Talk to shoppers in line at the grocery store. Spend the day smiling. Do something kind for someone else, and don’t expect anything in return.

Then stop believing the myth that wealth makes people happy. It does not.

The key to personal success lies in the pursuit of happiness, not in the pursuit of money, said Celestino Fernández, an expert on happiness and a sociology professor at the University of Arizona.

“Happy people enjoy life more, live longer lives on average, are both mentally and physically healthier, have more energy and are more successful overall,” Fernández said.

Once people’s basic needs are met, their level of happiness does not increase, no matter how much money they have, he said.

Fernández discussed how to lead a happy life at Wednesday’s kickoff of the Happiness Downtown Lecture Series at the Fox Tucson Theatre. UA’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences sponsors the free series.

Researchers worldwide have independently collected data on happiness, Fernández said. The results are identical across cultures and nations.

The main ingredients of a meaningful life include good relationships with family and friends, strong social bonds and helping others.

“People who have a spiritual commitment or connection are happier,” Fernández said. That is because social relationships flourish in places of worship.

If you have extra money, he said, spend it on others and on experiences such as travel.

The happiness quotient follows a U-curve, Fernández said. Children enjoy high levels of happiness. The curve dips when people are in their 20s, bottoms out in their 40s, begins to rise after about age 50 and can continue to grow into their 80s and even their 90s.

Research shows that 20-somethings have the most trouble finding happiness. A recent survey found that many freshmen at UCLA were pursuing a college education to make money after graduation.

Fifty years ago, when students were asked why they were attending college, the overwhelming answer was to lead meaningful lives.

Although the United States is the richest country in the world, Americans are not the happiest people. That honor goes to the inhabitants of Scandinavian countries, where people are happy because of the strong social safety net created by their governments.

At the Fox Theatre nearly 1,000 faces smiled back at Fernández as he described what makes people happy — and what doesn’t.

“I was surprised by the fact that women are less happy than they were in the past,” said Andrea Altamirano, 38, a special staff assistant at Southern Arizona Behavioral Health.

“I’m happy to know that I’m entering my happiest years,” said Tom Sherman, 73, the membership chairman of the Southern Arizona Stanford Club. Sherman said he is “happily retired” and pleased that Stanford students are the happiest university students in the U.S., according to research data.

Contact UA journalism graduate student Cathy Rosenberg at