Happiness: 3 out of 5 Ways Unsubstantiated and What Really Works

Madelaine Weiss
3 min readAug 8, 2023

Table of Contents

What is Happiness?

Happiness is something that happens in the brain involving the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulated cortex, and insular cortex, and neurotransmitters such as endorphin, dopamine, serotonin, nor-epinephrine, and melatonin.

It has been defined from an evolutionary perspective as “a feeling of contentment, satisfaction, and pleasure that is linked to behaviors and experiences that are beneficial for our survival and the continuation of our species.”

No surprise then that happiness is good for our health, likely why so much is written and recommended about how we can get it. That and because it just feels so good.

But not all the hype about how to get from here to happy has been substantiated. In fact, studies are showing that 3 out of 5 happiness activities have not been substantiated, so let’s see what they are.

Unsubstantiated Happiness Activities

Elizabeth Dunn’s lab at the University of British Columbia google searched “How to Be Happy” to find the top five recommended happiness activities. Then they researched which of the 5 had actually been scientifically substantiated, through rigorous scientific study, as associated with happiness.

Here are the top 5 activities associated with happiness (listed in order of first letter)

– Being social

– Exercising

– Expressing gratitude

– Meditating

– Spending time in Nature

And guess which ones did not meet the test? Exercise, spending time in nature, and meditation. Ouch. I do those.

Then again, just because the science was subpar doesn’t necessarily mean that one or another or all of those activities might not benefit me or you. I do know that my mood is generally good, but then I heard that plain old aging does that too.

My philosophy tutors always advised that we should not believe what we have heard or read until our own experience confirms it.

So, I will continue to exercise, meditate, enjoy nature because my experience tells me these are good for me despite the shabby science.

Now, for what the science did support…

What Science Says Works

The remaining 2 activities, which have been scientifically substantiated to improve mood, are expressing gratitude and talking to strangers.

Here is a great gratitude link that lists, among other benefits, how “Grateful people enjoy higher well-being and happiness and suffer from reduced symptoms of depression.”

The site also includes 13 gratitude exercises to get you going, if you happen to consider yourself gratitude challenged.

What about talking to strangers? Hmmm. I do that too. Not just any old stranger, not in these times. But more often than not, at least a warm smile.

When I first moved to DC, 2 neighbors told me that people here are very unfriendly when passed on the street. As this was not my experience, I wondered what might have made it different for them and for me.

What came to light was that, because they believe that people are unfriendly, they walked around themselves with what the kids call a “Bitchy Resting Face.” And then they wonder why no one feels like saying hello.

We get what we give. From the bible, “We reap what we sow.” And from Zig Ziglar: “Life is an echo. What you send out, comes back. What you sow, you reap.”

This year’s UN International Day of Happiness theme was: Be mindful, be grateful, be kind.

I have posted numbers of times on happiness. You can see those posts by clicking here.

And I simply cannot resist resharing this from Archie, who appeared in an earlier post, a precious little puppy singing about friendship. Awww…

Practice, practice, practice…and let us know what you find. And for help with this or something else, Contact Me at Madelaine Weiss.





Madelaine Weiss

Licensed Psychotherapist, Board Certified Executive, Career, Life Coach. LICSW, MBA, BCC