It's the little things: Why animals, sunsets and coffee make us happy

Story highlights

  • Little things in life make us happy
  • That first cup of coffee, a handmade gift from a child
  • Readers shared their moments of bliss

(CNN)Whether it's the Starbucks barista spelling your name right, working from home in your Wonder Woman pajamas or the smell of freshly cut grass, we all have our "little things" that make our day. CNN invited readers to tell us about the small moments that make them happy.

It turns out that there's scientific research backing up many of the responses, according to happiness expert Timothy Bono, an assistant dean and lecturer in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis.
1. Furry friends
    Those dogs and cats: They mend our broken hearts, brighten our moods and remind us to stop working so hard. They can also make great travel companions, as Carmen Martel-Stempel of Chelmsford, Ontario, discovered. Last summer, she and her husband decided to jump in their truck and head east with their puppy, Gretel.
    "We had no plans, no agenda; we just drove off. We were a little apprehensive traveling with a puppy, not knowing if many hotels would be willing to take a dog, but we went with it!" Martel-Stempel said. "We were away for 10 glorious days, and every one of them was filled with happiness watching this little dog explore our country alongside of us."
    This one is rooted in science, Bono says: "Pet owners overall experience higher levels of happiness, lower levels of loneliness, and they also tend to be more conscientious and extroverted."
    2. Little ones
    Andrea Meyer Dembski, a stay-at-home mom in Erie, Pennsylvania, said her 4-year-old son, Tyler, can always make her laugh.
    "Just the other day, we lost a pet in the family, and he saw me crying and said, 'Mommy, you can't cry. Crying is only for babies, and you're not a baby.' "
    Rebekah Heiner of Newport News, Virginia, remembered the moment she went in the backyard and found her husband and 5-year-old daughter up to their necks in leaves.
    "I sent my husband out with the leaf blower a couple months ago to clear the backyard of all the leaves that had fallen off our tree, and when I peeked outside, I found my daughter and husband jumping through the pile and throwing leaves at each other. It certainly made me smile and was a good reminder not to take life too seriously," she said.
    While Bono wasn't familiar with any research showing happiness derived from young children, "if you ask people to report their happiest memories, they will almost always include experiences shared with loved ones. The strength of our bonds with others is one of the strongest predictors of our happiness as individuals."
    3. Vacations
    How could you not be happy seeing the world? Lisa Meneses, 38, of Kansas City, Missouri, says she makes a lot of sacrifices so she can take one big trip every year with her mother and feed her passion for adventure. They just got back from India and Nepal.
    Meneses said everyone should see "how big and AMAZING this world is, and if you just give it a chance to teach you, you will be truly rewarded."
    Traveling to new places gives us the chance to "interrupt the tedium of our daily lives by stepping into different cultures, tasting new foods and opening ourselves to adventure and exploration that are not part of our normal routines," Bono said.
    It's worth noting that a vacation's length is not correlated with the amount of happiness it provides, he said.
    "A lavish vacation of several weeks will not necessarily bring more happiness than a quick getaway that lasts just a few days. In fact, it may actually bring more happiness in the long run to go on two short vacations, separated by several months, than one long one each year," he said. "You'd have two sets of experiences to look forward to and two sets of memories to look back on and relive for years to come."
    4. Sunsets, sunrises and other acts of nature
    Lucy Wilk says Oregon sunsets can be unpredictable -- "we can have a beautiful day, expecting a beautiful sunset, but then the fog rolls in" -- so when you can see them, they are a treat.
    In Athens, Illinois, Erica Hostetler loves "a warm sunny day with no clouds in the sky and a slight breeze."
    Studies suggest that just a few minutes walking around in nature on a nice day can be an instant mood booster, Bono said.
    "The beauty of a budding rosebud or a magnificent oak tree captures our attention and can provide peaceful diversion from our otherwise busy, stressful and fast-paced lives," he said. "If we're feeling down and unmotivated, a simple 10-minute walk outside may be just what we need to elevate our mood and catch a second wind for the work we have remaining in the day."
    5. Breakfast
    "Bacon, eggs, a bagel and OJ ... true happiness," writes Angel Subdiaz in Miami.
    That first cup of coffee does it for Donna Fonvergne.
    In fact, a lot of people listed coffee as one of their simple pleasures. We know that caffeine is associated with the release of dopamine, one of the brain's natural "feel-good" chemicals, Bono said. Brianna Williamson of San Antonio has another theory. She says that just the aroma is "uplifting and comforting. Happiness comes from within, and coffee reminds me of that."