You’re probably skeptical, and that makes sense: there’s no possible way one brief online article is going to completely answer the question posed in the title.
So, what’s the point of this article?
To get you thinking. To convince you that the answer is available and the goal is attainable. And, hopefully, to offer some suggestions that will help you come up with a far better answer for yourself than we can give you.
What does it really mean to be happy?
Before we go any further, it’s important to define what it means to be truly happy. After all, you can’t hit a target you can’t see.
In the context we’ll be using, true happiness isn’t the feeling you get when a funny joke makes you laugh. It’s not the fleeting satisfaction you feel when you skate through a yellow light. It’s not even the profound feeling you experience when your boss shakes your hand and congratulates you for earning that big promotion.
Although they contain a measure of joy and other positive feelings, all those experiences are momentary. Sure, what you’re experiencing is a form of happiness. And, if you string enough of those moments together, they can contribute to true happiness. But, there’s more involved.
True happiness, as we’re discussing it here, involves your overall frame of mind — an extended feeling of satisfaction and contentment that survives the temporary setbacks and stressors of daily life.
How NOT to be truly happy
With that definition in mind, it becomes obvious that most of the quick little action items we might first consider — watching a funny movie, playing with a puppy — aren’t sufficient. While there’s nothing wrong with taking a break and enjoying entertainment, it’s not going to move the needle when it comes to real, long-term happiness. Unfortunately, a lot of people misunderstand this fact. They invest so much time, effort, and money pursuing short-term bliss, and end up feeling worse off for it.
One well-known issue involves the amount of time we spend staring at our devices these days, much of which is dedicated to entertainment. Psychology Today (PT) reported that adults in the U.S. are spending an average of 11 hours per day interacting with digital media. Even children as young as 2 are averaging around 32 hours per week doing so. With so much of daily life going digital, the number of hours starts to lose its meaning. But, in the same PT article, Dr. Mike Brooks noted, “too much screen time might interfere with opportunities to gain greater benefits that experiencing a larger variety of activities offers.” And, “the negative effects would start to outweigh the positives when they interfere too much with our basic needs.”
The same basic reasoning explains why so many of the quick fixes we may rely on to boost our mood — from uncontrolled thrill seeking to alcohol abuse — can end up doing more harm than good, especially if they get out of control.
How to be truly happy
So, with all the “little things” in their place, and recognizing the fact that too much of even a good thing can do more harm than good, where does that leave us?
With the basics. Here are the three basic needs that have been at the core of human happiness for as long as our minds have been able to recognize that emotion:
If you don’t have your health, nothing else you have or do will mean as much. Without a measure of health, happiness will remain out of reach.
So, to the extent that’s possible under your personal circumstances, make improving and/or maintaining your health a top priority every single day:
- Eat right - Fueling your body with the nutrients it needs promotes energy, mental clarity, an improved mood, and optimal ability to cope with tough circumstances. Most importantly, it promotes overall health and longevity over time.
- Exercise - Regular exercise is good for your body, but it’s also great for your mind. It’s a natural mood booster in the short term, but the greater self-esteem, improved functionality, and longer lifespan are what contribute the most to long-term happiness.
- Get enough sleep - Sleep deprivation can kill, but more often, it just makes you miserable. And, the problems compound over time.
- Work with your healthcare team - Living your healthiest requires seeing a doctor anytime it’s required and prioritizing preventive care and routine screenings to identify and treat ailments early. This helps keep you healthy and provides valuable peace of mind, both of which are vital to long-term happiness.
A number of other habits can also improve your physical and mental health — and, therefore, your happiness — including practicing mindfulness, reducing stress, changing up routines, and more. Really, anything you can do to get and stay healthy in body and mind is going to contribute to being happy.
Another basic human need that is required for us to be truly happy is a deep-seated feeling of accomplishment that comes from doing something of value, contributing to the world around us. This doesn’t have to be a job or secular career but, for most of us, our job is the best opportunity we have to achieve this.
If you have a measure of control over what you do for work and/or how you go about it, try to incorporate these tips into your workday:
- Do something that inspires you - If you can find a job in a field you’re passionate about, go for it. If that’s impossible, try to fill that void outside of working hours through volunteer work, creative pursuits, or other activities that feed your passion.
- Focus on the big picture - As you’re checking off boxes on your daily to do list, it’s easy to lose a sense of what you’re really accomplishing. Checking boxes is short-term satisfaction. Accomplishing worthwhile goals is long-term happiness.
- Make a plan - It’s not just important to accomplish what you set out to do, it’s also important to ensure you’re setting out to do the right things, and that you’re going about it in the most beneficial way. As the saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail. Conversely, a well-laid plan can mean success and the joy of accomplishment.
- Keep a record of accomplishments - Human nature can sabotage our happiness. One prime example of this is our natural tendency to recall and dwell on our failures or negative events, and to forget or minimize positive experiences or accomplishments. Battle this tendency with a gratitude journal or similar permanent record of what you’ve accomplished and why it matters.
Even outside of work, we can apply these same concepts to many other areas of life, including volunteer work or the practical work involved in parenting and caring for a home. The key value of being productive is that humans need a purpose and feeling that we’ve accomplished something of value offers intense and long-lasting satisfaction.
Humans are social creatures. As a species, we crave connection with others and thrive on positive feedback in the form of acknowledgement, appreciation, and gratitude. Even those who suffer with disorders such as agoraphobia or social anxiety feel these same needs, although they struggle more than most to fulfill them.
It’s truly rare to find a happy hermit.
So, make an effort to incorporate more real social interaction into your life:
- Smile - The power of a genuine smile cannot be overstated. It has instant physiological effects on you and anyone who sees it, including mood enhancing qualities more potent than chocolate and some drugs. A smile can break down barriers, enhance relationships, and improve your reputation. It’s one of the simplest, most powerful “accessories” you can wear.
- Speak - In a text-chat-email-emoji society, it’s faster and more convenient in many cases to type out what we want to say than to actually say it. But, if your goal is to build lasting, positive relationships, create consensus, and strengthen teamwork, use your voice. Extra points for speaking face-to-face where body language can enhance your message even more.
- Listen - For long-term feelings of joy and contentment, the other half of the conversation equation is just as important. Make it a point to listen actively when conversing with someone, and maintain appropriate eye contact if you’re speaking in person. This makes the other person feel respected and appreciated, improves your understanding, and boosts the strength of the relationship.
Other social skills and habits that are vital to our own wellbeing include being generous, sharing genuine commendation, accepting criticism well, and treating others with respect and dignity. Basically, treating others as we like to be treated — a maxim you’ve probably heard before.
Following the recommendations above will provide day-to-day feelings of energy, fulfillment, warmth and acceptance, and there’s a lot of value in that. But, if they become integral to who you are as a person, they’ll lead to feeling your best mentally and physically, a sense of deep and profound accomplishment, and a wealth of lasting relationships you can rely on. And that’s what it takes to be truly happy.