Sure, on the surface, happiness seems like one of those flimsy topics of conversation or ubiquitous “Top 10 Ways To Feel Happier NOW” listicles on BuzzFeed.
But at the end of the day, the question remains: how do you be happy? Do you find it somewhere? Is it created in a lab somewhere? Does it have to do with my neurotransmitters?
Can I order it on Amazon?
As it turns out, the road to happiness is paved with a handful of time-tested, immutable truths -- truths you may have heard before, but others you surely have not.
Happiness is a big topic that transcends a multitude of disciplines and schools of thought, and because it's such an integral, yet mysteriously intangible part of the human experience, we have some pretty good ideas on how to become happier.
Or at the very least, content.
So without further adieu, here are some of the most timeless concept and best practices to cultivate happiness, regardless of age, of circumstance, or even century.
A. Don’t Let Your Happiness Depend on The Outcome
Approximately 2,300 years ago, a fellow by the name of Aristotle (heard of him?) concluded that, more than anything else, happiness itself is sought for its own sake.
If you ask me, not much has changed since Aristotle's time because we still think about happiness as something that can be “found”; that it's something to be pursued for its own sake, or as something that is earned through accomplishment.
This poses a few problems.
Every other goal -- health, beauty, money, or power is valued principally because we expect that those things will make us happy.
People keep hoping that changing the external conditions of their lives will provide the solution.
The mindset is: If I do X, then Y (happiness) will ensue.
If your happiness is dependent on accomplishing a certain goal, what happens if you fail to reach it?
What if fate intervenes? Or if you’re snubbed? Or if any number of external influences interrupt?
Or what if you do reach your goal, but you don’t feel the overwhelming joy you had anticipated?
When we outsource our happiness to external circumstances, we weaken our ability to feel content with where we are in the present. We tie our well-being and self-worth to the outcomes that we’re chasing, and when we fail, we feel crushed.
In Latin there's an expression, Amor Fati, or 'love of fate'.
It means accepting the good and the bad because both are unavoidable parts of life. It's to find contentment in the actions you take, not in the outcomes. That way, even if the outcome isn’t what you had hoped, you’ll feel content knowing you gave it your best.
In Jiu Jitsu they have a saying, "There is no failing, only learning and winning."
This is great advice because it allows you to readjust your perception of the world, and reframe suboptimal circumstances in a way that is encouraging and motivating, not crippling and demoralizing.
Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it, "That which hurts, also instructs."
So even if you don't reach your goal, you tried your best. You worked hard. You showed resilience. And you learned from the experience.
And you can always find satisfaction in that.
B. Give Your Full Attention
In answering the question: “How does one achieve peace of mind?” The Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch answered:
“Focus on what is present in front of you, and pay full attention to it.”
I can’t tell you the number of movies I’ve sat through that I’ve either been on my tablet, phone, or computer.
I don't like to admit it, but It’s definitely more than a few, and the end result is a diluted experience that could have been made much more enjoyable if I had just put down the phone.
For better or worse, we’re a multi-tasking society, and technology is unquestionably the culprit. We simultaneously watch tv while using our tablets or smartphones. We half-engage in conversations while texting at the same time. We go out to dinner with friends or loved ones and pull out our phones to snap photos of our food on Instagram instead of committing to the experience with full presence and awareness.
How often do you truly engage with something with your full attention these days?
Now, how much do you think your enjoyment or happiness in those moments could be enhanced by simply giving your full attention?
Put down the iPhone and engage with whatever activity is right in front of you. Engage with it fully, ignore the distractions, and let it be the single focus of your attention.
Here's a challenge: see if you can make it thorough this article without clicking the Facebook tab you have open.
C. Don’t Run For Trains
Whoever coined the maxim, “comparison is the thief of joy” was a truly wise person.
A huge source of stress and unhappiness for people is the expectation that they reach a specific level of success in their lives.
Thanks in large part to the internet, there is an image of success that is impressed upon all of us, whether we choose to internalize it or not.
To be successful in today’s age, you have to keep up with something I'll call "the schedule".
Working up the corporate ladder. Carving your own path as an entrepreneur. Chasing the biggest salary or glamorous job title, regardless of the job duties. Keeping up with the Joneses.
These are all things that many of us may feel obligated to do, but not necessarily compelled, or drawn towards.
In a way, chasing someone else’s idea of success is like running for a train you’re about to miss.
You’re so invested in catching the train that the thought of missing it is an overwhelming source of pain and frustration.
So you run for it.
The thing is, missing a train is only painful if you run after it in the first place.
Similarly, NOT matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.
So, maybe instead of blindly chasing the position with the biggest salary or feeling pressured to start a business (you don’t know what kind of business it will be, only that you should start one), and failing to consider other alternatives, you should ask yourself:
“Is this what I really want?”
If the answer is “yes”, you better haul ass because you’ve got a train to catch.
But if it’s “no”, and you’re truly honest with yourself, what will really make you happy might be completely different than what you thought -- or what you’re supposed to think.
D. Don’t Seek Happiness, Seek The Experience of Being Alive
The French philosopher Montaigne said,
“Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.”
It’s so easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life and forget that life in and of itself is the ultimate gift you could possibly have.
So instead of spending your time looking for happiness, foot constantly on the gas and never relenting, if you focus on living a rich life of experiences, happiness is sure to ensue.
To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, most people think we’re all searching for a meaningful life, when in fact, what we’re more likely searching for is the experience of being alive.
Do you understand the difference?
If you’re reading this article, it means you are in fact alive. That also means you still have the exquisite privilege to go out and live your life!
Is there any greater source of happiness than that?
E. Material Possessions Aren't As Important As You Think
The Quality of Life Survey that was published over two decades ago concluded that a person's financial situation is one of the least important factors affecting overall satisfaction in life .
You've heard this before that things don't make us happy.
The economist Adam Smith knew this too. He believed that the potential for ruthless ambition and the quest for material wealth is corroding our souls; that there is an undeniable emptiness that characterizes excessive materialism.
Smith knew that happiness and inner tranquility came from within, and that external conditions, and pursuing wealth and material possessions with the hope of finding happiness was a futile endeavor.
King Midas learned this lesson the hard way. Determined to become the richest, and therefore the happiest, man in the world, he made a deal with the gods who granted his wish that everything he touched would turn into gold. All the food and wine that touched his lips turned to gold before he could swallow them, and he died surrounded by golden plates and golden cups.
In stark contrast to Midas' hedonism, the stoic philosopher Seneca ardently believed that to be truly happy and free in life, you should “regard [material wealth] as being on the point of vanishing”. Seneca was one of the most wealthy men in the world, considered to be a living god in ancient Rome.
Yet despite all of his wealth and prestige, Seneca believed it was important to cultivate a poverty mindset. Once a month he would leave his quarters, wrapped in coarse, raggedy clothing, and wander the streets as a homeless person, eating only the plainest food he could scavenge. He did this to remind himself that even though he lives a life of fortune right now, it could all come crashing down at any moment, and to cultivate a relationship with poverty is to prepare for difficult times of hardship and scarcity.
How would you manage if everything in your life came tumbling down?
If fate snatched the rug from under you, would you land on your feet?
F. Don’t Fret Over The Things You Can’t Control
One of the core tenets of stoic philosophy is that most things in life are completely out of your control, but how you react is in your control.
In some ancient cultures, people were held responsible for keeping a tight rein on their emotions. Anyone who indulged in self-pity and let instinct rather than reflection dictate actions, was chided and supposedly made to forfeit the right to be accepted as a member of the community.
You can’t control everything in life, but you can control:
- Your emotions
- Your judgments
- Your creativity
- Your attitude
- Your perspective
- Your desires
- Your decisions
- Your determination
This idea -- to feel the troubles, but overcome them -- is a valuable philosophical tool in building resilience when external conditions aren’t optimal.
Being able to keep a cool head and not let setbacks and disappointments in life throw you off is a practice of consistency and self-control. And when it comes to happiness and contentment, the sooner you’re able to make peace with the fact that some things are just out of your control, the more consistently happy you’ll be -- because you’ll know to react with a level head, grace, and poise.
A final tip on cultivating a greater sense of happiness and well-being in life is to put yourself first.
Choosing to prioritize things like your health, physical exercise, time to recuperate and recharge, and even to things like proper grooming are all positive reinforcing behaviors that signal you have the self-love and self-respect to invest in yourself and in your well-being.
Taking care of your personal sense of well-being, nurturing a positive mood, and giving yourself permission to put yourself first are all ways to boost your mood and happiness.
So if you're wondering how to be happy, these tips should help get you started. They are some of the best, time-proven ways to cultivate happiness and resilience when external conditions aren't optimal.