Everyone's heard the phrase "wealth does not buy happiness." Neither, it turns out, does social status, youth or beauty Social scientists have collected tens of millions of data points that help identify what truly makes people happy. Genetics and life circumstances can influence happiness, but personal choices account for about 55% of it. That means we all have more control over our happiness than we may realize.

National Geographic author and explorer Dan Buettner spent five years talking to people in areas identified by researchers as the world leaders in happiness-Denmark's Jutland Peninsula...Singapore...Nuevo León, Mexico...and the town of San Luis Obispo in California.

In his book, Thrive, he identified the main characteristics of what he calls thrivers, people who consistently report the highest levels of well-being. Here, secrets from the world's happiest people…

  • Own one TV, no more. Americans spend more than four hours a day, on average, in front of the television. This is time that they're not spending with other people, including their families. (Family time in front of the television is not the same as real interaction.)

In the places where happiness is highest, people spend the least time watching television. It's not that they never watch—they just watch less than most people.

I advise people to own no more than one television—and to keep it in an out-of-the-way place, such as the basement. You still can watch your favorite programs, but watching will become a deliberate activity, not something you just do automatically.

  • Create a "flow room." In Danish society, most families have an area in the house where everyone naturally congregates. I call these rooms "flow rooms” because they're places where time seems to flow away when people are engaged and enjoying one another's company. Flow rooms have no screens (TVs or computers and no clocks. They are quiet environments where it's easy to engage in meaningful activities with family.

In our house, I chose a room with good lighting and the best views-it's comfortable, and everyone in the family wants to be there. I keep it stocked with good books, musical instruments and the best family games.

There's nothing formal about our gatherings. People wander in and out. Because it's so pleasant, we spend a lot more time there than in front of the TV or separated in different parts of the house.

  • Experience the "sun bonus." By most standard measures, people in Mexico should be less happy than those in other countries. About 60% of the population is poor. Education and health care are less than optimal. Yet on the happiness scale, Mexico ranks high.

This is partly due to the "sun bonus." People in sunnier climates are consistently happier than those who live in northern countries.

Those of us who live in colder, less sunny climates still can take advantage of the sunny days we do have by getting out and enjoying the sun. The vitamin D that is produced in the body from sun exposure is sometimes called the "happiness vitamin" because it increases brain levels of serotonin, the same neurotransmitter that is increased by some antidepressant medications.

  • Stop shopping. The satisfaction that we get from buying things-an expensive watch, a new suit, a fancy car-wears off within 14 months. Yet in the US, we're pressured by the media and social expectations to always want more. In order to get it, we have to work longer hours and take fewer vacations, which generally reduces happiness.

In Denmark, regulations limit the number of hours that shops can be open. In Mexico, most of the inhabitants are not running a status race with their neighbors.

For more happiness, take the money that you could spend on nonessential items and spend it on something that lasts. For example, take a vacation with your family or sign up for a painting class. The experiences and good memories will continue to give satisfaction for the rest of your life.

  • Employ yourself. Self-employed workers and business owners report some of the highest levels of well-being. It may be because they are more likely to pursue work that they love or simply because they feel more in control.

The happiness zone of San Luis Obispo, California, has far more self-employed people per capita than the average community in the US. These self-employed workers are shop owners, graphic designers, artists, wine-makers and the like. The more autonomy and control you have over your job, the more likely you will be satisfied with your work.

  • Make new friends. People around the world report higher levels of satisfaction when they spend time with family and friends. Every additional friend that you make (assuming that these friends are upbeat) increases your chances of being happy by 9%.

People who get together with others for at least seven hours a day have the highest levels of happiness. That sounds like a lot, but the time quickly adds up.

For example, everyone eats lunch. Ask a coworker to join you, or sit with a group in a cafeteria. Talk with friends during coffee breaks. After work, encourage the family to eat and socialize together, rather than dispersing to separate rooms. Take classes or join a club.

The Danes don't identify themselves as being particularly outgoing, yet 19 out of 20 Danish adults belong to clubs dedicated to arts, exercise and hobbies.

  • Get addicted to serving others. The happiest people almost always volunteer in some fashion-at their church, with environmental groups, for social-service organizations and the like. Volunteering means spending time with others, and it also takes your mind off your own problems and increases self-worth and pride in your community

Studies have shown that altruism has an effect on the brain that is similar to that of sugar and cocaine. It creates feelings of well-being, along with an addictive feedback loop that encourages people to keep doing it.

Also, volunteers are healthier. They tend to weigh less than those who don't volunteer, and they're even less likely to suffer a heart attack.

Commit to volunteering for a set period of time-say, once a week for four weeks. People are more likely to keep doing it when they make this initial commitment--and then get "hooked" on the rewards.

  • Keep the faith. Religious people tend to be happier than those without faith. It's not clear whether religion makes people happy or if happy people tend to be drawn to religious practices. Either way, those who are religious have less disease, live longer and are less likely to engage in dangerous behavior (such as smoking and heavy drinking).

In Mexico, for example, more than 80% of people who were asked, "How important is God in your life?" responded with a 10 on a scale of one to 10, compared with only 58% in the US. This helps explain why people in some parts of Mexico, despite the hardships of daily life, tend to thrive emotionally.

Even if you're not religious, you can achieve similar benefits by cultivating a sense of spirituality-and a belief in giving back to your community and making the world a better place.

Smiling Is Youthful

Study participants who looked at photos of happy people underestimated their age by two years, says a Psychology and Aging study. They accurately guessed age when the same people looked angry or expressionless.

Best aging remedy: Smiling.

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in