zenhabits : breathe

The Only Guide to Happiness You’ll Ever Need

“The Constitution only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” - Benjamin Franklin

For some of us, the ultimate goal in life is happiness.

Whether we see fulfillment in our work, contentment in our relationships, passion in our hobbies … we strive to find happiness.

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” - Aristotle

And yet, this search for happiness can be a lifelong search, especially if we look at happiness as something that will come once we achieve certain goals — a nice home, a perfect spouse, the ultimate promotion … and when we get these goals, instead of being happy, we often are looking forward to being happy when we meet our next goals.

Happiness shouldn’t be something that happens to us in the future, maybe someday, if things go well. Happiness should be here and now, who we are now, with the people we’re with now, doing the things we’re doing now. And if we’re not with people who make us happy, and doing things that make us happy … then we should take action to make that happen.

That’s the simple formula for happiness. Take action to do the things that make you happy, with the people who make you happy, and to be happy with the person you are now. (Disclaimer: this probably doesn’t apply, of course, to those who are clinically depressed or who have other similar medical conditions which I am not qualified to discuss.)

Don’t wait for happiness. Seize it.

“If you want to be happy, be.” - Leo Tolstoy

Here’s how — a list of action you can take today to seize that happiness. You don’t have to do these all at once, but you should do most (if not all) of them eventually, and sooner rather than later. Pick one or two and start today.

  1. Be present. Don’t think about how great things will be in the future. Don’t dwell on what did or didn’t happen in the past. Learn to be in the here and now, and experience life as it’s happening, and appreciate the world for the beauty that it is, right now. Practice makes perfect with this crucial skill.
  2. Connect with others. In my experience, very few things can achieve happiness as well as connecting with other human beings, cultivating relationships, bonding with others. Some tips on doing this.
  3. Spend time with those you love. This might seem almost the same as the item above, and in reality it’s an extension of the same concept, a more specific application. Spending time with the people you love is extremely important to happiness … and yet it’s incredible how often we do just the opposite, and spend time alone, or disconnected from those we love, or spend time with people we don’t much like. Make it a priority to schedule time with the people you love. Make that your most important item of the day. For myself, I have a time when I cut off work, and the rest of the day is for my family. Weekends are exclusively for my family. And by setting aside this sacred time, I ensure my happiness by letting nothing come between me and the people I love most.
  4. Do the things you love. What do you love doing most? Figure out the 4-5 things you love doing most in life, the things that make you happiest, and make those the foundation of your day, every day. Eliminate as much of the rest as possible. For me, the things I love doing are: spending time with my family, writing, reading, and running. I do those things every day, and very little else. It may take awhile to get your life down to your essentials like I have (it took me a few years of careful elimination and rescheduling and saying “no” to requests that aren’t on my short list), but it’s worth the effort.
  5. Focus on the good things. Everyone’s life has positive and negative aspects — whether you’re happy or not depends largely on which aspects you focus on. Did you lose today’s softball game? At least you got to spend time with friends doing something fun. Did you sprain your ankle running? Well, your body probably needed a week’s rest anyway, as you were running too much! Did your baby get sick? Well, at least it’s only a flu virus and nothing life-threatening … and at least you have a wonderful baby to nurse to health! You can see my point — almost everything has a positive side, and focusing on the positives make all the difference. My Auntie Kerry died last week (as you know), and I’m still grieving, but 1) I’m happy I spent time with her before her death; 2) her death has brought our family closer together; 3) her suffering has ended; and 4) it reminded me to spend more time with the people I love while they’re still alive.
  6. Do work you love. An extension, of course, of doing the things you love, but applied to work. Are you already doing the work you love? Then you’re one of the lucky ones, and you should appreciate how lucky you are. If you aren’t doing the work you love, you should make it a priority to try to find work you’re passionate about, and to steer your career in that direction. Take myself for example: I was doing work that I was good at (just last year), but that I wasn’t passionate about. I was passionate about writing, and so I pursued blogging … and with a year of hard work, was able to quit my day job and blog full time. I’m so much happier these days!
  7. Lose yourself in your work. Once you’ve found work you love, the key is to lose yourself in it … clear away all distractions, find an interesting and challenging task, and just pour all your energy and focus into that task. With practice, you’ll forget about the outside world. There are few work-related joys that equal this feeling. Read more.
  8. Help others. Is there any better feeling than helping a fellow human being? There aren’t many. And it’s not too hard — here are 25 ways.
  9. Find time for peace. With the hectic pace of life these days, it’s hard to find a moment of peace. But if you can make time for solitude and quiet, it can be one of the happiest parts of your day. Here’s how.
  10. Notice the small things. Instead of waiting for the big things to happen — marriage, kids, house, nice car, big promotion, winning the lottery — find happiness in the small things that happen every day. Little things like having a quiet cup of coffee in the early morning hours, or the delicious and simple taste of berries, or the pleasure of reading a book with your child, or taking a walk with your partner. Noticing these small pleasures, throughout your day, makes a huge difference.
  11. Develop compassion. Compassion is developing a sense of shared suffering with others … and taking steps to alleviate the suffering of others. I think too often we forget about the suffering of others while focusing on our own suffering, and if we learned to share the suffering of others, our suffering would seem insignificant as a result. Compassion is an extremely valuable skill to learn, and you get better with practice. Here’s how.
  12. Be grateful. Learning to be grateful for what’s in our lives, for the people who have enriched our lives, goes a long way toward happiness. It helps us to appreciate what we have and what we have received, and the people who have helped us. Read more.
  13. Become a lifelong learner. I find an inordinate amount of pleasure in reading, in learning about new things, in enriching my knowledge as I get older. I think spending time reading some of the classics, as well as passionately pursuing new interests, is energy well invested. Try to do a little of it every day, and see if it doesn’t make you happier.
  14. Simplify your life. This is really about identifying the things you love (see above) and then eliminating everything else as much as possible. By simplifying your life in this way, you create time for your happiness, and you reduce the stress and chaos in your life. In my experience, living a very simple life is also a pleasure in itself.
  15. Slow down. Similar to simplifying, slowing down is just a matter of reminding yourself that there’s no need to rush through life. Schedule less things on your calendar, and more space between things. Learn to eat slower, drive slower, walk slower (unless you’re doing it for exercise). Going slowly helps to reduce stress, and improve the pleasure of doing things, and keeps you in the present moment.
  16. Exercise. I’ve written about the pleasures of exercise many times. It can be hard to start an exercise program (here’s how) but once you get going, it relieves stress and can really give you a good feeling. I feel joyful every time I go out for a run!
  17. Meditate. You don’t need to join a Zendo or get a mat or learn any lotus positions, but the simplest form of meditation can really help you to be present and to get out of the worrying part of your head. You can do it right now: close your eyes and simply try to focus on your breathing as long as possible. Pay attention to the breath as it comes into your body, and then as it goes out. When you feel your mind start to wander, don’t fret, but just simply acknowledge the other thoughts, and then return to your breathing. Do this a little each day and you’ll get better at it.
  18. Learn to accept. One of the challenges for people like me — people who want to improve themselves and change the world — is learning to accept things as they are. Sometimes it’s better to learn to accept, and to love, the world as it is, and people as they are, rather than to try to make everything and everyone conform to an impossible ideal. I’m not saying you should accept cruelty and injustice, but learn to love things when they are less than “perfect”.
  19. Spend time in nature. Go outside and take a walk each day, or take the time to watch a sunset or sunrise. Or find a body of water — the ocean, a lake, a river, a pond — and spend time taking a look at it, contemplating it. If you’re lucky enough to live near some woods, or a mountain, or a canyon, go hiking. Time in nature is time invested in your happiness.
  20. Find the miracles in life. I absolutely believe in miracles, and believe that they are all around us, every day. My children are all miracles. The kindnesses of strangers are miracles. The life growing all around us is a miracle. Find those miracles in your life, and enjoy the majesty of them.

For more happiness reading, check out my favorite happiness blog: The Happiness Project, by the lovely Gretchen Rubin.

“Man is fond of counting his troubles, but he does not count his joys. If he counted them up as he ought to, he would see that every lot has enough happiness provided for it.” - Fyodor Dostoevsky



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