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posted: 8/27/2012 6:00 AM

What makes us happy in life?

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  • Being in a romantic relationship can often improve our outlook on life and how happy we are.

    Being in a romantic relationship can often improve our outlook on life and how happy we are.

  • Hugs and kisses can put a smile on anyone's face.

    Hugs and kisses can put a smile on anyone's face.

By Ann Sharpsteen
Scripps Howard News Service

Welcome to the burgeoning happiness craze.

For the first time ever, the U.S. government, through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is looking to measure happiness levels among Americans. The United Kingdom has already started to track and measure well-being. Even the United Nations has boarded the happy train, having issued its own 150-page "World Happiness Report" this year.

Amid the wave of interest and research on the subject, the question remains: What is it that makes us happy?

Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and well-being at Gallup, has made a career of researching the answer to that question. And his extensive worldwide research into happiness and well-being points to specific areas that give us a boost.

Friends and a strong support network are crucial to happiness. "Are our relationships strong and supportive?" Harter asks. "Do we have love in our lives?" Those things, he says, strongly affect our feelings of well-being, adding that anything that strengthens social bonds, whether it be spending time together, sharing experiences or giving of time, are all equally beneficial. "At a basic level, humans are social. And when we build a bond with somebody through those activities, it regenerates us."

Religious faith also seems to lift the spirit. Individuals who possess religious faith report better social lives and more satisfaction with careers, and enjoy better health, financial and community well-being -- all important areas that lead to a happy life, according to Harter.

One of the most debated issues in happiness research has to do with how much of our happiness and joy is actually under our control. Jennifer Garza, author of "365 Days to Happiness," believes everyone has the ability to bring about change. "We have great power to create our happiness," she says, "and we can accomplish that through our mindset."

She offers specific advice for how to increase feelings of well-being:

• Stop complaining: Venting and whining often have the opposite effect. Research shows that rumination worsens sadness, creates negative thinking and decreases motivation. Resist the urge to vent, and take a two-week no-complaining challenge. During this time, radiate gratitude instead.

• Focus on the positive and let it go: Persistent negative thoughts can contribute to depression. For every negative situation, try to figure out what opportunity exists there. If there is no silver lining in a circumstance, let it go. Realize you cannot control everything and everyone.

Harter's advice for increasing feelings of well-being and happiness similarly emphasize shifting negative focus from self to others in a decidedly positive way. His advice:

• Give: Of time and money. It's not so much the amount of money or the complexity of the act. It's the act itself of giving to another person. This strengthens social connections and builds a bond with the person to whom you are giving. Simple acts of kindness -- preparing a meal for someone, lending an ear to a friend in crisis, writing a letter, all return huge dividends to the person giving.

• Buy "experiences": A short-term boost can be had from buying "things," but you get a longer-term boost from buying "experiences."

One reason for that, Harter explains, is we "relive those experiences, and forge stronger social connections through experiences with other people." Taking a vacation, having a cup of coffee with a friend, attending a musical performance with a loved one -- all are ways to create memories.

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