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We’re often dead wrong about what makes us happy, and that’s a good thing.
Part of the joy we experience in life comes from the surprise discoveries of what makes us bask in contentment. There is no single path to happiness. It’s a state of mind we can reach through a multitude of routes.
It took me decades to learn and perfect these four paths. Each one will enable you to live a more contented life.
1. There’s value in missing out.
For most of my late teenage and adult life, I suffered from extreme FOMO (fear of missing out). I was under the delusion that if I missed a social gathering, I would lose friendship currency—my perceived status among a group of friends.
I don’t recommend you transform yourself into a hermit, but there’s value in taking a break from the fun stuff.
Saying “no” to an occasional social engagement won’t sour your relationships. When you find yourself attending social events out of obligation rather than desire, consider taking a step back. A dose of meaningful solitude, doing something you love, creates deep feelings of peace and happiness.
Quality solitude does not mean binge-watching the latest drama craze. Instead, do something that disconnects you from the outside world and allows your thoughts to roam free. Use the time to plan, dream, and explore.
Scheduling this time into your day has a profound effect on your mood. You not only experience the contentment of your sacred time, but you also experience the excitement of looking forward to this time. The anticipation is almost as powerful as the experience.
2. The counterintuitive truth about material possessions.
Conventional wisdom tells us that acquiring material possessions won’t make us happy. There’s an unfortunate ancillary truth to this axiom. Nobody believes the obsession of material possessions is futile until they experience the effect themselves.
It’s not something you can understand intellectually. You must churn your way through a cycle like a drug addict who can no longer achieve a high. If you’re lucky, the truth registers long before you hit rock bottom.
Sound depressing? Here’s another truth to cheer you up. There’s something else that always brings you joy. Unlike the acquisition of material possessions, you never build up a tolerance to it: the pursuit of passion. The pursuit of a meaningful goal or objective never loses its shine. The goal or objective must exceed the mere desire for financial gain; it must be something you desire for a higher purpose.
I know. It’s cheap, generic advice that sounds great, but lacks practical utility unless you know how to discover that passion.
3. The truth about passions: it’s not about finding our “why.”
All this talk about finding your why perplexes me. Aristotle found the answer over 2,300 years ago. Our why—the reason why we do the things we do—is what he called eudaimonia, loosely translated to flourishing happiness.
If you don’t believe it, ask yourself why you pursue relationships, passions, or goals. Pick one. It doesn’t matter. You’ll arrive at the same answer.
Let’s pick relationships. Why do you pursue relationships?
Your answer: to share your life with others.
Now I ask you, why do you want to share your life with others?
Your answer: it gives your life meaning.
Next, why do you want meaning in your life?
If you take this process to its logical end, you will answer, because it makes me happy. That’s your ultimate why for everything.
Now we’re left with the obvious question.
What makes you happy?
I had no idea what made me happy in my 20s or 30s. I sought cosmetic goals like money and job titles. I learned early on that the pleasure of those pursuits faded like the flavor of fruit-striped gum.
The epiphany came from the study of 18th-century Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant. His relevant concept is the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can…will that it should become a universal law.”
Here is the adaptation of the phrase to the pursuit of happiness:
Do something that brings you such fulfillment and contentment that you crave the ability to lavish that feeling on every person on earth.
Think of it as a natural euphoria but without the negative side effects. You may not find it right away, but that’s okay. Once you know what to look for, you’re more likely to find it. And if it takes a while, here’s a mindset approach that’s sure to keep you feeling euphoric through highs and lows.
4. The happiness guarantee.
There’s a lot of good advice about creating a happy state: giving, volunteering, striving for goals. These worthy pursuits create transient states of happiness, but sustained delight requires a change of perspective.
I’ve found there’s only one reliable formula for sustaining a happiness mindset. It works when you’re at your peak state, your lowest state, and everywhere in-between. We experience contentment when we feel the future holds more promise, possibility, and potential than the present.
The converse is also true. I’ve never felt content when my future seemed bleaker than the present. Consider your current state and your prospects for the future. Are you at a low point, but see a brighter future ahead? Are you at a peak and feel like you’re due for a setback?
Consider these comparisons:
A perennial high-volume salesperson who now has a dry pipeline.
A salesperson, living on rice and beans, who just made his first three sales and scored six additional referrals. Which one is feeling better about the future? We can apply this logic to relationships, lifestyle, and financial standing.
In all cases, it’s not the present condition that determines your state of mind; it’s your current state relative to your perceived future state. For the salesperson who just made a breakthrough, the world is full of possibilities. For the accomplished salesperson with a dry pipeline, the future seems bleak.
It’s more than just a positive outlook. You can tell yourself you have a bright future, but that’s not enough. You’ll never convince your brain. You need to take steps to convince yourself.
Affirmations don’t work, at least not for very long. You need to go further than that. You need to take action: not big and scary actions, easy micro-actions.
A salesperson could generate new leads and practice their craft one hour per day. A writer could write and submit stories. A person with dim social prospects could join a club and fill their calendar with outings.
Take baby steps to ensure a brighter future, and you give your mind a reality to latch onto. In many cases, those small steps lead to real gains in the quality of your life.