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3 Keys to Lasting Happiness

10/12/2011 09:01 am ET | Updated Dec 12, 2011

If you had to choose three keys to lasting happiness, what would they be? For me, those keys are gratitude, connecting with others and giving. It is not rocket science, although science has proven how these habits can make you live longer, enjoy better health and get more joy out of life.

Gratitude: A simple practice of writing down or otherwise reflecting on a few things you are grateful for has huge benefits. Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough have researched that gratitude is the "forgotten factor" in happiness research. The benefits of expressing gratitude range from improved physical health to improved mental alertness.

People who express gratitude are also more likely to offer emotional support to others. Even little things count, like being grateful for that delicious bowl of soup, exchanging a special smile or noticing how your pet greets you when you get home. Just jotting these down even a few times a week changes your neural pathways and actually makes you happier.

Connection: In our culture, there are all sorts of classic heroes -- often loners who make their way despite all obstacles. Yet, there is an underlying longing for connection that we all share at some level. The Dalai Lama points out, "We human beings are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others' actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others' activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others."

Giving: There are many ways of giving; we can volunteer; we can be present for a conversation; we can give gifts to others. We've all heard the expression that money cannot buy happiness. Taking that a step further, a 2008 study showed that spending money on others leads to higher happiness levels than spending money on oneself (Dunn et al., 2008). In an experiment, one group was given either five or 20 dollars to spend on themselves.

A second group was given the same amount to spend on others as a gift or donation. It turned out that those giving to others were happier at the end of the day than the group spending money on themselves, and the amount given did not even matter. John Templeton has a quote I love: "Happiness comes from giving not getting. If we try to bring happiness to others, we cannot stop it from coming to us also. To get joy we must give it, and to keep joy, we must scatter it."

Making It Real: So, how to walk the talk? As you may or may not know, I founded a nonprofit called Project Happiness that specializes in emotional resilience-building programs that are used by people of any age and endorsed by public schools, private institutions and Universities, around the U.S. and the world. The purpose is to provide proven techniques to cultivate one's own authentic happiness.

We're having our annual fundraiser coming up, and I'm trying to figure out how to embody in the event the principles that we talk about.

A-ha. Our programs focus on helping youth deal with stress, but what about all the people who choose to put themselves in positions of stress in order to help others -- why not share some happiness with them? One of my best friends is a nurse and I know first hand what she deals with. She is just one of the many people on the front lines dealing with trauma and mounting stressors, the caregivers and protectors of our society -- firefighters, nurses and doctors, those in the military and our teachers. These individuals do so much for our community -- they are truly our unsung heroes. Wouldn't it be wonderful to invite them to our "Runway to Happiness" event?

The decision was so natural. Now we are having people from each of these groups join the party, and share in the happiness. After all, they deserve so much; and happiness, like laughter, is contagious. I'm truly excited to be doing this.

There are many ways to put gratitude, connection and giving into our lives. What are some ways that you have done this in your own life? Who are some of your heroes?

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