The secret to happiness

Psychology professor researches what makes life fulfilling

By Dr. Anees Sheikh

There are countless opinions about what constitutes happiness.

For St. Augustine, it is “a rejoicing in the truth.”

For Karl Marx, it is all about growing by way of work.

For the Buddhists, according to Mathieu Ricard, a brilliant biologist turned Buddhist monk, it is “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind,” “a love of life,” and a “joy of moving toward inner freedom and loving kindness.”

But happiness is a relatively new topic in the world of academic research.

For decades, Western psychology largely had been preoccupied with studying and fixing what is broken.

Disease. Disturbance. Deficiency.

Toward the end of the 1990s, we finally began to recognize the importance of studying what makes our lives truly worth living. We formally acknowledged that there is more to life than merely averting hassles or solving problems.

That has been the beginning of what is now commonly known as positive psychology, and the study of happiness is a major part of this new field.

A few years ago, when I first offered the Psychology of Happiness course at Marquette, people would ask me what this course was all about. The answer that came to me spontaneously was: “It is all about getting off of ourselves and getting into others.”

Later on I noticed Peterson’s three-word summary of the field: Other People Matter. More recently, Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard professor, after interviewing famous researchers in the field, came essentially to the same conclusions:

It is intimate positive relationships that matter the most.

My course on the Psychology of Death and Dying also clearly points in the same direction: When we come face to face with the question of our mortality, it is in relationships that we find strength. People who have intimate positive relationships find it easier to face the threat of their impermanence.

What contributes to these kinds of relationships? I am convinced that loving kindness is a major factor.

Kind people are generally physically and psychologically healthier. They attract more intimate relationships. Their marriages are happier. They touch more lives and are touched more by others. They elicit kindness from others. They are better teachers in the eyes of students.

No wonder the Dalai Lama says, “My religion is kindness.”

He advises that if you want others to be happy, be kind—and if you yourself want to be happy, be kind.

Toward the end of his life, Aldous Huxley was asked about the most effective technique for transforming one’s life. After years of research and experimentation, his answer was simply: Just be a little kinder.


Buddhist and Sufi literature has a great deal to say about kindness and happiness, but they are also quick to point out that we have to let go of happiness as a goal. Only then is it more likely to appear.

They emphasize that happiness is not a destination where we arrive. It is a way of traveling, a kind, caring and compassionate way of traveling.

Hafiz, one of the most famous Sufi Persian poets who lived in the 14th century, had this to say:

Once a man came to me and spoke for hours about “great visions of God” he felt he was having.

He asked me for confirmation, saying, “Are these wondrous dreams true?”

Then I said, “You asked me if I thought your visions were true.

I would say that they were if they make you become

More human

More kind

To every creature and plant that you know.”

Originally published for Marquette Magazine. Dr. Sheikh, Professor of Psychology, teaches the Psychology of Imagination, Death and Dying, Psychology of Happiness, an undergraduate course in psychotherapy methods, and the graduate course in clinical uses of mental imagery. He is a winner of the John P. Raynor, S.J., Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence.

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