Note: This is a 7 part series about the Laws of Living a Life on Your Terms. See other related articles at the end of the post.
Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. – Gandhi
Happiness: an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of others – Ambrose Bierce
Happiness is neither without us nor within us. It is in God, both without us and within us – Blaise Pascal
Happiness is a mystery, like religion, and should never be rationalised – Gilbert K. Chesterton
The secret to happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible. – Bertrand Russell
These are all quotes from widely admired and respected people.
Yet they are all different.
That’s what I wanted to talk about in this post.
I want to talk about one theory of happiness, my theory of happiness, and I think it will change your life.
I want to make a fundamental shift to your psyche that will have a permanent and lasting impact on how you view happiness.
And I’m not talking about touchy-feely abstract principles.
I’m talking about concrete definitions and actions that you can use to actively create a happier life, guaranteed.
Before you read this post, take a second to consider these questions:
1.) Are you happy?
2.) Do you consider happiness to be the normal state of living?
3.) How do you think people achieve happiness?
At the end of the post, I’d like you to answer these questions again and let me know if your perspective changed in any way.
Isn’t ‘Happiness’ Relative?
I’m not saying that the definition of an individuals happiness isn’t subjective. It is. That’s why I’m not going to go into ‘what’s the definition of happiness’ because I believe that the answer to that question is subjective.
It’s exactly like asking someone what it feels like to be tickled.
All anyone knows is that it makes you laugh and you freak out. Other than that, people use all kinds of metaphorical expressions to explain it.
The important point is that we know what tickling is and how to go about achieve it.
By the end of this post, you should know what happiness is and how to go about achieving it. Exactly how you achieve it, and what happiness feels like is entirely up to you.
Expect a Happy Life
Before you can even begin to achieve any state of happiness, you have to expect happiness. You can’t go around all doom and gloom expecting for the happy fairy to sprinkle happy dust on your head.
It doesn’t work that way for two reasons. One – the happy fairy is a fictional character I just made up right now, and two – happiness comes from inside of you and no amount of happy dust is going to change how you feel on the inside. Tweet this.
Just like most expectations, if you believe that you are destined to have a life of suffering, supposed to have a life of suffering, or that happiness isn’t possible, then you are right.
Believe that you can and should be happy. Expect that you will be happy. Tweet this.
Expect happiness like you expect the sun to rise in the morning and to set at night.
Do you ever think about what you would do if the sun decided not to go down today? No? Then why do you keep thinking about suffering?
A less dramatic metaphor is driving to the store to get milk.
Do you get into your car and immediately worry that you’re going to get into a car crash and suffer horrible injuries, or do you get into the car, turn on the radio, and go get some damn milk?
You go get the damn milk, right?
Because sitting in the car shaking and sweating from fear of death before you have even left the driveway is fucking insane.
We all know that a car accident can happen. We know that it happens every day. We probably know at least one person who’s been in one.
But you drive so often, that it doesn’t occur to you until it happens (or almost happens).
So you just get into the car subconsciously aware that accidents happen every day but you aren’t dwelling on it because you’re too busy driving to get the damn milk.
That’s how you need to treat suffering – like an unexpected car accident that may happen one day but you can’t be bothered to worry about it because you’re too busy pursuing happiness.
Just changing your mindset about suffering will take you a long way.
What is Happiness?
Happiness is not a combination of satisfaction and having more positive emotions than negative emotions. Those are symptoms of happiness.
Just like that horrible suffocating feeling you get when being ticked is not the actual ‘tickle’ itself, it’s a symptom of it.
There are all kinds of symptoms of happiness, but there is only one answer to ‘what is happiness.’
Happiness is the ultimate goal of a person’s life.
Just like making someone freak out is the goal of tickling.
That is really it. Happiness is the ultimate goal of your life.
Where happiness comes from, how happiness feels, how happy you are, and how you actively achieve your happiness is all up for grabs. All of those topics are non-absolute. Not surprisingly, those are all the topics being studied and explored.
Before you jump to the comments section with your exclamations of outrage, read the rest of the post.
Achieving Your Own Personal Happiness
Everyone is using the symptoms, sources, and achievement of happiness as the answer to ‘what is happiness.’
Just like there are many different ways to tickle someone (stomach, knees, feet), there are many different ways to achieve your happiness.
Just like there are many different symptoms of tickling (laughing, crying, limb spasms), there are many symptoms of happiness.
Just like there are many different sources a tickler can come from (people, objects, etc?), there are many sources of happiness.
However, unlike tickling, there is one way to determine how you should go about achieving your own personal happiness.
How you decide to achieve your happiness is completely dependent upon what you value in your life.
By ‘value’ I mean something, anything, that you have to do something to get or hold onto.
If you value the love of a family, you will achieve your own happiness by working to raise a happy family.
If you value charity, then you will achieve your own happiness by working for charitable causes.
If you value having a purpose, then you will achieve your happiness by doing productive work that will fulfill your purpose.
If you value having satisfaction in your work, they you will achieve your happiness by doing work you love.
If you value education, then you will achieve happiness by continuing to educate yourself.
You may value all of these things. I know that I do.
I measure my success in life, my happiness, by seeing how I am doing in terms of achieving my values. If my family is happy, and I’m giving to causes that I care about, and I’m producing work that makes me proud, I’m going to be happy.
Some of you are going to say ‘Well if a murderer likes murdering, then does that make it ok for him to murder?’
No it’s not.
Because you can’t have a truly happy life without benevolence and justice towards others.
What he thinks is happiness is actually only a brief moment of respite from the state of chronic misery he lives in.
There are those of you who are going to say ‘Some people just choose to be happy and then they are just happy?’
It doesn’t work that way.
Because you can’t have a truly happy life without rationality.
Some of you might thing that you’ll be happy if you just win the lottery. Then you can sit on the beach sipping pina coladas all day. That’s also not true.
There really isn’t any right or wrong way to achieve your happiness. The only rules are that you do it as a human being and you do it with your long term happiness in mind.
What I mean by doing it as a human being is doing it by your own effort.
You have to act with your long term happiness in mind, because if you don’t you are basically saying you don’t plan on living very long. Since happiness is your life’s GOAL, you have to think about it as the most long term goal you’ve ever had.
That means that just because having promiscuous sex makes you happy right now, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to align with your long-term values and goal of happiness.
This is precisely why most people are miserable.
This is Why You Are Unhappy
The primary reason for your misery is that you hold certain values, but you act a different way.
In other words, you have no integrity.
Here are some common everyday examples of situations people put themselves in that make them unhappy:
- You value satisfaction in work, but you work in a job that is not satisfying.
- You value self-esteem, but you don’t treat yourself with respect.
- You value productivity, but you are forced to be idle.
- You value love, but you are in a relationship that only imitates the feelings of love.
- You value artistic inspiration but you go to school for Engineering because it makes you more money.
- You value pride, but you take the wealth of others anyway.
Similarly, sometimes you hold two values, but one is higher than the other and you are forced to choose the lower value because it’s more socially acceptable:
- You value the opinion and support of your parents, but you really want to be a poet and they want you to be a lawyer. You become a lawyer.
- You value wealth more than you value charity, but you choose charity so you don’t look greedy.
- You value your marriage but you value honesty more. You aren’t in love with your wife anymore, but you choose to stay and lie to yourself.
Do you see the problem?
You are constantly in a fight with yourself! How can you expect to be happy when you are, literally, your own worst enemy?
A lot of the time you don’t even know that you value something, so you can’t do anything about it.
I’m here to remedy that.
How To Identify Your Personal Values and Live a Happy Life
It’s not going to be easy for you to discover your true values.
You’ve spent so much time caring about the things you think you should care about and not enough time discovering what really moves you inside.
Have no fear! I have come up with a way for you to discover your values.
Luckily for us, we are guided to a successful state in life by a simple pleasure/pain mechanism. That which causes long term pain is the wrong path, and that which causes long term pleasure is the right path.
This is true for both physical, and emotional success.
If something is causing you to suffer for a substantial amount of time, it’s working against your life goal of happiness and you need to stop interacting with it as soon as possible.
If something is causing you to feel pleasure for a long period of time, it is working towards your life goal of happiness and you need to do more of that.
This is the compass we are going to use to find our values.
Note: This is not a license to just follow your emotions wherever they take you regardless of consequences. Unlike the physical pleasure/pain mechanism, your emotional pleasure/pain mechanism is not automatic. Your emotions are a measuring tool that needs calibration. You calibrate it with your mind. If your emotions are saying ‘shoot the guy who just slept with my girlfriend’ your mind needs to step in and re-calibrate your emotions to ‘long term success’ and not ‘short term satisfaction.’
Stop Doing List
The first thing we need to do is cleanse ourselves of the things in our life not contributing to our life goal of happiness.
This is where Jim Collins’ idea of a ‘Stop Doing List’ comes in. We need to use our compass to make a list of all things we need to stop doing.
Again, this is harder than it sounds.
How do you know if something is just sort of unpleasant, or if it’s really detrimental to my lifelong goal of happiness? Does it have to be an actual action or can it be an emotion?
Anything that has been a chronic source of anxiety, guilt, or suffering needs to be on your Stop Doing List.
Here are some questions to help you with your list:
- What have you been doing for a long time that makes you feel guilty?
- What do you do because you feel like you have to and not because you want to?
- Is there anything that you do that completely zaps your energy?
- Identify any chronic negative feelings that you have, and try to pinpoint when you have them (i.e. feeling self-conscious or worried)
- Identify the things in your life that make you anxious.
- Name the people in your life that make you anxious, guilty, or sad.
- What do you dread doing?
Start with the things that you can stop right now. Eliminate them from your life all together.
For example, if makes you angry to always clean up after someone, whether it be your roommate, strangers, friends, spouse, or kids, just stop doing it. Make the decision, announce it, and stop doing it.
Sometimes you can’t just immediately stop doing something so you need to make a Stop Doing Plan.
For example, if you want to stop working at your current job, you probably need a stop plan.
This also goes with feelings that you want to stop having. For example, if you are always self-conscious in a swim suit, you need a plan that will help you stop feeling that way.
The plan includes
- What you want to stop doing,
- Why you want to stop doing it (so that you know how to stop)
- How you intend to stop
It doesn’t matter what the answer to #2 is. If the reason is ‘because I fucking hate doing it’ then that’s great.
But sometimes it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes it’s not the feeling you want to stop, it’s the cause of the feeling. Other times, it’s not the cause of the feeling you want to stop, it’s the feeling itself.
For example, if you feel guilty when you are in a certain situation or around a certain person, you have to decide whether or not you have something to feel guilty about first before you make a plan to eliminate that feeling. Remember that our emotions are great tools, but they need calibration from time-to-time.
If you feel that you do deserve the guilt, you need to do something (or stop doing something) to eliminate the feeling. If you feel that you don’t deserve the guilt, you need to remove the person, belief, or situation that’s causing your guilt from your life.
On the other hand, if you know for a fact that you just hate your job with a fiery passion unmatched by anything that’s ever existed in the universe, you probably want to stop the job, not the fiery passionate hate you feel for the job.
Keep Doing List
After you’ve determined what you want to stop doing, use the same process to decide what you want to keep doing. Identify all of the things in your life that contribute to your lifelong goal of happiness.
Here are some questions to help you with this exercise.
- What do you do that gets you excited?
- Who makes you feel like the energizer bunny?
- What do you do that makes you feel like the energizer bunny?
- What do you do that makes you proud?
- When do you have the most confidence?
- What things in your life leave you feeling peaceful?
- When do you feel the most giving?
- When do you feel like you are glowing with so much joy you might burst?
All of these questions are basic symptoms of happiness. So when you’re feeling one of these things, keep doing it!
These are your values.
I repeat, anything on your Keep Doing List can be stripped down to core values.
For example, writing this blog gives me energy. It makes me want to give all that I’ve got and I’m incredibly proud of it. I also know from experience that idleness makes me feel like crap.
From knowing that, I know that I like doing productive work that helps people in any way because it makes me feel like I’m really contributing to the world.
Going further, I know that I value productivity that makes a difference and self-worth.
I need to keep doing things that make me feel truly productive (not busy), and things that make me feel useful.
Here is a second example – I feel at peace and full of love and joy when I’m spending time with my family.
I know that I value family bonds and I will keep doing things that make those bonds as strong as possible.
Start Doing List
The last step is to write your ‘Start Doing List’ part of which comes from your ‘Stop Doing Plan’.
In your Stop Doing Plan, you outlined how you were going to stop doing things that don’t contribute to your life goal of happiness. All of these actions go on your start doing list.
It’s important to clean up what’s going on in your life right now first before you begin adding things to your ‘Start Doing’ list. Get good at identifying what your values are, achieving them, and then feeling the pure happiness that comes with it.
If you’ve done that, you can start totally new things that you believe align with your values and, therefore, will make you happy.
It’s not guaranteed, which is why we always stop and evaluate how things are going along the way.
Here are some questions to help you with your Start Doing List:
- Name some things on your keep-doing list. Is there any way you can expand on those things?
- Is there anything you used to do that you stopped doing because of ‘responsibilities’?
- Do you have a bucket list? If not, make one.
- Do something you’re not sure you even really want to do but you’ve always been fascinated by it (learn to play a sport, learn to knit, etc)
- Try things you don’t think you’ll like, but you don’t necessarily know why (i.e. be a vegetarian for two months, stop washing your hair, etc)
- Volunteer (maybe you don’t know it yet, but you really value the lives of animals)
All of the possibilities are impossible to capture, but I hope that you get the point.
If you’re really into processes like I am, you can also make a plan for your Start Doing List points. It might go something like this.
- Identify what you want to start doing.
- Decide approximately how long you are going to do this thing before you decide that it doesn’t add to your overall happiness or, in the case that the item comes from your Stop Doing Plan, it’s not working.
- Choose a new item from your ‘Start Doing List’ or come at the current item from a different direction.
Here is a summary. I know that I used a flow chart last week too, but I used to be a process engineer so I freakin’ love flow charts. I can’t help it. Don’t judge me.
This is, of course, a lifelong process. You can never be finished acheiving your values, because they all take upkeep.
All values need to be maintained.
Just because you’ve finally found a job that is satisfying, doesn’t mean it will stay that way. You will always need to challenge yourself.
Then there are those really dark days when you completely fall off of the bandwagon.
You’ve forgotten what your values are. You don’t remember why you were doing this in the first place. You lapse into unhappiness again.
Don’t worry about it.
It took me five years to develop my theory of happiness and how to achieve it. It took all of that time to really be happy and true to myself.
And I still mess up. I’m still unhappy sometimes. When that happens I just stop and dig around to try to find where the conflict is.
It’s always a conflict of personal values or interests. You need to find the conflict and eliminate it. That’s what the Stop Doing, Start Doing, and Keep Doing lists are for.
So when you find that you’re lost again just go back to the list.
You’ll find your way back here, and when you do I’ll be waiting.
How do you feel about those questions now?