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If you were to make a wish for the one thing that would bring you the most happiness in life, what would it be? According to the latest research, if your wish was for wealth, good looks, education, a high IQ, landing your dream job, or never experiencing a bad event, you’re looking for happiness in all the wrong places. Surprised? So was I.

We’ve all heard the saying “Money doesn’t bring happiness,” but most of us don’t really believe it—especially when we’re short on cash. An interesting study conducted in 2012, however, found that Denmark ranked highest in life satisfaction and work-life balance, and seventeenth in income. On the other hand, the United States ranked number one in income but twelfth in life satisfaction and twenty-ninth in work-life balance. If more money leads to more happiness, then the United States should rank number one in life satisfaction—but it doesn’t.

According to Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, “The less fortunate are, by and large, just as happy as the more fortunate. Good things and high accomplishments, studies have shown, have astonishingly little power to raise happiness more than transiently.”

So, what exactly is the path to happiness? And what makes some people seemingly happy in spite of adverse circumstances while others dwell in misery despite their good fortune? While many factors impact our level of happiness, studies indicate that we can intentionally boost our happiness by practicing several key behaviors.

1 Gratitude

Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, along with Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, conducted a study in which they asked people to keep a journal of five things for which they felt grateful. They were asked to write just one sentence for each of the five things they were grateful for, such as a kind act that someone did for them or some simple pleasure they had experienced, such as a sunset. Their assignment was to record in their journal only once a week, not daily. At the end of the two-month study, those keeping the journal were more optimistic and happier than those in a control group. This is just one of many studies that show a positive relationship between gratitude and happiness.

I attended a conference recently in which Dr. Emmons was the keynote speaker. He recommended that we all develop the practice of counting our blessings. To begin, he advised his audience to think about three good things that went well for them recently and then write about how they were grateful for those things. He said, “We all have the tools to practice gratitude. Every waking moment provides an opportunity for gratitude. Becoming grateful leads people to find more things to be grateful for.”

2 Optimism

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Optimism is defined as a hopeful, positive outlook on the future, yourself, and the world around you. Studies show that optimists tend to be happier and healthier than pessimists, and optimism has been scientifically shown to protect against many ailments, such as heart disease, depression, and others.

In Authentic Happiness, Seligman examines the thought patterns of people who are optimistic versus those who are pessimistic. He says that pessimists view the bad things that happen to them as permanent, but optimists view bad events as temporary. For instance, let’s suppose you’re trying to lose weight, and after a few weeks on a diet (with no cheating), you’re having no success. If you were a pessimist, you might say, “I’ll never lose this weight,” or “Losing weight is just too hard.” On the other hand, an optimist would likely say, “This weight loss plan isn’t working for me,” or “Maybe I should try exercising along with dieting,” or “Maybe I’m not following the plan correctly,” or “Maybe I should get a checkup to see if a medical condition is hindering my weight loss.”

Seligman says that we can learn to be optimistic, and the key to doing it is to recognize and dispute our pessimistic thoughts. For example, when something bad happens, consider many possible explanations. People who are pessimistic tend to focus on only one—usually the worst possible alternative—as in the case of a person who fails a test and concludes he or she isn’t smart. Failing a test, though, could be the result of a number of possibilities: the test was hard, you weren’t feeling well that day, you hadn’t studied enough—and the list goes on.

3 Acts of kindness

We all know intuitively that doing kind deeds makes us happy, but did you know that this idea is also supported by scientific studies? Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, of the University of California, Riverside, and author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, says that doing a variety of acts of kindness—and they don’t have to be random—boosts happiness.

In an interview posted on the blog of Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, Lyubomirsky describes how, in a study she conducted, acts of kindness affected people’s happiness: “Another big intervention we just finished at a company in Spain showed that asking some employees to be generous to a randomly chosen list of colleagues (we called this our ‘Secret Santa’ manipulation) produced major benefits in increased happiness, connectedness, flow, and decreased depression, not just for the givers, but for the receivers, and even for observers. The recipients of kindness ‘paid the kind acts forward’ and even acquaintances of the givers became happier and were inspired to act more generously themselves.”

4 Forgiveness

I’m often amazed when I hear the stories of people who forgave someone who had committed a horrible atrocity against them. On the flip side, I’ve also (unfortunately) met people who are bitter for life because of some hurt or wrong they experienced years before. People like that are unpleasant to be around, because they’re always rehearsing their wounds of the past.

In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky says that people who forgive “are more likely to be happier, healthier, more agreeable, and more serene. They are better able to empathize with others and to be spiritual or religious. People who forgive hurts in relationships are more capable of reestablishing closeness. Finally, the inability to forgive is associated with persistent rumination or dwelling on revenge, while forgiving allows a person to move on.”

In his book, Seligman describes a five-step process of forgiveness that was developed by psychologist Everett Worthington. It’s represented by an acronym called REACH. R stands for recall the hurt; E stands for empathize; A stands for giving the altruistic gift of forgiveness; C stands for committing yourself publicly; and H stands for holding on to forgiveness. A point to ponder: regardless of what may have happened in your past, by refusing to forgive, you may be blocking your pathway to happiness.

Do you want to be a happier person? Gratitude, optimism, acts of kindness, and forgiveness are just a few of the habits and ways of thinking you can cultivate to pursue a happier life. And as you journey on your own path to happiness, you’ll discover that it brings a lot of joy to others along the way!

4 Secrets of Happiness

by Pat Humphrey
From the January 2015 Signs