For those who don’t have much time or interest in reading a lot today, I’ll give you the summary right away: Leading a happy life boils down to two rules:
- Avoid doing things which make you unhappy.
- Do more of the things which make you happy.
Simple, isn’t it? Of course there are more details to it, but if you will follow these two rules every day, your life will already improve tremendously. Before moving on to a more step-by-step description of my way to happiness, let me point out that I believe that happiness is individualistic. There is no uniform method applicable to everyone. Some people are spiritual, some people are not. Some people are relaxed, others are tense. Even the same person will be a different character five or ten years from now. The things that made you happy ten years ago may not work anymore.
I am not trying to change anyone and I hate these “10 steps to happiness” articles that tell you what to eat or how many miles to jog or to put a smiley face on your bathroom mirror. I am going to use plenty of examples, and many of the examples will of course come from my own life. But please don’t get hung up on the examples, but concentrate on the method and feel free to apply the method (or some points of it) to your life with your ideas and your dreams.
Last point before we get cracking: remember that most likely you already have plenty of reasons to be happy!
Find out what makes you happy
Taking one step back from the two rules of happiness described above, you obviously need to find out what makes you happy (and what makes you unhappy). This is not as mundane as it sounds and can actually lead to surprising insights into your own life. Right now, without thinking long, name the two or three things which make you happiest. “Things” as used in this article don’t need to refer to tangible items and it’s probably even better if they are not. They can be activities, places, even people. In my case for example the three most happiness-inducing things are nature, books [I always need to be careful not to accidentally type "boobs" here.] and then travelling, with writing coming a close fourth. – Of course I don’t know what you will answer, but you might be surprised that work is not among the top three providers of happiness, nor is being stuck in traffic or paying your mortgage. First lesson: you spend far too much time every day on things which don’t contribute to your happiness as much as other (very often simpler) things could.
Now, try to look back on your life, as far as you can, and tell me when was the happiest time in your life. Not the happiest day or event, but a longer period. This is not as easy as the first task, but don’t read on until you have reflected on your life and identified the happiness-peak in your life. I’ll tell you what’s mine: my teenage years towards the end of secondary school, between 13/14 and 18/19. Now, that’s quite shocking because I am 38 years now, so that was 20 years ago. I am a happy guy now and I have had a lot of happy times in between, but why is my memory of my teenage years so extremely positive? This is an exercise you need to engage in as well: identify the reasons why the time you picked was the happiest one in your life. After much reflection, in my case, I can say that it was the lightheartedness of the time: no need to pay rent, no need to work much, lots of free time, I enjoyed going to school and the intellectual debates there (more so than university because of the variety of subjects) and by the age of 16 I had already been to France, Australia and Israel, each of these trips without my parents. I felt like I was growing up, getting to know the world and I had big dreams, about which I was confident.
Notice that in my case, I also enjoyed law school and I enjoyed the time when I opened and managed my own law firm, but looking back in all honesty, I did not enjoy it quite as much as adolescence. – You personally might have hated school and your happiest time might have been at university or your time in Vietnam (although I doubt that) or in Desert Storm or when your children were growing up. In any case, please reflect on the why of your choice. Important lessons about what is really important to your personal happiness can be drawn from that.
Now to the last exercise, and this is something you need to do over the next couple of days. I would invite you to watch out for moments when you are suddenly happy because of (little) things that you didn’t expect to have such an impact on you. You will be on the lookout for things which cause happiness in you, but you didn’t realise it yet. There may be many! I have done this exercise over the last couple of days and I noticed for example that many animals make me happy when I see them (cats and squirrels work wonders). Last weekend, I jogged up to a mountain village in Sicily and the exhaustion combined with breathtaking views across the mountain ranges and the sea was much more exhilarating than I would ever have thought to be possible. – As soon as you feel happiness or you feel that you begin to smile at something, take conscious notice of it, otherwise it might pass and you will forget it. If you try this exercise, you will discover many little things that put you in a good mood. It could be food, it could be certain music, it could be the daily dose of The Simpsons.
Find out what makes you unhappy
We need to do the same exercises regarding things (or activities or people or places) that make you unhappy. Identifying the things that make you most unhappy is usually easy. It’s either some medical problem (and if it’s a serious one then this article here is of no help and I apologize for having wasted your time), too much work or any current stress situation, like a deadline to file your taxes or finish your MA dissertation. Now do the same exercise as above (and you can combine these two) for a few days and note down or memorize all the things that make you sad, cranky, grumpy, angry or scared. Don’t be surprised if you find far more of these negative influencers than you find positive ones. I noticed for example that I start the day angry or disappointed with myself if I sleep long, I am not happy if I look back at a day and I haven’t been outside and I feel really disturbed most times when the phone rings. – With you, it might be that sleeping until noon feels like heaven and that you are happiest when chatting away for hours. But surely you will also find plenty of things that cause you to frown, to lose your smile or to worry.
Now it’s time for action!
After all this analysing ourselves, it’s time to spring into action and change our lives! Armed with all the data collected above, you can move forward to implement the following two most important rules:
- Avoid doing things which make you unhappy.
- Do more of the things which make you happy.
Start with the small things because you can change them right away. If you noticed that certain music makes you happy, listen to it more often. If certain food made you sick, stop eating it. If you are annoyed by the phone, turn it off. If you like being outside, walk instead of going by car or bus. If you feel like you are wasting time reading the morning paper, cancel your subscription. If the happiest time in the day is when The Simpsons are on, watch some of the old shows as well. If you are happiest when you are alone, go into the forest. If you are happiest among people, call a friend and go out. If you were most unhappy when you were around your boyfriend, fire him. If you were happiest when you had that pipe, smoke more. If calling your grandmother every week bores you, tell her that you will be serving on a submarine for a year and won’t be able to call.
Often, getting rid of the unhappy things is better to start with. Because you will free up space or time or resources in your life, you will then find it easier to do more of the things you really enjoy.
Ignore other people
If you analyse your life carefully, you might notice that you do a lot of boring or even annoying things because somebody else expects you to do so. You go to church to make your parents happy. You buy stuff which you don’t need because everybody else has it. You watch football for hours because that’s what your friends do (and they might watch it because you do). You go to university because your family expects you to, even though you would prefer to work on a cruise ship.
But your life is your life only! You don’t owe anything to anybody (except maybe if you have a child, then I think you should maybe stay around until he/or she can walk alone).
The bigger decisions
Chances are that some of the things which reduced your happiness were big things, like your job, your PhD programme, your marriage, or that some of the things which you think would make you happy were equally big, like moving to Brazil or riding a bicycle through America or becoming an astronaut.
You will be intimidated by the bigness of these dreams and you might be afraid of quitting your job, as much as you may hate it. But my advice is: do it right away! If it is something that is just physically or financially impossible to do right away, start with small steps. But do the first step right away! If you think you can’t afford now to quit the job which bores you, hand in a notice that you will leave at the end of the year. If you want to move to Croatia but you still need to save a bit (although chances are you will actually save money by moving to a more beautiful place), terminate your lease with six months notice.
One important part of getting cracking right away is telling people about it. But firmly, not with doubt and fear in your voice! If you tell people at the office “in six months I am out of here and on a boat to Tahiti”, it forces you to follow up on that desire and to take specific steps. Making your goals public is a good mechanism to push you on to do the things which you might otherwise postpone indefinitely.
Make your big dreams the most important thing in your life. Anything else is secondary. If your plan is to travel around the world, get rid of any useless clutter that costs you money or time. Yes, you might have to get rid of your car and you won’t get the newest phone every year and maybe you won’t be able to join your friends to an expensive restaurant every day. But you know that you are saving for that plane ticket to Buenos Aires. If you are training for a marathon, you will go out less because you won’t have the time and you need more sleep. But you know that you will be able to run 42 km without taking a break.
But isn’t that a huge risk?
No. Or at least not as much as you think. I can tell you what is really the biggest risk: leading a boring or unsatisfied life, intimidated by what might not work or what might happen, and in the end you will have wasted a large part of it. That’s the biggest risk most people face, and too many don’t do anything against it.
Many big decisions are not as risky as they seem. Quitting a job to open your own business? If it won’t work out, you can always get a job again. Moving to a different country? If you don’t like it, you can always move back. Going on a walking trip across the Gobi Desert? If you don’t enjoy it anymore, you catch a bus or call a friend.
I once had a Couchsurfing guest from Spain who had quit his job to ride around the world by bicycle. He had been doing this for a year or so, sleeping outside or relying on the (surprisingly plentiful) help of strangers. He said “My friends at home all think I am crazy for quitting my job and taking this risk. But honestly I don’t see any risk: the worst case scenario is that I have to move back to my parents for a while, where I will live with people who love me and a mother who cooks well.”
Maybe you won’t achieve your dreams. That’s a realistic possibility. But achieving half of your dreams is much better than not trying at all.
Lastly, I want to address the case of people who feel unhappy, but can’t exactly say why (although this is usually a case of not thoroughly applying the aforementioned steps). In that case, I recommend a change. Move! Move to a different city, state or country. There will be new things, new people, maybe a new language, everything will be exciting again. You will feel like on a long holiday. And the best thing: you will have gotten rid of the old job, the old circle of friends and family, and thus of all your social constraints. You will feel free and you will be able to be yourself again!
Yes, you can!
Of course all of this is very general (or based on my own experience too much), so I am looking forward to your comments below to discuss other scenarios and dreams.