We all seek happiness. It drives many of our decisions. But how do we obtain happiness? It’s not taught in schools and its rarely talked about. Many of us go through life mistaken material objects for happiness such as nicer cars, bigger homes, or expensive clothes only to learn that we are not any happier after obtaining them.
Happiness is really a state of mind, a sense of social inclusion and affection. Think about the times when you were most happy. For me it was after a long summer’s day with friends, spending time with family, or just being grateful for all that life has to offer.
Now full disclaimer. Of all the things I’ve written about so far this has been the most difficult and yet the most rewarding for me. I’ve spent about two month’s researching various books, articles, movies, and blog posts. I am in no way a happiness expert, but I truly feel that I have identified the key points in achieving happiness. For most people happiness is a genetic gift. You know, the person who is just naturally happy regardless of their situation. For others it’s something that we must work at it. Whenever I need a happiness boost, I plan on revisiting this post myself to remind me of what is important. I have written this post as much for me as I have for you.
Unhappiness does not exist in the present moment. It only exists as a regret about the past or worry towards the future.”
Happiness is a State of Mind
First step to being happy, decide to be happy. Here’s an example of what is such a simple statement for someone looking for a more complex answer. Say someone smashed into your car at no fault to your own. Besides the damage it was a relatively painless experience. There were no injuries, you have insurance, and the car is still drivable. There are two ways to react to this event.
You can be furious. You can scream at the other person and be angry over your damaged car. The second is you can be grateful that everyone is OK. That it’s only a car and even better it’s still drivable. Sure, it’s an inconvenience to have to get it fixed, but accidents happen, and wouldn’t it be nice if one day when you are the cause of the accident the other person is as pleasant to deal with as you.
Both reactions are completely different and justified. One will raise your blood pressure and stress levels. The other will leave you grateful and at a certain level maybe a bit happier that you still have your health. Here is the amazing part, both are within your control. The first reaction causes you harm. By choosing to be angry you are deciding to harm yourself. While taking the second approach surely takes some practice, it’s the perfect example of choosing to be happy.
This example illustrates that the secret to happiness is not an event, but rather our response to them. Try going a whole day without negative thoughts. No blaming or complaining. Foster forgiveness rather than holding grudges. If you are truly that upset with someone, wait long enough for your initial rage to calm down, then have a conversation with the person why you are angry. After all, maintaining and nurturing relationships is the cornerstone to happiness.
Relationships: Social Inclusion and Affection
I wrote a post on some great research on how social interaction can make you live longer. But away from interacting with people and quality relationships being a fountain of youth, it also brings happiness and prosperity. Being happy yourself makes people like you more, which will further your career at work. The positive feedback of seeing others smile will make you happier, it will be a continuous cycle.
Another exercise is to try is to find one way each day to bring a smile to someone else. It can as simple as a short compliment or helping someone who dropped a bag of groceries. Think of happiness as compound growth of your investment portfolio for a mathematical analogy. Every time you make someone smile, say hi to someone in passing, catch up with old, new, and casual acquaintance. These one off gestures won’t make a huge difference, but all these interactions build up over time to forming a network that you can rely on in times of needs and ultimately to just make you smile.
As I think back on the happiest moments of my life they do not revolve around specific events, but rather specific people. Back in high school when I spent the day with 3 other close friends driving around town in my friend’s mustang convertible. We did everything and anything we wanted. From swimming to hiking to just dropping by someone else’s house. I can’t help but smile thinking of those carefree days. But being that happy-go-lucky is not easy in adulthood. As we throw ourselves into our careers and responsibilities of adulthood, layering on various levels of stress. I have found a few ways to cope myself to regain that carefree feeling.
Happiness is Being Carefree
At different points in my life various things caused my unhappiness. When I was younger it was social inclusion. What teenager doesn’t worry about fitting in? More recently stress is the culprit. Meditation can be a great coping mechanism for stress. Just a few minutes a day can leave you feeling more tranquil and content. It also increases your focus as you learn to block out all other thoughts and focus on something as simple as your breath.
For some simple exercises that won’t cost you any money, try just focusing on your breath for a few minutes. You can leave your eyes open if you want but closed is usually better. Start with three deep slow breaths. Feel the breath as it enters your nostrils. When you exhale how does your abdomen and chest feel. Focus on such simple feelings while letting all other thoughts in your mind flow by like clouds in the sky will help settle you and leaving you feeling calmer. It’s ok if your mind drifts to those thoughts, the important part is bringing your focus back to the breath, that is the practice. Perhaps end the exercise with some thoughts on what you are grateful for in life. If you like to explore more on meditation I recommend going to Sharon Salzberg’s website which offers some free meditation tracks that you can listen to.
Money can Buy Happiness
Meditation is a great way to deal with stress but addressing the cause of the stress is equally if not more important. As for me and most people money causes stress. You will read a lot about how to stop spending money on things and buy experiences to improve your happiness. While I agree to that to some extent, I recommend a novel idea:
Do nothing with your money to buy happiness.”
Research has shown that two of the main predictors of happiness are life control and leisure. By saving money you are building your nest egg of what I like to call “Freedom Dollars.” Money that one day will mean you no longer have to work, or at a minimum work in a lower paying job that you find more fulfilling and less demanding. Money is not buying you happiness; it’s buying you the freedom to do things that make you happier.
You may say, “But I love buying new things.” Stop It! I don’t want to hear it. Those things are buying you temporary happiness but leading to a longer-term unhappiness buy taking away from your nest egg and adding to your debt. Of course, there comes a time when you have enough and growing your money pile will not lead to anymore happiness. But until that time comes try some simple coping mechanisms such as sharing clothes with a friend. My wife loves wearing a new dress. Instead of purchasing one, how about swapping with a friend. You both get the benefit of wearing something new, saving money, and as an added boost increased socialization by visiting in person to swap clothes. I love efficiency.
Another thought on money and happiness is the desire to be rich. A simple definition of being rich is buying whatever you want. You can do this by increasing your money supply or reducing the cost of your wants. Somewhere in the middle will leave you feeling richer. Everyone reading this can afford anything they want in life, but will the cost of earning enough money to afford those things really leave you happier? Think of every dollar as what is the most happiness it can buy me. Weigh the option of spending money on one fancy meal at a high-end restaurant or ten sandwiches for picnics in the park with a friend or loved one. Buying an expensive car to enjoy on your commute to work or retiring one year earlier to go for daily hikes or bike rides. By using money to buy long term happiness instead of immediate gratification of material goods, you can watch your Freedom Dollars grow and ease the money stresses of life.
The benefits of exercise are endless. To name a few it helps build stronger bones, improves your sleep, improves your sexual health, increases your chance of living longer, reduces weight, improves your mood, and improves your overall health. Now if those items aren’t helpful in improving your overall happiness then I don’t know what will. But since we are on the topic of happiness let’s talk about chemicals. Happiness is just a chemical racing through your blood stream. That’s why people take drugs, to release these chemicals to the point of euphoria.
Exercise is the probably the most efficient natural way to release these chemicals. Ever heard of runners high? Running or any form of exercise that increases your heart rate releases endorphins into your blood stream. They trigger a positive feeling as well as reducing pain in your body, comparable to morphine. As an added benefit exercise prevents things that will cause depression, such as being overweight, being in pain, or some other sickness or injury. If you follow any advice in this post, it’s that going for a simple daily walk can be incredibly effective in lifting your mood. Especially when doing it with good company.
Walking is man’s best medicine.”Hippocrates
While I have mentioned being grateful prior in this article, it’s because it really is that important. It’s so easy to be down on a job we didn’t get, the life we aren’t living, or something as simple as losing in a game of basketball. But all these things pale in comparison to the alternative. Instead of being down on losing at one on one basketball, imagine not being able to play?
I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”
Instead of being envious of others take a moment to reflect on how good your life is. You can be grateful for something as simple as having the ability to eat, being able to walk, or having someone to talk to. Going back to the initial point of happiness being a decision, here’s another example. Just last week I was walking to work and feeling down. I simply looked up at the sky, forced a smile, and thought about all the things that were good in my life. It worked, I instantly felt better. Smiling can reduce stress inducing hormones while increasing happiness hormones such as endorphins. The physical action of smiling and looking up will make you feel better. Go ahead and try it.
I will never understand all the good that a simple smile can accomplish.”Mother Teresa
There was an interesting study done where researchers measured the smile of old baseball players on their cards. They then looked up when those players passed away. The width of the person’s smile was a predictor of how long they lived.
Adopt a Life Philosophy
First off, what is a life philosophy? It’s a way of thinking, a sort of road map on how to live life. I grew up with a group of friends that talking about a life philosophy would make you an easy target for getting picked on. But now as I get older, I realize that more people, myself included, would benefit from studying philosophers. Philosophers are essentially happiness experts who have spent their lives studying the topic. I recently read a book on stoicism that discusses many of the topics mentioned in this post, but here’s the crazy part, the stoic philosophy is from 2,000 years ago. People from back then had the same issues we have today. How to be happy. How to think about money and social status. Stoicism is worth checking out, at the very least it’s cool to see how a lot of human emotions have not changed in thousands of years.
Retirement does not = Happiness
As of writing this post I am not retired, but I aspire to have retirement as an option through careful financial planning and keeping my spending in check. But here is the thing, what if retirement sucks? What if you miss the daily action of getting up, having a set schedule, facing new challenges at work, and socializing with coworkers? Not only will you have quit a perfectly good job you may go into a depression. You no longer will have your daily routine and more importantly you will no longer have this perceived goal of a big pot of happiness at the end of your working career. I heard on a Ted Talk that the two most dangerous years of one’s life, statistically speaking, is the first year of life and the first year of retirement.
Life’s a journey, not a destination.”Steven Tyler, Aerosmith song “Amazing”
Once you retire you will no longer have excuses. You will go from a life of pre-determined to self-determined where you can’t blame your commute or your boss for a bad day. You are now in full control. While this freedom is what most aspire to achieve, it can be very dangerous if you do not properly plan for it. You need a passion in life that gets you excited to get out of bed.
There is a section from book five of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the stoic roman emperor, where he is having a conversation with himself, as if it’s a dialogue. Keep in mind this is a man who longed for nothing. He had an entire kingdom that would do anything he asked. It starts off that you wake up in the morning and you contemplate what you should do.
“Should I get up,” but you say to yourself;
“But it’s so warm, I want to stay here.”
“But look, you’re a human being. Your job is to get up and work.”
“What do you mean I’ve worked enough.”
“Would an animal say that? Would an animal ever say that they had done enough work? People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it. They forget to eat and sleep. They just work because it’s not work, it’s who they are.”
If you don’t believe a stoic philosopher from 2,000 years ago had it figured out, then maybe you’ll believe the Japanese who have a word for it. Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means “a reason for being.” You may hear other happiness articles or books refer to a similar concept as flow. It’s the thing in life that gets your motor running, your passion, what get’s you excited to start the day.
People who are in the flow are completely involved in what they are doing, focused, and concentrated. It’s almost a sense of ecstasy, of being outside everyday reality. Hours seem to fly by like minutes. The reward is the act itself. A fisherman loves being out on the water, catching fish is just a bonus. A musician loves to play music, if people listen is just icing on the cake. Finding this passion comes easy for some, but for most it’s a challenge. But it illustrates the point that financial freedom does not equal happiness. Happiness does not wait for you at the end of a slavish career. Rather financial freedom gives you the ability to focus on your passion, to so something without money being the motivating factor.
I like to define happiness as one simple thought. Stop outsourcing your happiness and unhappiness on people and circumstances. Stop contributing your happiness to external sources and factors. Stop blaming others.
It’s that simple. Get rid of negative thoughts. Work on eliminating the things that cause you stress. And the things that you cannot eliminate, accept them for what they are and stop trying to control them. Then your smiles will come easier. And with those smiles you will attract others whom want to share your smiles.
We should be thinking of happiness as a skill. Which is no different than learning to play the violin or learning to play golf. A skill that you can practice and refine. The formula for happiness is not the same for everyone but the good news is that the things we love to do are the building blocks of a happy life. Play, having new experiences, friends and family, doing things that are meaningful, appreciating what we have. These are the things that make us happy. The best part is that they are free.
How to be Happy Cliff Notes
Happiness is a state of mind.
- Try going a whole day without negative thoughts. No blaming or complaining.
Relationships: Social inclusion and affection.
- Build and maintain quality relationships.
Happiness is being carefree.
- Try regaining that playful childhood spirt to explore and play.
Money can buy happiness.
- Build a pot of Freedom Dollars to give you options in life.
Reduced pain: good health.
- A simple daily walk will do wonders.
- Tell others how you appreciate them. Be thankful for what you have. Smile.
Adopt a life philosophy.
- Study the many great minds who have given you a road map to a good life.
Retirement does not equal happiness.
- Find and focus on your passion.