On life and happiness: The “Secret” is Finally Known

From Linda M. Rio, M.A., LMFT, author, marriage and family therapist, and PWN contributor –  Mankind has pursued many, many mysteries and challenges, some of which still remain unearthed and unsolved. The world was eventually confirmed to be round, not flat. A “New World” was discovered across a vast ocean. European explorers ventured far away in hopes of finding lost treasures of gold. Now, planet Mars and even galaxies beyond our own are being sought after. But one pursuit has nagged nearly all humans since the beginning of time. What is THE secret to true happiness?         

Before arriving at the answer to this important question, it is first necessary to look at what happiness is. The enormity of a thorough look into this definition eludes this paper, but it can be succinctly stated this is not an easy response. Just as the pursuit of happiness seems as old as time, so does man’s attempts to find words to properly gather all conceptualizations, including cultural, genetic, familial, biological, psychological, linguistic, and other aspects of the meaning. The fact is that happiness in one person may mean something different to another. It may come to some as a surprise that the Science of Happiness currently has two major pursuits of thought on the subject. One major aspect seems to look into the state of well-being or the value of how one is flourishing. Another area of investigation into happiness is from a psychological perspective that includes one’s sense of life’s satisfaction. In a report on the relationship between health and happiness, a wide array of factors appears to contribute to subjective well-being, including personality, genetics, education, socioeconomic status, social network, personal use of time and activities, exposure to stress, and marital/family status. The mechanisms potentially linking happiness with health include lifestyle factors, such as physical activity and dietary choice, and biological processes involving neuroendocrine, inflammatory, and metabolic pathways.

A longitudinal study on the subject of happiness was conducted by Harvard University. And although this has nothing specifically to do with pituitary disorders, this study seems relevant to all humans, especially those challenged by life-altering illnesses. And Pituitary World News has a great interest in helping patients and their families increase their Quality of Life (QoL) through whatever means possible, including excellence in medicine, mental health, and a healthy lifestyle. The Harvard Study of Adult Development began in 1938 when the university’s sophomore students (all male since it was a different era) were asked questions to determine what makes humans happy. The study has followed the original 724 participants longitudinally for over 85 years! Data for the study additionally used physical examinations, somatotyping (Body builds determined based on certain physical characteristics of body shape and BODY COMPOSITION, NIH Library of Medicine), detailed home interviews, and physical and mental health tests. What is most amazing is that this original cohort was followed every 2-5 years with questionnaires and physical examinations. 

So, what is the bottom line? Contrary to what many people might think, and certainly based on much seen in daily life, the key to living a long and happy life isn’t what appears to drive our society. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado would have been disappointed to learn he was on the wrong track toward true happiness since this research shows it absolutely isn’t riches of gold. It also isn’t being famous or having hundreds/thousands of “likes” on social media either. And, before anyone might think that this study may have spanned over eight decades but may not be relevant to today’s generation, they will be pleased to know there is another Harvard Study of Adult Development, the second-generation study, which has now begun in the original’s footsteps. This follow-up investigation will aim to look at the effect of childhood experiences on health later on and to create a detailed model of how early life events help shape well-being. So, what is the bottom line from the original Harvard study? The answer seems amazingly simple. They concluded the essence of happiness lies in the positive relationships people develop over the years. Developing and maintaining healthy social connections takes skill and effort and is not accomplished successfully by all. Humans are social creatures by nature that rely on one another for life and, apparently, for happiness as well. The very length of time required for humans to reach maturity and independence, in contrast to other life forms, lends credence to our reliance on one another.

Another study was done worldwide by Readers Digest in 2022, where 12 wallets with the equivalent of $50 were put inside and then left in random sites in 16 cities around the globe to see what would happen. The researchers were looking to find where people felt most happy and safe. To personalize the appearance, researchers placed the presumed owner’s name inside each wallet with a cellphone number, a family photo, coupons, and business cards. Then, they waited to see what would happen. The number one city with the most returned wallets was Helsinki, Finland, where 11 of the total 12 wallets were returned. For those interested, the runners-up included Mumbai, India (9 of 12 wallets returned); Budapest, Hungary (8 of 12 wallets returned); New York City, U.S.A. (8 of 12 wallets returned); Moscow, Russia (7 of 12 wallets returned); Amsterdam, the Netherlands (7 of 12 wallets returned). Because Finland seems to repeatedly stand out as one of the top happiest places on Earth, researchers like to investigate the reasons behind this relatively small country’s happiness success. In another study conducted online in 2021, Finnish researchers asked 2,245 adults (ages 18–75) about their happiness levels. They found three important elements of their happiness. Eighty-seven percent of Finns said they consider nature very or fairly important in their lives. Fifty-six percent said that nature helps them to recuperate and relax, and even encountering nature through impressive photographs of nature and learning interesting facts about nature from reference books or nature documentaries were reportedly beneficial to feelings of well-being. An important cultural component surfaced as respondents did not feel their happiness depended significantly on how well others felt they were getting by financially. In other words, keeping up with the Jones does not seem to be a cultural issue; in Finnish culture, they do not tend to compare themselves as much as other areas of the world. They focus more on internal gratification and less on external appearances. 

The Well-Being International Studies Repository (WBISR) is a multidisciplinary, open-access collection of academic, archival, and other materials addressing various topics in human well-being, animal well-being, and environmental sustainability. Their World Happiness Report 2021 included data about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with assessments done in past reports. This organization uses the Gallup Poll questionnaire to measure respondents’ evaluation of their current overall satisfaction with their lives and also data from additional research sources. In addition, both positive and negative emotions are assessed. A total of 95 countries around the globe are included in their annual reports. Approximately 1,000 responses per country are gathered annually for these surveys. Happiness rankings are done on a three-year average to increase the sample size to give more precise estimates. For the 2021 report to focus on the effects of COVID-19, they considered how life evaluations and emotions in 2020 compare to their averages for 2017-2019. Again, Finland comes out on top. It is interesting to note the top five countries are all Nordic, including Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. The United States ranks number 19, and Afghanistan comes in last. This report also cited a broad range of studies that demonstrate the importance of trust within communities. Those who report high levels of trust within their communities (relationships) are generally much more resilient in the face of a wide range of crises, including large-scale natural disasters and major accidents. Trust and cooperative social norms not only facilitate rapid and cooperative responses, which themselves improve the happiness of citizens, but also demonstrate to people the extent to which others are prepared to do benevolent acts for them and the community in general (WHR, 2021)

Of course, does a study that includes a few thousand truly reflect the intentions, values, and beliefs of an entire nation or the world? It is likely that science will continue to pursue the meaning of happiness, hopefully providing answers that may help all to come closer and closer to attaining such a lofty goal. It may boil down to each person’s exploration into their own depths to understand what brings them happiness. It is important to know one’s place of peace and contentment. The more people rely on things outside of themselves (money, fame, approval from others, alcohol/drugs, food, shopping, etc.) for gratification, the less likely they feel a sense of ownership in their destiny. When facing a major medical illness like a pituitary tumor, it is important to find many things within their control and purview that can bring satisfaction. Although health is important, it doesn’t seem to be a barrier to happiness. A city of gold won’t guarantee a happy life, but there are other things accessible to all that can be attainable. Especially when facing a significant health challenge, it seems that it does boil down to humans needing other humans. Whether it is one-on-one close, meaningful connections or community-wide trust in one another, it seems humans are intended to be social and interconnected. 


“Linda is in private practice in Westlake Village, California, and can be reached at

Linda M. Rio, M.A., LMFT (805) 619-0950  www.Lindamrio.com

Product DetailsThe book The Hormone Factor in Mental Health is available through Amazon.com and other major booksellers.

Helliwell, J.F., Layar, R., Sachs, J.D., & De Neve, J-E. (2021). World Happiness Report 2021. https://www.wellbeingintlstudiesrepository.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1004&context=hw_happiness

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