How to be Happy

The contents of this page is just my uninformed opinion. It will probably be pretty boring to read because this is mostly stuff that everyone knows but is hard to put into practice. Others have seriously researched this topic, and their opinion should be accorded more weight than mine.

I've broken this entry into 13 'keys to happiness'. I've listed them in descending order of importance.

The 1st key to happiness is to appreciate the little things. For example, the color of the morning light, sunsets, the smell of plants after the rain, eating, going to sleep, magnets on your fridge, posters on your wall, jokes and comedies, and a hundred other things; most likely your list will be is different, but my point is to find a broad set of small things that occur frequently. In my experience, this is actually a skill; over time you can improve your ability to appreciate a broad variety of life's little details. I'm not talking about training yourself to like something you don't really care about, but rather to train yourself to (1) focus your attention on the small bit of happiness that is generated by something that you already like, and (2) when you want to, to amplify (to a minor extent) this small bit of happiness by letting yourself spend a minute or two thinking about what it is that you like about it (savoring it).

Crucial to being able to appreciate the little things is the skill of quieting your mind. What i mean is to be able to turn your attention away from your internal monologue, from your goals and your priorities and your worries and your judgements, and to pay attention instead to the external world, to your immediate sense perceptions. I hear that meditation is a good way to learn to do this, although i haven't tried it.

The 2nd key to being happy is to realize that you are going to be unhappy sometimes. In my own experience, there is a little bit of day-to-day unhappiness every now and then, and on a larger scale there are long periods of time in which it is hard to be happy very often. When you are unhappy, cursing your life and circumstances only makes things worse, although i admit that i do it every so often. More dangerously, during these times there is a temptation to wallow in anger and misery and to prioritize (sometimes futile attempts at) cheering yourself up over your daily chores and tasks. Although i would be the first to say that you should take a break, be irresponsible, and treat yourself on a rainy day, the deferral of what needs to be done in an attempt to soothe yourself can easily get out of hand, which is a critical mistake. Too often we spend too much time mucking around in our head and dredging up past wounds, putting off necessary tasks, which only leads to more misery later either because important tasks are undone, or because they must be done regardless and we are forced to stay up all night or to forgo future recreation to do them. Often, the key is to accept that you are just going to be unhappy today, and to focus on the practical necessities of your tasks in the external world rather than on your sorry mental state; this does not make you any happier that day, but at least it prevents you from burdening your future self in a self-perpetuating cycle.

To summarize the previous paragraph, realize that you cannot be happy all of the time. When you are unhappy, give yourself a break and treat yourself. But if you do that too often, you're only making it harder on yourself later. If that is happening, then focus on your tasks rather than on your mind.

Realize that you are going to be happy sometimes, too. When you are unhappy, especially during those longer periods of unhappiness, it can seem like life is mostly unhappy with some tiny bits of happiness. The truth is that life is typically a lot of unhappiness mixed in with a lot of happiness also (although nothing is certain; and i am unsure whether there is typically more happiness or unhappiness). If you are unhappy, and if you keep on going and keep on trying, then perhaps something will eventually change; perhaps something lucky will occur in the external world, or perhaps the weather of our internal mood will shift, or perhaps our hard work on our tasks will finally pay off and better our external circumstances. So be hopeful.

The 3rd key to happiness is a healthy lifestyle/daily habits. Things like getting enough sleep, eating right, getting 20 minutes of aerobic exercise every now and then. Exactly which parts of your physical condition affect your happiness the most seems to vary from person to person; for example, some people more than others tend to get in a bad mood when they are hungry; some people more than others tend to be unhappy when they are tired; some people more than others get depressed when they don't exercise. There will be times when external circumstances force you to live in an unhealthy manner. Try to avoid putting yourself in those situations, but if you can't help it, or if you think it's worth it, don't despair, you can still be happy, this will make it much more difficult, but not impossible.

The 4th key to happiness is other people. The importance of this factor varies from person to person, but for the vast majority of humans, a feeling of connectedness to others makes you much happier. If you don't know as many people as you'd like who live nearby, you should know that although it sometimes happens by itself, often you have to actively work on meeting people.

The 5th key to happiness is small successes. When you try to do something and you succeed, it makes you happier. For longer tasks, replace this with perceived progress; when it feels like you are making progress, it makes you happier.

The 6th key to happiness is control. When you feel like you are in charge of your life and your circumstances, and making choices about what you do, you feel happier. I'd like to make four points here. First, be aware that other things being equal, a situation in which you will feel in control might make you happier than a situation in which you will not. Second, especially for big decisions like whether you should choose a certain demanding career path, make sure that you make the choice you really want, and not just choose what others want you to do. If you feel like you chose something yourself, you will be much happier about paying the costs of it. For example, if a given career path demands a few years with little sleep in a junior position, this is much easier to bear if you feel that you freely chose it because you really strongly want to be in that career, compared to if someone else chose it for you (even with good intentions). Third, there are many things we can't control in life; accept the things you can't change, and quickly move on to focus your attention and energy on the things you can change. Fourth, don't ever give up hope that you can change things about yourself; character is mostly just habits, and habits can be change by getting them right one instance at a time until a new habit is built. In addition, many aspects of your emotional makeup that appear to be permanent and immutable may be changable if you go about it the right way under the right conditions. Metaphorically, in many ways human minds may be like thermoplastic materials; when they are cold they stay in shape but when they are hot, you can bend them into new shapes.

The 7th key to happiness is meaning. Focus your attention and goals on things that are meaningful or that give your life meaning. This one is hard to define further, because people have different opinions on what things add meaning to life. Some potential examples are helping others, love, spirituality.

The 8th key to happiness is prosperity. People say that 'money is the root of all evil' but my opinion is that if you can't afford to pay the rent and to eat, or if you are worried that you may not be able to soon, or if you must life in an unsafe neighborhood or in a neighborhood that you do not like, then this makes you less happy. It is pretty easy in this world to end up in such situations so i think that you should make it a priority to try to avoid them, even if this involves investing a lot of time over many years. Often you hear that getting rich is not the key to happiness, which is true, but it is also true that if you focus on being happy and not on making money, you can easily find yourself with so little money that it impacts your happiness.

The 9th key to happiness is not to be upset by things unnecessarily. The nature of life is that things go wrong frequently, so if you get frustrated whenever something goes wrong, you will be frustrated a lot. Not only does frustration make you unhappy in the moment, but it saps your energy, making you less likely to complete your tasks efficiently. A tendency to get upset when things go wrong also causes you to blow up at other people, which makes them less happy, and damages your connection to them, making you less happy in the long run. Luckily, the ability to remain claim in the face of frustrating events can be learned with practice.

Closely related is the need to forgive people when they screw up. I'm not saying that you can't have high standards, i'm just talking about how you react when those standards aren't met. It's possible that you could motivate better performance by being less forgiving, but this can come at a high cost to you. Not only will it make the other person unhappy and damage your relationship with them, but it will put you in an unyielding mindset, which will make it more likely that you will react poorly to the unavoidable failures in your future.

When possible, try to focus on effort rather than results. It can be difficult to separate deliberate carelessness from accidents because different people have different strengths and weaknesses; for example, if you have a good memory then when others forget something it may seem to you that were deliberately inattentive, because you know that you could easily have remember the thing if you had paid attention when you were first told it.

If someone did the best they could, then logically, there's nothing to be gained by punishing them (the difficulty is of course that it's not always clear when someone was doing their best, which is why you do have to focus on results sometimes). This goes for others but it goes double for you; don't be angry with yourself as long as you did your best; and forgive yourself when you screw up. Personally, i believe that the only thing that truly merits anger is unethical behavior.

Another part of not being upset is to not be overly demanding. I'm not saying that you can't have high standards, only that you should choose those standards carefully, after realistically considering their costs. Everything has a price; the higher you set your standards, the higher the cost will be to uphold them. Be realistic about the frequency of unfortunate occurences. Don't have unrealistic expectations that by 'being careful', you or others can avoid incurring the full cost of your standards. Don't allow yourself to pretend that mistakes won't happen, and then indulge yourself by becoming upset at the unexpected mistake when it occurs. For example, if your standard is that your house will be spotless, the cost is that a lot of time must be spent cleaning. This cost can be somewhat reduced by not making a mess, but every now and then you or someone else will drop something. When this happens, you owe it to yourself and to others not to get angry but rather to say, "Well, now i have to clean this up, too bad, but this is what i expected".

Another part of not being upset is to not be overly vigilant. But surely vigilance is a good thing? There can be too much of a good thing. Too much vigilance allows you to notice and become bothered by minor accidents that you otherwise wouldn't care about. Too much vigilance causes you to expend mental energy worrying instead of on other thoughts, raising your anxiety level.

When you do get upset, which you will occasionally, the important thing is to target the anger at the particular event, not at the person. Keep your complaints focused on the event; "This was the incorrect way to do this", not "You are stupid". Give constructive criticism; "The correct way to do it would have been that", not simply "Next time don't screw up", nor "<Other person> wouldn't have made this mistake, just do what they do". Later, be sure and balance out the negative with positive; compliment the person who screwed up on something else that they did well; if the person is someone you care about, remind them of that.

The 10th key to happiness is not to base your happiness on the wrong things. Avoid things that are unworthy, that are infeasibly difficult, that are fragile, that are outside your control. For example, don't base your happiness upon: having a beautiful body, because this is both unworthy and outside your control; winning the olympics or going to the moon or becoming a rock star or a rich, because these are infeasibly difficulty popularity, because popularity comes and goes and can even turn to unpopularity (fragile). Youth, because (unless you die soon) you will certainly age (both fragile and outside your control).

Taken to its logical conclusion, you can't really rely on anything and everything is fragile, so some schools of thought think you should try to free oneself from all attachments and desires. In my opinion, that is a bit extreme; i think life is richer if you become attached to things and then morn their loss, and if you desire things and then regret when you do not get them, as long as you become attached to and desire worthy things. For example, i think it's fine to become attached to other people, even though people are fragile (they might die) and their desire to continue a relationship with you is outside your control.

The 11th key to happiness is moderation. Strike a balance between self-indulgence and self-discipline (the Wikipedia articles on Buddhism suggest they have a similar concept [1]).

The 12th key to happiness is beauty. Seek out and focus on beautiful things. There are many forms of beauty; beyond the immediate senses such as visual and audio, there are also beautiful stories, beautiful theorems, etc.

The 13th key to happiness is novelty.


Elsewhere i have notes about the psychology of happiness. The book [2] inspired some of these remarks. [3] has a section on my opinion of the meaning of life.