, the more their life satisfaction levels declined.”

Building Resilience

Researchers have come a long way in understanding how humans develop resilience and use it in their lives to weather life’s tough storms. In 1955, Emmy Werner, a developmental psychologist, formed a team from UC Berkeley to create the most important longitudinal study in the field of resilience research. The 40-year project looked at nearly 700 children in Kauai, Hawaii, who had alcoholic parents. Turns out many of the children “adapted exceedingly well over time.” Werner and her research team found the following ways the children thrived when faced with adversity:

    1. • A tight-knit community
    1. • A stable role model
    • A strong belief in their ability to solve problems

The key to building resilience? A stable support system. “Very few highly resilient people are strong in and by themselves. You need support,” says Steven Southwick of the Yale School of Medicine. Moreover, these tenets for building strong resilience are the very things that 12-Step support groups use in recovery. Turns out, recovery and resilience go hand-in-hand!

What else can you do to build strong resilience? Here are expert tips:

    1. • Develop a set of your own personal values and stick to them. • Look for meaning in stressful or traumatic life moments.
    1. • Focus on the positives more than the negatives.
    1. • Face the things that scare you the most. Dark shadows disappear when light shines on them.
    • Learn something new every day.