The Way to Happiness: Tips for Counselors

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Counseling Resources

A counselor meets with a smiling client.
Many of us wish to feel good and experience a sense of contentment with everyday life experiences, which, in turn, leads to happiness. But today’s definition of happiness as a multifaceted construct is not what the term meant to the first thinkers who explained ethics and the nature of humanity. For our purposes, we will consider happiness to be an emotional state marked by feelings of contentment, fulfillment, satisfaction, and joy.

Psychologically speaking, the absence of happiness is not sadness, but a symptom of depression known as anhedonia, defined by WebMD as the inability to feel pleasure. Whether it is caused by a form of clinical depression, a personal tragedy, or simply a challenging season of life, a lack of happiness can be a reason that someone would seek professional counseling.

When a client has been diagnosed with a form of clinical depression or is feeling down for a particular reason, counselors do not “provide” people with happiness. Instead, professional counselors help people find ways to make sense of life and build on their ability to remain curious and creative about their experiences. This assistance provides people with a deep sense of gratification, which some may term as happiness.

The Science of Happiness

Happiness has long been an area of interest for researchers. Counselors in particular are eager to deepen their understanding of clients in their personal journeys.

In the past several decades, the science of happiness has achieved prominence in large part due to its counterpart: depression. In 2020, the American Counseling Association reported that major depressive disorder affects more than 17 million Americans annually. Once thought of as a largely adult condition, depression is increasingly affecting children and teens. In its 2021 report “The State of Mental Health in America,” the Mental Health Association reported that 9.7% of American youths had severe major depression. This rate jumps to 12.4% among children who identify as more than one race.

Once people experience depression, several additional issues can arise, including anxiety, addiction, heart attacks, and even suicide. Consequently, counselor-researchers are interested in finding ways to alleviate these symptoms. However, whereas the concepts of happiness and depression are related, they are far from antonyms. Decreasing depression does not necessarily equate to increasing happiness. In fact, the pursuit of happiness to alleviate depression can have an adverse effect; research from the Journal of Happiness Studies suggests that placing an excessive emphasis on valuing happiness can make a person feel less happy.

Happiness Studies

An ongoing study at Harvard University known as the Grant Study has followed 268 men from the college’s classes of 1939 to 1944 for nearly 80 years. The research over that time has found that relationships are key to a person’s sense of satisfaction, contentment, self-efficacy, and even euphoria, which can be summed up as an overall sense of happiness.

Health and wellness also play a key role in cultivating happiness. According to the Global Happiness 2020 survey produced by the global market research firm Ipsos, 55% of respondents reported they get “the greatest happiness” from their health and physical well-being.

Happiness is elusive and multifaceted, and it cannot be simply deduced to be a consequence of one’s actions. If wishing to change were all there were to it, everyone would simply wish their less than desirable feelings away. However, attitude plays a large role, particularly when it comes to relationships. While the survey highlighted the importance of health as a key factor to happiness, 49% of respondents indicated that relationships with their partners and children gave them the greatest happiness.

Finding Happiness in 5 Steps

As a counselor, you cannot magically make your clients feel happy. Rather, through your education and training, you will be equipped with strategies to help people discover what factors in their lives provide them with a sense of happiness.

In addition to building strong relationships and adhering to self-care strategies to augment a personal sense of satisfaction, other germane practices that may help people preserve a sense of contentment include the following:

  • Pay attention to the little things. It is easy to become overwhelmed when you look at big problems and long-term plans. Focusing on the little things can help people find moments of peace in the midst of turmoil. Instead of trying to control everything, focusing on the individual positive things that happen each day — no matter how small — can remind people of the things for which they have to be thankful.
  • Practice self-control. When someone is simply unhappy, it is easy to turn to coping mechanisms that may prove deleterious over time, such as overeating, smoking, and other vices. Whereas these coping mechanisms may appear to be solutions for feeling better in the short term, they will likely only create more problems in the long run. Clients will do better when they choose to take care of themselves physically and emotionally, through self-care such as eating right, exercising, spending time on hobbies, and managing stress.
  • Live in the moment. An uncertain future is a major cause of stress and anxiety for many. When someone is depressed or otherwise emotionally down, looking at the future can add to a self-evaluation that leads people to experience a sense of worry or unhappiness. As a counselor, you can help people live in the moment and enjoy everyday pleasures that can help increase happiness.
  • Give back. Often when a person is in the midst of personal struggles, it can be difficult to see anything outside themself. But trying to see, understand, and assist in the struggles of others can actually help a person get out of their own head and away from negative feelings. Research shows that practices such as volunteerism or random acts of kindness not only can improve happiness but also can have positive physiological effects, such as lower blood pressure and pain reduction.
  • Find purpose. While pinpointing one single cause of depression is impossible, the fact remains that when a person experiences intense negative emotions, it can be hard to see anything else. However, studies indicate that finding a purpose can help shift people’s focus from dwelling on their own problems. Whether it is working with a volunteer organization or training for a marathon, working toward something can increase a person’s level of happiness.

Helping Others Find Joy

Helping people discover ways to find happiness can make a crucial difference in their lives. This can make counseling a deeply rewarding career. Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program can equip you with the knowledge and skills needed to excel in this vital role. With degree paths in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Professional School Counseling, Bradley’s program is designed to help you develop effective counseling strategies that can transform the lives of others. Find out how we can help you help others today.

Recommended Readings:

How to Become a Counselor

Managing Traumatic Grief and Coping After National Crises

 Types of Counseling Careers


American Counseling Association, “Bad Times and Depression”

CNN, “The Health Benefits of a Random Act of Kindness”

Harvard Second Generation Study, Study of Adult Development

Ipsos, “The State of Happiness in a COVID World”

Mental Health America, “The State of Mental Health in America”

Springer, “Wanting to Be Happy but Not Knowing How: Poor Attentional Control and Emotion-Regulation Abilities Mediate the Association Between Valuing Happiness and Depression”

VeryWellMind, “What Is Happiness?”

WebMD, “Untreated Depression”

WebMD, “What Is Anhedonia?”