Every day, we’re bombarded with messages telling us that we need to be happy all the time—and that, in order to be happy, we need the perfect job, the perfect partner, the perfect life. And we’re made to think that anything less than perfect happiness is a failure.
But the reality is that happiness is not a destination. It’s not something that we can achieve by ticking off a list of accomplishments or acquiring more and more possessions. Happiness cannot be found outside ourselves.
Rather, happiness is a journey, and it’s one that we have to actively choose every day.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Table of Contents
What Happiness Is—And What It’s Not
Researchers tend to focus on two major components of happiness:
- A subjective feeling of well-being. Essentially, what is your daily emotional life like? Notice it’s not “the subjective state of feeling good all the time” (more on that below). It’s about experiencing feelings that are more complex than simple pleasure—things like gratitude, joy, and meaning.1
- Satisfaction with one’s life. When you take a step back and look at your life as a whole, are you content with how things have gone so far? Have you taken the risks that were worth taking to you? If so, even if they didn’t pan out, are you glad you did?
And that’s all well and good and helpful, but I think it’s just as useful to look at what happiness is not.
So here’s my take on that.
Happiness is not the absence of negative emotions
We often think of happiness as the opposite of sadness, anger, or anxiety. But the truth is that negative emotions are a natural part of life, and they can even contribute to our overall happiness.
Without negative emotions, we wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate the positive ones.
Happiness is not about feeling good all the time, but about learning to accept and manage the full range of emotions that we experience.
Happiness is not success
We often think that happiness is something that we can achieve by ticking off a list of accomplishments or acquiring more and more possessions.
But the truth is that success and happiness are not the same thing. Success can bring temporary satisfaction, but it’s not sustainable in the long term.
Happiness is about finding meaning and purpose in our lives, and pursuing the things that matter to us with passion and dedication. That might not be the same thing as what society deems successful.
Happiness is not a fixed state
We often think of happiness as something that we can achieve and then maintain indefinitely. But happiness is actually a dynamic state that requires ongoing effort and commitment.
We have to actively cultivate happiness in our lives by focusing on the things that bring us joy, connecting with others, and engaging in activities that give us a sense of purpose and fulfillment.3
Happiness is not something that we can find outside of ourselves
We often think of happiness as something that can be achieved by changing our external circumstances. But happiness is an internal state that comes from within.
We have to learn to accept ourselves and our lives as they are, and focus on the things that we can control.
When we cultivate a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the present moment, we can start to experience happiness in even the most challenging of circumstances.
3 Ideas That Might Change Your Life
What Makes People Happy?
So now that we know what happiness is and what it’s not, what does make us happy?
Well, while there’s no “formula” for happiness, there are a handful of areas in life that seem to affect happiness for almost everyone.
The details will change from person to person, but it’s clear that most people need some combination of the following to lead truly happy lives.
Humans, for the most part, are strange when you step back and really take a good look.
Compared to a lot of other animals, we’re small, weak, slow, and very, very naked.
And yet, for better or worse, we dominate the world like no other creature ever has.
And that’s due to our ability to act in groups—that is, it’s our social nature that sets us apart. Cooperation through scalable sociability is one of, if not the defining feature of our species.
And just like a beaver must build a dam to truly express his beaverness, humans must form social bonds to fully express our humanity.4
A Sense of Purpose and Meaning
How do you fit into the larger world? What are you contributing to it? How are you making a difference in the lives of others?
When we have a sense of direction and purpose in our lives, we feel a greater sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. This can come from pursuing meaningful work,7 engaging in activities that we enjoy, or contributing to a cause that we care about.8
This doesn’t have to be world-changing either. In fact, the biggest impact virtually anyone can have is immediately around them. Help a friend or neighbor or stranger even. Volunteer in your local community. Donate a few dollars9 to a local charity when you can.
Physical and Mental Health
And you are what you consume, but that doesn’t just apply to the food you eat.
Just like a good diet of healthy foods improves your physical well-being, a good mental diet will improve your mental well-being.
Everyone seems to accept that “money can’t buy happiness”—and ultimately, that’s true. But it’s not quite that straightforward.
Allow me to explain.
Having a certain level of financial security can contribute to our overall happiness. When we don’t have to worry about bills or what will happen if life, well, screws us (and life will screw us at some point), we can breathe a little easier and not be so stressed out all the time.
But studies have shown that beyond a certain point, additional income and wealth have diminishing returns on our sense of happiness and well-being.13
So money cuts both ways when it comes to happiness in that 1) not having enough money to take care of yourself and/or your family can be stressful and lead to less happiness in your life; and 2) at a certain point, obsessing over making more money will only lead to more stress, and therefore less happiness, in your life.
So, how can we be happier in our lives?
Allow me to present two broad answers to this: a conventional one, and a not-so-conventional one.
The Conventional Path to Happiness
There’s no shortage of articles and books out there explaining how to be happier. Most of them involve some combination of improving the following areas of your life:
- Your relationships.
- Your physical and mental health.
- Your job and financial situation.
There’s a lot of merit in this advice. Working on these things will definitely help you lead a happier life—but for slightly different reasons than most people think.
You see, these things—relationships, health, your job/finances—are mostly prerequisites for not being miserable. That’s not the same thing as being truly happy, but you can’t be happy if you’re miserable, so it makes sense.
So yes, get your shit together:
- Cut out toxic relationships from your life and spend time with people you truly enjoy and who love and support you.
- Get a grip on your physical health. Eat right, move your body, and get some damn sleep already.
- Get a grip on your mental health. Quit the news. Stop doom scrolling. Turn off the screens. Practice some self-awareness. Meditate. Get therapy if you need to.
- Find a job that doesn’t suck the soul right out of your eye sockets while still allowing you to pay bills and enjoy life a little too.
If your life is a mess in one or more of these areas, of course you’re not going to be all that happy most of the time. So yes, getting these things figured out will almost certainly increase your levels of happiness on a day-to-day basis.
But there’s a whole other side to happiness that isn’t discussed very often.
The Unconventional Path to Happiness
I’ve found that beyond improving your life in the above tangible ways, there are some counterintuitive, paradoxical ways you can reach a truly new level of contentment and peace in your life.
Hear me out.
Keep Death in Mind—Every Single Day
Let’s start with your own mortality.
Not a cheery subject, I know, but stay with me here.
Death gives life its meaning. When you’re reminded that this is all temporary—that everything you know and love and care about will all be taken away one day—you’re forced to choose what’s important to you right now.
Put another way, our finite time on this planet forces us to choose what we give a fuck about.
In the shadow of your own death, all the frivolity of life melts away. Your material possessions, all your external success and accomplishments, the fact that the barista messed up your coffee order—none of it really matters when you think about how you’ll be rotting in your grave for far longer than you’ll be alive.
Instead, when life is viewed through the lens of death, what does matter becomes crystal clear: spending a few extra moments with people you love; helping others because you recognize we’ve all been thrown into this cosmic accident together; or simply just reveling in the fact—the miracle, really—that you’re even alive.
Embrace Your Flaws
A lot of people focused on “improvement” are trying to change something they dislike about themselves.
When we’re so focused on “fixing” ourselves, we neglect to develop some of our more redeeming qualities.
Others focus so much on the “self” in “self-improvement” that they become narcissistic and begin to neglect other important areas in their lives.
Many other people are driven to improve themselves for the sake of others—impressing them, getting them to like them, showing the world they can meet some arbitrary standard they’ve set.
Rarely in this process do people stop to think about what would actually make them happier and more at peace with themselves, flaws and all.
In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt gave what would become a famous speech called, The Man in the Arena.14 He admonished the audience to stop being cynical spectators and instead put their own asses on the line:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
What Roosevelt recognized is that most people equate failure with misery—so much so that they avoid failing at all costs and instead commentate from the sidelines to make themselves feel better about their inaction.
“Risk” is a dirty word to them, so they don’t take any.
The thought of feeling like a bumbling idiot of a beginner is so anxiety-inducing that they always play it safe—no new jobs, no new hobbies, no new ideas to ponder even.
An abject, all-consuming fear of rejection keeps many from putting themselves out there to make new friends or date new people.
And yet, it’s exactly these kinds of failures we must risk—and inevitably endure—to be truly happy.
Stop Trying to Be Happy
Happiness operates on the principles of what I call “The Backwards Law,” which states:
With any action that is purely psychological—an experience that exists solely within our own consciousness—there is an inverse relationship between effort and reward.
Put another way, the harder you try to change an internal state, the harder it will be to actually achieve such changes.
This is because desiring a positive experience is itself a negative experience, while accepting a negative experience is a positive experience.
So in terms of being happy, trying to be happy only highlights all the ways that you’re unhappy. On the other hand, accepting that life is full of unhappy moments allows you to accept them as they are and appreciate the happy moments more when they come along.
So stop trying so damn hard. Stop trying to find the holy grail of happiness. Stop trying to optimize everything in your life in the hopes it will make you happy.
Stop. And just start living your life.
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- Diener, E., Wirtz, D., Tov, W., Kim-Prieto, C., Choi, D., Oishi, S., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). New Well-being Measures: Short Scales to Assess Flourishing and Positive and Negative Feelings. Social Indicators Research, 97(2), 143–156.↵
- Kushlev, K., Heintzelman, S. J., Lutes, L. D., Wirtz, D., Kanippayoor, J. M., Leitner, D., & Diener, E. (2020). Does Happiness Improve Health? Evidence From a Randomized Controlled Trial. Psychological Science, 31(7), 807–821.↵
- Forsman, A. K., Nordmyr, J., & Wahlbeck, K. (2011). Psychosocial interventions for the promotion of mental health and the prevention of depression among older adults. Health Promotion International, 26 Suppl 1, i85-107.↵
- Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.↵
- Saphire-Bernstein, S., & Taylor, S. E. (2013). Close relationships and happiness. In The Oxford handbook of happiness (pp. 821–833). Oxford University Press.↵
- Hudson, N. W., Lucas, R. E., & Donnellan, M. B. (2020). Are we happier with others? An investigation of the links between spending time with others and subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119, 672–694.↵
- Neve, J.-E. D., & Ward, G. (2017, March 20). Does Work Make You Happy? Evidence from the World Happiness Report. Harvard Business Review.↵
- Kushlev, K., Radosic, N., & Diener, E. (2022). Subjective Well-Being and Prosociality Around the Globe: Happy People Give More of Their Time and Money to Others. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 13(4), 849–861.↵
- Aknin, L. B., Dunn, E. W., Proulx, J., Lok, I., & Norton, M. I. (2020). Does spending money on others promote happiness?: A registered replication report. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119, e15–e26.↵
- Wang, F., Orpana, H. M., Morrison, H., de Groh, M., Dai, S., & Luo, W. (2012). Long-term association between leisure-time physical activity and changes in happiness: Analysis of the Prospective National Population Health Survey. American Journal of Epidemiology, 176(12), 1095–1100.↵
- Cabiedes-Miragaya, L., Diaz-Mendez, C., & García-Espejo, I. (2021). Well-Being and the Lifestyle Habits of the Spanish Population: The Association between Subjective Well-Being and Eating Habits. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(4), Article 4.↵
- Lemola, S., Ledermann, T., & Friedman, E. M. (2013). Variability of Sleep Duration Is Related to Subjective Sleep Quality and Subjective Well-Being: An Actigraphy Study. PLOS ONE, 8(8), e71292.↵
- Jebb, A. T., Tay, L., Diener, E., & Oishi, S. (2018). Happiness, income satiation and turning points around the world. Nature Human Behaviour, 2(1), 33.↵
- Roosevelt, T. (2015, September). T. R.’s “Man in the Arena.” Air Force Magazine, 75.↵