Is Happiness A Choice You’re Making? Steps to Achieve and Retain Happiness

by Amy Steinberg Published Aug 14, 2018 Last updated Aug 14, 2018

An internet search for “How to Be Happy” yields thousands of results ranging from exercise to selling everything you own and moving to a foreign country. That’s because, in a general sense, happiness is unique to everyone and its definition is quite subjective.

Science, however, has been working to not only identify what makes us happy but ways in which we can get ahold of this elusive emotional experience and keep a firm grip on it in our day-to-day lives.

Understanding Happiness in the Human Condition

Scientists have estimated that “genetic variation explains about 33% of the variance in individual happiness,” which means, while some people may be predisposed to depression from a genetic standpoint, more commonly, happiness is a choice.

In the 1950’s, American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the Hierarchy of Needs as a metric for his term, “Positive Psychology,” also known as “Humanistic Psychology.” According to his psychological model, Maslow maintained that individuals must meet the lower needs before they could reach the apex of the pyramid and find their full human potential.

Maslow’s groundbreaking Hierarchy of Needs defines five levels of basic human needs regarding happiness:

  1. Physiological Needs

Essential needs such as food, water, air, and rest.

  1. Safety Needs

Need for shelter and security.

  1. Need for Belongingness

Need for relationships.

  1. Esteem Needs

Need for recognition of personal value from others, as well as self-esteem resulting in feelings of adequacy and confidence.

  1. Self-Actualization Needs

Achieving one’s full potential; being a part of the bigger picture.

So, What Is Happiness?

Although what makes us happy can vary as much as each individual person does, experts define happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” This definition aligns with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and creates a roadmap for us to follow in search of the happiness we all seek.

Is Happiness Worth the Work?

According to Harvard Medical School, having positive emotions have been linked numerous times by science to better health, longer life, and greater well-being. Conversely, chronic irritability, stress, and worry have been linked to everything from headaches to increased risks of heart disease.

Further, experts at Berkley have reported that happiness strengthens the immune system, protects the heart, combats stress, reduces aches and pains, combats disease and disability, and lengthens our lives.

Given all of these reasons, happiness is certainly a worthy pursuit and it’s not as difficult as you may think.

Steps Towards Happiness

Bearing in mind Maslow’s hierarchy, we can easily begin by addressing our basic needs as we move up the ladder to our greatest goal: self-actualization.

Level 1: Mind Your Basic Needs


The US Department of Health and Nutrition says your food choices directly affect your health. Of course, this may seem like a no-brainer but often we can become so overwhelmed by the things we are going through that our nourishment becomes neglected. Take time to ensure you are eating a healthy, balanced diet but you can take this a step further: Give yourself permission to have the occasional treat! Experts say that food is not only essential for survival, but it’s also an enjoyable part of life.


The National Sleep Foundation recently released updated guidelines for the proper amount of sleep needed for different age groups but they warn that these are just guidelines and that each individual is unique. Sometimes, sleep is not feasible but the body may be holding onto tension or stress. Rest and sleep are two similar but different things. Taking a moment to rest and decompress can be a healthy part of creating calmness and rejuvenating yourself.


Countless studies have been done to determine the efficacy of exercise on one’s health and well-being and experts agree that moderate exercise has a number of benefits. Additionally, with air being among Maslow’s level 1 needs, exercising increases the oxygen in your blood, cleansing your body of carbon dioxide and expanding lung capacity.

Stay Healthy

Be sure to have your health regularly checked and maintained. Pay attention to the basic needs of your body and mind.

Level 2: Create Safety and Security

Nurture Yourself

Experts at the University of Minnesota suggest that having a healthy personal environment at home helps to create a sense of peace and belonging and provides many other healthy benefits. Take some time each day to ensure your home environment is nurturing to you, and provides you with the physical safety and security you need.

Create a Routine

Having a daily routine can provide you with structure and help keep you organized, according to experts at Northwestern Medicine. A routine can be as simple or complex as needed but having guidelines that help you navigate the day can be a positive way to keep you feeling focused and secure.

Define Your Success

Having a clear definition of success helps you measure where you stand both personally and professionally.

Level 3: Belongingness and Love

Nurture Relationships

Take time to spend quality time on existing relationships, as well as identify potential new ones. Studies show that success depends on the strength of our relationships and feeling excluded has harmful effects on personal and professional well-being.

Join A Group

Whether personal or professional, it can be beneficial to join a group of like-minded people who share in one or more of your passions. Finding friends and nourishing those relationships are vital to your well-being.

Level 4: Esteem Needs

Expand Your Knowledge

Everyone needs to feel appreciated and recognized and one great way to achieve this is to establish a growth mindset that allows you to expand your worth – not only at work but for your own personal accomplishment.

Appreciate Others

Notice and appreciate others who demonstrate admirable traits and qualities. By focusing on the positives in your personal and professional lives, your amygdala is transformed and your brain literally becomes retrained.

Practice Random Acts of Kindness

Many happiness experts agree that performing random acts of kindness affect not only the giver and receiver but also anyone who happens to witness it! Further, kindness stimulates the production of serotonin which aids in health and well-being.

Level 5: Self-Actualization Needs

Define Your Big Picture

Maslow’s model indicates the highest level of happiness is that of self-actualization wherein we become connected to something larger than ourselves. This is key to having a compass that guides our thoughts and actions in an authentic and altruistic way. This big-picture view takes us outside of ourselves and elevates us with progressive intentions, providing purpose in our lives. Knowing that you are a part of a larger picture, helps you choose the right steps to take towards personal and professional fulfillment.

Continue Learning

At this level of happiness, personal and professional growth is a powerful force, along with having peak experiences. With each new peak experience – whether it be the simple process of appreciating something small or the complex conquering of a deep fear – treat yourself to higher learning and move forward towards your next peak experience.

While happiness is subjective, the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of being happy can hardly be disputed. The time it takes to create true happiness in your life – and retain it – is time well-spent and there’s no better time than now, to start building your happy life.

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