10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy

I’m a science geek as well as a Buddhist geek, and recently when I was leading a retreat on how to bring more joy into our lives I found myself making a lot of references to an article published in Yes magazine, which touched on ten things that have been shown by science to make us happier. It seemed natural to draw upon the article because so much of the research that was described resonated with Buddhist teachings.

So I thought it would be interesting to take the main points of the article and flesh them out with a little Buddhism.

1. Be generous
“Make altruism and giving part of your life, and be purposeful about it,” Yes magazine says. “Researcher Elizabeth Dunn found that those who spend money on others reported much greater happiness than those who spend it on themselves.”

And in fact Buddhism has always emphasized the practice of dana, or giving. Giving hasn’t been seen purely as the exchange of material possessions, however; giving in Buddhist terms includes non-tangibles such as education, confidence, and wisdom.

“And which are the three factors of the donor? There is the case where the donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is bright & clear; and after giving is gratified.” (Anguttara Nikaya)

2. Savor everyday moments
“Study participants who took time to savor ordinary events that they normally hurried through, or to think back on pleasant moments from their day, showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression.”

This of course is an example of another fundamental Buddhist practice — mindfulness. When we’re mindful we stay in the present moment, and really pay attention to our experience. Walking meditation, and even eating, can be ways of savoring everyday moments. In being present, we dwell in the present without obsessing about the past or future, and this brings radiant happiness:

They sorrow not for what is past,
They have no longing for the future,
The present is sufficient for them:
Hence it is they appear so radiant.
(Samyutta Nikaya)

living as a river
If you're interested in Buddhism and science, you'll probably love my book, Living as a River.

3. Avoid comparisons
“While keeping up with the Joneses is part of American culture, comparing ourselves with others can be damaging to happiness and self-esteem. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, focusing on our own personal achievement leads to greater satisfaction.”

Buddhists are advised to avoid “conceit.” Now in the west we think of conceit as a sense of superiority, but in Buddhism conceit includes thinking you’re inferior to others, AND it includes thinking that you’re equal to others! What’s left? Just not thinking in terms of self and other at all. The ideal in Buddhism is a kind of “flow” state in which we un-selfconsciously respond to others without any conceptualization of there being a self or an other.

“Though possessing many a virtue one should not compare oneself with others by deeming oneself better or equal or inferior.” (Sutta Nipata 918)

4. Put money low on the list

“The more we seek satisfactions in material goods, the less we find them there,” [researcher Richard] Ryan says. “The satisfaction has a short half-life—it’s very fleeting.” People who put money high on their priority list are more at risk for depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Despite western preconceptions to the contrary, the Buddha wasn’t against people making money. In fact he encouraged it! Money’s useful to the extent that it supports our physical needs, allows us to make others happy, and — most importantly — to the extent that we use it to support genuine spiritual practice. In Buddhist terms we validate our wealth creation by giving our money away to support what’s really important in life, which is the pursuit of wellbeing, truth, and goodness. The idea that materialism can bring us genuine happiness is what Buddhism calls a “false refuge.”

There is no satisfying sensual desires, even with the rain of gold coins. (Dhammapada 186)

Knowing the bliss of debtlessness,
& recollecting the bliss of having,
enjoying the bliss of wealth, the mortal
then sees clearly with discernment.
Seeing clearly — the wise one —
he knows both sides:
that these are not worth one sixteenth-sixteenth
of the bliss of blamelessness.
(Anguttara Nikaya)

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If you’re interested in Buddhism and meditation, we have guided meditation MP3s in our online store.

5. Have meaningful goals

According to Harvard’s resident happiness professor, Tal Ben-Shahar, “Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.”

The Buddha’s last words were “strive diligently.” The whole point of being a Buddhist is in order to attain spiritual awakening — which means to maximize our compassion and mindfulness. What could be more meaningful than that?

“He gains enthusiasm for the goal, gains enthusiasm for the Dhamma, gains gladness connected with the Dhamma.” (Majjhima Nikaya)

6. Take initiative at work
“How happy you are at work depends in part on how much initiative you take. Researcher Amy Wrzesniewski says that when we express creativity, help others, suggest improvements, or do additional tasks on the job, we make our work more rewarding and feel more in control.”

The Buddhist teaching on work is called the practice of Right Livelihood. And the Buddha saw work as being a way to show initiative and intelligence:

“By whatsoever activity a clansman make his living … he is deft and tireless; gifted with an inquiring turn of mind in to ways and means, he is able to arrange and carry out his job.” (Anguttara Nikaya)

Heedful at administering
or working at one’s occupation,
… [these are factors] leading to welfare & happiness.
(Anguttara Nikaya)

7. Make friends, treasure family
“We don’t just need relationships, we need close ones,” says Yes magazine.

To the Buddha, spiritual friendship was “the whole of the spiritual life.” And even though people tend to think about monks and nuns leaving home, for those who embraced the household life, close and loving relationships with others was highly recommended. “Generosity, kind words, beneficial help, and consistency in the face of events” are the things that hold a family together, according to the Buddha.

Let him associate with friends who are noble, energetic, and pure in life, let him be cordial and refined in conduct. Thus, full of joy, he will make an end of suffering. (Dhammapada 376)

Support for one’s parents,
assistance to one’s wife and children,
consistency in one’s work:
This is the highest protection [from suffering].
(Mangala Sutta)

8. Look on the bright side
“Happy people … see possibilities, opportunities, and success. When they think of the future, they are optimistic, and when they review the past, they tend to savor the high points,” say [researchers Ed] Diener and [Robert] Biswas-Diener.

Buddhism doesn’t encourage us to have a false sense of positivity, but neither are these researchers. They’re suggesting that we find the good in any situation we find ourselves in. Buddhism encourages positivity through practices such as affectionate and helpful speech, where we consciously look for the good in ourselves and others.

The strongest expression of this is where we’re told to maintain compassionate thoughts even toward those who are sadistically cruel toward us:

“Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.” (Majjhima Nikaya)

9. Say thank you like you mean it
“People who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis are healthier, more optimistic, and more likely to make progress toward achieving personal goals, according to author Robert Emmons.”

The Buddha said that gratitude, among other qualities, was the “highest protection,” meaning that it protects us against unhappiness. And:

“A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people.”(Anguttara Nikaya)

To one ever eager to revere and serve the elders, these four blessing accrue: long life and beauty, happiness and power.(Dhammapada 109)

Gratitude in Buddhism helps us to align our being with the good (kusala) so that we’re more likely to live in a way that leads to happiness and wellbeing.

10. Get out and exercise
“A Duke University study shows that exercise may be just as effective as drugs in treating depression, without all the side effects and expense.”

And the Buddha said — well, I don’t think he said much about exercise! In a culture like the Buddha’s where most people worked manually, and where walking was the main form of transportation, there wasn’t much need to emphasize exercise as a thing in itself. It’s only in sedentary cultures like ours that people have to make a special trip to the gym to exercise — although they usually park as close to the entrance as possible to minimize the amount of exercise they have to do in order to get to the exercise machines! But walking meditation was, and is, a key practice in Buddhism, even though it’s sometimes done very slowly. However the Buddhist scriptures commonly mention that such-and-such a person was “walking and wandering up and down beside the river for exercise,” suggesting that monks, with their own form of semi-sedentary lifestyle, needed to set aside special time to get their bodies moving.

Monks, there are these five benefits of walking up & down. What five?

One is fit for long journeys; one is fit for striving; one has little disease; that which is eaten, drunk, chewed, tasted, goes through proper digestion; the composure attained by walking up & down is long-lasting.

These, monks, are the five benefits of walking up & down. (Anguttara Nikaya)

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50 Comments. Leave new

Thanks for the lovely reminder. It was also great for me to reflect on how many of these practices are part of my everyday life…and when fully embraced how much happier I truly am!!!

+Vago Damitio Shared this. | Just Nenad
February 21, 2012 3:08 am

[…] 10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy I’m a science geek as well as a Buddhist geek, and recently when I was leading a retreat on how to bring more joy into our lives I found myself making a lot […]


Wow! I have to translate this text into Brazilian Portuguese! Many of my people don’t speek English and I’d like to share with them! Thank you so very much!


Please let us know if you do make a translation, Ana.


Thank you so much for this clear and really helpful linking of modern scientific ‘discoveries’ with the ancient teachings.

The more I put all this into my life, the happier I am becoming…. of course.

I will be sharing this with facebook friends, spreading the word.


February 24, 2012 2:53 pm

What about if you are intentionally doing all those things, and have made them the mainstay/backbone of your life’s values, and you still aren’t happy? :-\
Because, it’s not working for me.


For one thing this isn’t an exhaustive list. It may be that there are other things you are doing, or not doing, that lead to unhappiness.

For another, I’d suggest you determine precisely what “not working” means. Are you saying that whatever you do in life it makes no difference to your level of wellbeing?

Lastly, unhappiness will persist as long as craving, aversion, and delusion persist in our minds. It takes time to reduce these, and longer to eliminate them. Until then, we need to work on developing equanimity so that we’re no longer “unhappy about being unhappy.”


Great in Theory But….in order to be happy you have to consciously choose to be happy. I think the list of ten things is great, but you can exercise all you want, and be grateful all you want, but being happy first and foremost is a choice at that moment to be happy.

If you think you need anything; love, money, status, etc, in order to be happy, you will be unhappy. There is nothing wrong with any of those things, and they’re all kind of fun in their own way, but the belief you need anything in order to be happy will make you unhappy.

All that is required is you have to actually make a decision right now, right here, I will be happy. Then, all those things written above are good to put into practice. They will keep you off of what can turn you back to unhappiness. Without the declaration and decision to be happy though you will continually slip into unhappiness.


I dont’ think that’s entirely true. A motivation to he happy may be important for some people, but a lot of people are simply happy by disposition, without having decided consciously to be happy. And certain activities, such as regular exercise, will leave you feeling happier even if you started exercising purely for physical health reasons.

It’s aso possible for our desire to be happy to actively undermine our happiness, if that desire involves clinging or craving. As aspiration to be happy is fine, natural, and helpful, but it’s possible for people to want happiness and then to become unhappy when it doesn’t arrive on schedule or in the desired amounts. I see this happening all the time when people take up meditation in order to be happier. They can actually go into a downward spiral of misery.

So where I’d agree is that an aspiration to be happy is helpful as long as it doesn’t involve expectation and clinging.


Thanks for this. This is great! Although current Buddhist monks do not like linking Buddhism with Science, most of the Buddha’s preachings are totally with scientific rationale.

The Buddha’s own preachings, as written by his best disciple-students soon after his demise, is written in the Pali Canon. There is a great website which gives a great English translation by some of the best minds (and those who may have attained higher states of mind) can be found in the following website:

The Majjima Nikaya (Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha) is perhaps is the best description of his teachings.

May the Triple Gem bless you all.

Gabriel K. (@NobleSasquatch)
February 29, 2012 4:23 pm

Great list, thank you for this. You use some excellent passages to support your comparisons. I thought I’d be nitpicky with one minor thing, however. Number 8, the title says “Say thank you like you mean it”, however the lessons from both science and Buddhism refer to reflecting on good things and being grateful in your own mind for them, rather than anything having to do with the act of saying thank you to another person. I only point this out because from my understanding, many Buddhist monks abstain from giving thanks out loud, preferring not to muddle the teachings about what kinds of benefits the “donor” receives from generosity, as outlined so well in your first point.


I don’t mind the nit-pick. Actually I had in mind this article I wrote where I explain the benefits of saying “thank you” to the world generally. Saying “thanks” doesn’t have to involve another person.


Bodhipaksa…..I don’t disagree with your points, especially about clingy or desperate desire, and having an aspiration to be happy.

I have a therapeutic practice and many people who come to see me have never made the decision to be happy. They want to be, they desire it, they aspire to it, but they haven’t decided right here and now to be happy.

It does seem like some people never made this decision and yet are happy. Perhaps they did in another life?

IMO….a person can be happy right now this minute and all it takes is the inner declaration to be happy. The aspiring and desiring kind of puts it at arms length, when it isn’t.

However, having made the decision, usually there is still some habitual stuff to overcome, and the list is very handy then.

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March 4, 2012 8:17 am

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I appreciate seeing what the Buddha said about “walking up and down” and it’s funny to hear the wording of the translation, especially repeating the same subtle patterns as other suttas “these three things. What three?”
I have considered that the Buddha did get a lot of exercise from travel but thinking of people living in caves for many many years takes away the role of exercise in spiritual upkeep

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May 16, 2012 11:07 am

[…] has a list of 10 Things Science and Buddhism say will make you happy. Really only the Buddhist side is sourced, but a list of ten things to […]

Dr Anup Taksande
October 11, 2012 10:02 am

Grrt piece.. keep up the gud work and update regularly.


Wonderful article, I shared it on my FB page. Wishing you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving Bodipaksa!


You’re welcome, Beth. Thanks for your kind comment.


Thank you Bodhipaksa, I appreaciate
your work here. But I have a few fndamental questions to ask you pertaining to Buddhism if you entertain, address and answer the doubts , concerns and queries. I would admit here that i am through with the basic philosophies, theories, ideologies, beliefs governing the undelying cocepts and core issues and i am myself a vipassana meditator.


I’m curious what questions you might have if you’re through with the concepts, theories, and philosophies of Buddhism…

Anshul Kawatra
February 11, 2013 4:48 am

MY question is – Don’t you find ”Law of attraction” and Buddha’s teachings to be contradictory. I mean law of attraction requires you to have desires to get what you want where as Buddha always encouraged to have ego less state without desires. Just have strong acceptance and will as per law of attraction don’t you think the desires here lead to expectations. What do you have to way….


I don’t really know about the so-called “law of attraction,” I’m afraid.

Buddhism operates at many levels, from working in the world to becoming very non-attached to the world (although those two things aren’t necessarily opposites). The Buddha encouraged householders to pursue their crafts diligently and to create wealth — although it was important that they did so ethically, and that they showed non-attachment to wealth by giving some of it away. So wanting can be OK. Monks, on the other hand, were supposed to practice strict non-attachment and not to desire anything material beyond the essentials, and even there there should be no grasping — just a simple recognition of need.


“The Law of Attraction” is a complicated issue. I have been practicing this for fifty years. I have been teaching it for more than ten years. First, our thoughts do affect our experience, and that is easy to prove to anyone willing to do a few minutes a day of exercise. However, if you practice it, and make the adjustments implied in the responses to your requests, you will be led to a point where you realize the best ‘answer’ is when you have no request. Really putting time into this concept will take you to a state of no desire. But, it requires a diligent approach, and a conscious willingness to look at what your thoughts are doing to your life.

Therefore, in the long run, the two are not incompatible. On the surface they are, and the way it is normally talked about they are incompatible. You cannot ask for anything that does not move you closer to becoming enlightened. If you do, you will get an answer, but it will always leave you at least slightly dissatisfied. The idea you can become anything you want is not true, and typically the idea of “Law of Attraction” is taught that way. Which is why most people give it up after awhile. You did not create yourself, and the impetus to re-create yourself is the major cause of unhappiness.

The “Law of Attraction” is best used as an exercise helping you to understand how thoughts affect your experience. It is not well used as a means of getting what you want. Even though it does work somewhat at getting you things. But, only somewhat, and never enough to satisfy you. If it did, you could leave yourself in a state that is really pleasant, and yet is insatiable. This is incompatible with real happiness.

Zite’s Take: Top Articles of 2012 « Zite's blog
February 13, 2013 5:41 pm

[…] 10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy, […]


I really enjoyed the set of simple reminders provided here that I can use to help me keep my mind on what’s important. Thanks!

Wildmind in Zite’s Top Articles of 2012 | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation
February 21, 2013 8:00 am

[…] 10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy, […]

Michael Bartholomew-Biggs
February 27, 2013 6:17 pm

I’d just like to suggest that Christian teaching specifically endorses 1,2,3,4 and 7 and wouldn’t have any quarrel with the others

Buddhism, wealth, and happiness | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation
May 2, 2013 4:42 pm

[…] you want to be happy, there are plenty of things you can do, and those things will tend to make other people happier too. Earning more money? Don’t let […]


just one word..I am feeling overwhelmed that such an intellect existed 2500 years back.


Yes, he does continue to astonish!

Mulyadi Kurnia
May 5, 2013 11:20 pm

Great Article! Being Buddhist myself, the various points made sink deeply in me. For example, one needs to cultivate mindfulness, gratitude as well as to be detached from material possessions as best as one could.

The qualities that make us happy | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation
June 5, 2013 12:34 pm

[…] 10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy […]


After countless times approaching my wife about my feelings of being unloved and felt unappreciated, what is my next step? I try to give, putting her first mufh more often than myself, but I can count on one hand in the last 2 years when I have felt loved (e.g. She did something for me to make me feel like she didn’t come first).

Needing direction….


Hi Casey.

This is the kind of thing that really calls for in-depth counseling, not just a comment from me on a blog. Since you’re in an unhappy relationship it would be a good idea for the two of you to go to couple’s counseling together.



I have a question about Buddhism and money. There seem to be mixed messages when it comes to making money…

In the 4th point in this article it says “put money low on the list” but if one continue reading it says “the Buddha wasn’t against people making money. In fact he encouraged it!”

For me personally I don’t have any interest in making more money than what is needed to cover the basic needs.

I want to spend the rest of my time doing things that make me happy. Would this approach to life, just making enough money to cover basic needs, be considered ok, desireble or wrong according to buddhism?


What you’re doing is absolutely fine — as long as you’re also considering other people’s needs. Monks didn’t work or even handle money, but they gave back by teaching and by inspiring by example. Householders were encouraged to make money but to give away their surplus, especially to help religious practitioners, but also friends, family, employees, and the poor. So I’d encourage you not to have a narrow view of living simply, but to include an altruistic dimension in your thinking. All of us should have an element of giving in our lives. That doesn’t have to be financial. It could be volunteering. But we shouldn’t just be focused on our own practice.


I hope one day u wil study abidarma and write a book .advance teaching of budda.i want to give this buddist prayer of loving kindness ,
May all beings be happy and safe
May their hearts be happy
Whatsoever living beings that exist
Weak, or strong, without exception
Long, stout or medium
Short, small or large
Those seen (visible) or unseen (not visible)
And those dwelling far or near
Those who are born and those who are to be born
May all beings, without exception, be happy minded
Let no one deceive another
Nor despise anyone anywhere
In anger or ill will
Let them not wish each other harm
Just as a mother would guard her only child
At the risk of her own life
Even so towards all beings Let him cultivate boundless mind
Let thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world
Above, below and across
Without any obstruction
Without any hatred, without any enmity

How does one become happy?
April 24, 2015 9:41 pm

[…] agree that one can reframe things as well. 10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation Change of course being a process….consider one thing at a time. Isn't there a saying that is […]


I know this is a old article, but very good and I just came across it. In regard to the part about fitness, I have quotation, supposedly from The Buddha “To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.”
Just wanted to share that.

May 6, 2015 8:39 am

I’ll add that quote to my other site, FakeBuddhaQuotes.com :)


Thanks for pointing that out. That is exactly why I said “supposedly.”


I appreciated that you did so!


If you find the real source, I’d be interested to know it. So far I keep finding it attributed to Buddha. A more complete quotation is this, “”But to satisfy the necessities of life is not evil. To keep the body in good health is a duty for otherwise we shall not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom, and keep our mind strong and clear. Water surrounds the lotus-flower, but does not wet its petals.”


I think it was invented by Paul Carus, in his “Gospel of Buddha,” in which he presented suttas with extraneous material inserted which I presume was of his own devising. I’ll be looking into this quote further when I have more time. BTW, the non-sequitur lotus-flower part of the quote is from an earlier passage in the same “sutta” (or Carus’s version thereof) and has been displaced. This explains the sudden shift in topic.


Bodhipaksa, Great teaching. Thanks a lot for sharing. However, I had one question. If I practice these with an intention to derive happiness, wont that itself create attachment to happiness which ultimately results in suffering.


Good question. There’s actually a big difference between having an intention and being attached to the outcome of that intention. Imagine that adults and kids are in a car. They all have the intention to go on a trip. The adults want to get where they’re going, but they enjoy the journey. They have an intention, but they’re focused on the process—the driving. The kids are all “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” They are attached to the outcome, and they’re miserable because they haven’t reached it.

So we can have the intention to be happy, but also completely accept where we are right now, which might not be very happy!

But it’s best to have the intention very much in the back of the mind (as it is in the driving scenario). The adults aren’t constantly thinking about the destination and whether they’re there yet. They set the intention and then stay focused on the process. So we focus more on things like practicing gratitude because it’s a good thing to do, without getting into childish “are we there yet” evaluations of whether it’s making us happy or not.

And we also need to have goals that are deeper than happiness, because you can’t be happy all the time, and if you’re not careful you can end up being unhappy about not being happy. So it’s important to cultivate equanimity, so that we can be content with discontent.


I am grateful to you for this fine reply. The car example really makes sense to me. At least in this example the adults may not have to keep the destination in the back of their mind as you say, because there are kids always to make them remember that :). And the adults can be grateful to the kids for that. Thank you once again.

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