For those who don’t have much time or interest in reading a lot today, I’ll give you the summary right away: Leading a happy life boils down to two rules:
– Avoid doing things which make you unhappy.
– Do more of the things which make you happy.
Simple, isn’t it? Of course there are more details to it, but if you will follow these two rules every day, your life will already improve tremendously. Before moving on to a more step-by-step description of my way to happiness, let me point out that I believe that happiness is individualistic. There is no uniform method applicable to everyone. Some people are spiritual, some people are not. Some people are relaxed, others are tense. Even the same person will be a different character five or ten years from now. The things that made you happy ten years ago may not work anymore.
I am not trying to change anyone and I hate these “10 steps to happiness” articles that tell you what to eat or how many miles to jog or to put a smiley face on your bathroom mirror. I am going to use plenty of examples, and many of the examples will of course come from my own life. But please don’t get hung up on the examples, but concentrate on the method and feel free to apply the method (or some points of it) to your life with your ideas and your dreams.
Last point before we get cracking: remember that most likely you already have plenty of reasons to be happy!
Find out what makes you happy
Taking one step back from the two rules of happiness described above, you obviously need to find out what makes you happy (and what makes you unhappy). This is not as mundane as it sounds and can actually lead to surprising insights into your own life. Right now, without thinking long, name the two or three things which make you happiest. “Things” as used in this article don’t need to refer to tangible items and it’s probably even better if they are not. They can be activities, places, even people. In my case for example the three most happiness-inducing things are nature, books [I always need to be careful not to accidentally type “boobs” here.] and then travelling, with writing coming a close fourth. – Of course I don’t know what you will answer, but you might be surprised that work is not among the top three providers of happiness, nor is being stuck in traffic or paying your mortgage. First lesson: you spend far too much time every day on things which don’t contribute to your happiness as much as other (very often simpler) things could.
Now, try to look back on your life, as far as you can, and tell me when was the happiest time in your life. Not the happiest day or event, but a longer period. This is not as easy as the first task, but don’t read on until you have reflected on your life and identified the happiness-peak in your life. I’ll tell you what’s mine: my teenage years towards the end of secondary school, between 13/14 and 18/19. Now, that’s quite shocking because I am 38 years now, so that was 20 years ago. I am a happy guy now and I have had a lot of happy times in between, but why is my memory of my teenage years so extremely positive? This is an exercise you need to engage in as well: identify the reasons why the time you picked was the happiest one in your life. After much reflection, in my case, I can say that it was the lightheartedness of the time: no need to pay rent, no need to work much, lots of free time, I enjoyed going to school and the intellectual debates there (more so than university because of the variety of subjects) and by the age of 16 I had already been to France, Australia and Israel, each of these trips without my parents. I felt like I was growing up, getting to know the world and I had big dreams, about which I was confident.
Notice that in my case, I also enjoyed law school and I enjoyed the time when I opened and managed my own law firm, but looking back in all honesty, I did not enjoy it quite as much as adolescence. – You personally might have hated school and your happiest time might have been at university or your time in Vietnam (although I doubt that) or in Desert Storm or when your children were growing up. In any case, please reflect on the why of your choice. Important lessons about what is really important to your personal happiness can be drawn from that.
Now to the last exercise, and this is something you need to do over the next couple of days. I would invite you to watch out for moments when you are suddenly happy because of (little) things that you didn’t expect to have such an impact on you. You will be on the lookout for things which cause happiness in you, but you didn’t realise it yet. There may be many! I have done this exercise over the last couple of days and I noticed for example that many animals make me happy when I see them (cats and squirrels work wonders). Last weekend, I jogged up to a mountain village in Sicily and the exhaustion combined with breathtaking views across the mountain ranges and the sea was much more exhilarating than I would ever have thought to be possible. – As soon as you feel happiness or you feel that you begin to smile at something, take conscious notice of it, otherwise it might pass and you will forget it. If you try this exercise, you will discover many little things that put you in a good mood. It could be food, it could be certain music, it could be the daily dose of The Simpsons.
Find out what makes you unhappy
We need to do the same exercises regarding things (or activities or people or places) that make you unhappy. Identifying the things that make you most unhappy is usually easy. It’s either some medical problem (and if it’s a serious one then this article here is of no help and I apologize for having wasted your time), too much work or any current stress situation, like a deadline to file your taxes or finish your MA dissertation. Now do the same exercise as above (and you can combine these two) for a few days and note down or memorize all the things that make you sad, cranky, grumpy, angry or scared. Don’t be surprised if you find far more of these negative influencers than you find positive ones. I noticed for example that I start the day angry or disappointed with myself if I sleep long, I am not happy if I look back at a day and I haven’t been outside and I feel really disturbed most times when the phone rings. – With you, it might be that sleeping until noon feels like heaven and that you are happiest when chatting away for hours. But surely you will also find plenty of things that cause you to frown, to lose your smile or to worry.
Now it’s time for action!
After all this analysing ourselves, it’s time to spring into action and change our lives! Armed with all the data collected above, you can move forward to implement the following two most important rules:
– Avoid doing things which make you unhappy.
– Do more of the things which make you happy.
Start with the small things because you can change them right away. If you noticed that certain music makes you happy, listen to it more often. If certain food made you sick, stop eating it. If you are annoyed by the phone, turn it off. If you like being outside, walk instead of going by car or bus. If you feel like you are wasting time reading the morning paper, cancel your subscription. If the happiest time in the day is when The Simpsons are on, watch some of the old shows as well. If you are happiest when you are alone, go into the forest. If you are happiest among people, call a friend and go out. If you were most unhappy when you were around your boyfriend, fire him. If you were happiest when you had that pipe, smoke more. If calling your grandmother every week bores you, tell her that you will be serving on a submarine for a year and won’t be able to call.
Often, getting rid of the unhappy things is better to start with. Because you will free up space or time or resources in your life, you will then find it easier to do more of the things you really enjoy.
Ignore other people
If you analyse your life carefully, you might notice that you do a lot of boring or even annoying things because somebody else expects you to do so. You go to church to make your parents happy. You buy stuff which you don’t need because everybody else has it. You watch football for hours because that’s what your friends do (and they might watch it because you do). You go to university because your family expects you to, even though you would prefer to work on a cruise ship.
But your life is your life only! You don’t owe anything to anybody (except maybe if you have a child, then I think you should maybe stay around until he/or she can walk alone).
The bigger decisions
Chances are that some of the things which reduced your happiness were big things, like your job, your PhD programme, your marriage, or that some of the things which you think would make you happy were equally big, like moving to Brazil or riding a bicycle through America or becoming an astronaut.
You will be intimidated by the bigness of these dreams and you might be afraid of quitting your job, as much as you may hate it. But my advice is: do it right away! If it is something that is just physically or financially impossible to do right away, start with small steps. But do the first step right away! If you think you can’t afford now to quit the job which bores you, hand in a notice that you will leave at the end of the year. If you want to move to Croatia but you still need to save a bit (although chances are you will actually save money by moving to a more beautiful place), terminate your lease with six months notice.
One important part of getting cracking right away is telling people about it. But firmly, not with doubt and fear in your voice! If you tell people at the office “in six months I am out of here and on a boat to Tahiti”, it forces you to follow up on that desire and to take specific steps. Making your goals public is a good mechanism to push you on to do the things which you might otherwise postpone indefinitely.
Make your big dreams the most important thing in your life. Anything else is secondary. If your plan is to travel around the world, get rid of any useless clutter that costs you money or time. Yes, you might have to get rid of your car and you won’t get the newest phone every year and maybe you won’t be able to join your friends to an expensive restaurant every day. But you know that you are saving for that plane ticket to Buenos Aires. If you are training for a marathon, you will go out less because you won’t have the time and you need more sleep. But you know that you will be able to run 42 km without taking a break.
But isn’t that a huge risk?
No. Or at least not as much as you think. I can tell you what is really the biggest risk: leading a boring or unsatisfied life, intimidated by what might not work or what might happen, and in the end you will have wasted a large part of it. That’s the biggest risk most people face, and too many don’t do anything against it.
Many big decisions are not as risky as they seem. Quitting a job to open your own business? If it won’t work out, you can always get a job again. Moving to a different country? If you don’t like it, you can always move back. Going on a walking trip across the Gobi Desert? If you don’t enjoy it anymore, you catch a bus or call a friend.
I once had a Couchsurfing guest from Spain who had quit his job to ride around the world by bicycle. He had been doing this for a year or so, sleeping outside or relying on the (surprisingly plentiful) help of strangers. He said “My friends at home all think I am crazy for quitting my job and taking this risk. But honestly I don’t see any risk: the worst case scenario is that I have to move back to my parents for a while, where I will live with people who love me and a mother who cooks well.”
Maybe you won’t achieve your dreams. That’s a realistic possibility. But achieving half of your dreams is much better than not trying at all.
Lastly, I want to address the case of people who feel unhappy, but can’t exactly say why (although this is usually a case of not thoroughly applying the aforementioned steps). In that case, I recommend a change. Move! Move to a different city, state or country. There will be new things, new people, maybe a new language, everything will be exciting again. You will feel like on a long holiday. And the best thing: you will have gotten rid of the old job, the old circle of friends and family, and thus of all your social constraints. You will feel free and you will be able to be yourself again!
Yes, you can!
Of course all of this is very general (or based on my own experience too much), so I am looking forward to your comments below to discuss other scenarios and dreams.
Thanks! That’s so fitting that I added it to the article.
Interesting! I easily identify myself in your own experiences! :)
Do you ever plan to have children? That complicates things, I imagine (I don’t have any yet).
My semi-serious goal in life is to marry into an EU passport (I’m American). That’s tougher than you might think!
Oh no, no children! That would be the end of freedom.
Regarding your plan, maybe this girl is still available. She is specifically looking for an American. I would have thought there are many women willing to get married to an American, but the problem is they all want to live there with you, which wouldn’t help much for the EU passport.
I have sometimes been thinking about setting up a page where people can meet for that specific purpose…
Haha, that photo made me guffaw. The difficulty is more in the meeting than the convincing. Even in Manhattan, it’s pretty rare for me to just bump into one. Oh well, set up that site and I’ll be your first customer ;)
Also in case you’re interested, this song always makes me feel reflective about life and choices and such.
lol – move in with your parents is the fall back plan. In other words, sluff off your own personal responsibility and fall back on others who actually live up to their responsibilities when things get rough. Typical and selfish.
It makes the parents happy, in my experience.
Also, I am not sure where this “responsibility” comes from. I am not sure I have any responsibility towards anyone, short of promising something to someone.
I decided to quit my job in Australia 2 years ago because I was not happy and my dream was to live and explore Europe. I now have my dream job, travel non-stop to some amazing places, accomplished many personal goals and I am just so very happy.
The hardest thing for me was to stop over-thinking the first step. So I just took the leap and handed in my resignation with 4 months notice. After that I found that next steps would always unfold for me because then I was looking for opportunities instead of excuses. It has been a fun few years with many more to come! :)
Thanks for all your interesting posts.
If you wait with the first step until everything is planned and prepared and fool-proof, you’ll never get to the first step.
I did the same when I quit my job as a lawyer. I only knew that I would go to London and I had a couple of hundred pounds. That was all. Same with every move since. I just decided to leave Italy in 2 months, told my landlord to make it firm, but I don’t yet know where I will go.
Exactly! I did not have a job or a place to live when I first arrived in Europe. All I needed was a job to keep the funds flowing while I completed my studies. The first job was of little meaning yet, if I had allowed it, I could have been scared off by the uncertainty. As it turned out, the randomly picked job was in a town surrounded by people working in aviation. I quickly made contacts and had a job within 6 weeks using my skill set. Less than a year later all my studies were completed and I was flying all around the world to some very interesting places. Travelling is my biggest passion so I feel so fortunate to live my life the way I choose.
I look forward to reading about your next move then!! I am starting to think playing darts on a world map would also be a fun way to pick my next destination.
I am almost 50 and have traveled so much during my work years (long weekends and adding time onto work trips) and have loved it. Not a fan of my job but I would have to agree not being married and not having kids gives me endless freedom and at 49, I still get told I look 35. I don’t stress and don’t allow society’s notion that we should all be married with kids ever get to me. These next 20 years are going to fly and I will make sure I am searching and traveling around while making life simple and getting rid of any “clutter” or “items”. That is part of freedom. Keep great savings and do I really need a big house or fancy car? Never. Health and more travel freedom is what I choose.
That sounds absolutely perfect!
I am also so happy that I never had this idea of having kids. Not for a single second. So I really don’t even feel forced to make the decision between children and freedom. – I think even my parents regret having me because now they see how much one can enjoy life without losing 20 years of one’s prime time. ;-)
You’re a philosopher, doesn’t your last sentence strike you as a bit of a paradox? :)
I’ll tell you what.. I am your same age. Similar to you, I look and feel 10 years younger. I’ve been travelling Europe by bike with my partner and travelling the world during my PhD and for work for the last 10 years. Lived in a tent for months in the Gobi Deserts chasing dust storms, spent weeks in the Kruger Park of South Africa setting up experiments among elephants and rhinos, attended Forums in middle of the Amazon forest spending the night in a swimming pool talking to such interesting people, and so forth…
Well, now I do have a daughter, she is 8 months old.. and that’s *by far* the most exciting, satisfying, scaring, moving, breathtaking experience I had. I repeat: by far.
Of course, this is just my own experience and does not apply to everyone. However, you really can’t tell until you experience it. To some extent, it is true that with kids your freedom, especially the mind freedom, shrinks. But, hey!, you’re a German.. come on man.. never seen a German getting stopped by his/her kids.. :)
Perhaps the point I want to make is that dismissing ‘having children’ as ‘this idea of having children’, as if it’s a bizarre trend of these days like Facebook, is a bit of an oversimplification, to say the least. After all, if life is worth living (and you seem to agree) then it’s kind of fair (and fun, I promise!) to give life to someone else, as well as you received life from your parents (please note: I say this as a radical atheist!).
Thanks a lot for your inspiring and interesting blog. You sound like the German I wished I met here in Berlin, but still didn’t. I shall eventually go back to my beloved Italy, if they stop destroying it.
First of all, that sounds like some awesome adventures that you have had! The kind of people like me might only return to Germany once they need to retire, so you might still have to wait a bit. ;-)
Of course I don’t know what it’s like to have children, but as I never felt that wish, I don’t want to try it. I have also never taken cocaine or bungee-jumped, but I really don’t feel any desire for it. And what I do see from other people’s kids is deterring enough.
The conclusion from “life is worth living” to “it’s fair to give it to someone else” is a non sequitur in my mind. If kids are not born they never exist and therefore won’t suffer from not being born. Also, I don’t see that I would have some obligation that originated with something that my parents did 40 years ago (possibly for altruistic motives, but possibly for selfish reasons which seem to be far more prevalent in people having kids, like spicing up their own lives).
I see that this kid stuff actually warrants its own post.
I don’t know if has something to do being a man, but most men can easily determinate to be single and that is great. i remember to regret always to be a woman. But just to having my daughter makes me feel that I thanks God I have the most beautiful feelings in my whole life. Something that not man can feel ;). Anyhow I got married thinking to do the correct, get married and have kids. But the true is that married does not mean happinest :C, well not always. Sometimes I wish I still single and enjoy life, just like when I ws single. Thanks God I went so diferent places, but since I got married I just know Nord and ostsee in Germany :C. I wish also that my sisters and brother didnt tell me stay single but i guess they doing well in their marriage that because I am the youngest and I was alreday 35 they were telling me that i should be married already and other things making me feel I should get married, and now ….i regret it. But not for me cause the divorce exists but cause my little girl. Cause when you have a child is not more how you feel is how your kid feels and i know that the last thing I wanted to make feel my girl ist to be unhappy with papi and mami separed :C.
Yeah, marriage usually is not a good step. (My own experience as well.) If a relationship is going well, there is no need to get married. But once it won’t go well anymore, marriage just complicates things.
But I am not sure if parents should remain together “for the child”. Based on my experience of my parents’ divorce and as a divorce lawyer, children feel it that something is wrong. They often sense it before the adults, who are so busy with lots of other things, notice it. Children usually want both parents in their life, that’s true, but they also prefer the absence of arguments or even tension. Sometimes it’s better for a child if mom and dad live at different places, both have regular and meaningful contact with the child, and both respect each other. Also, consider how your daughter will feel in 10 or 15 years when she will find out (for example by reading this blog) that you only stayed in an unhappy marriage because of her.
Could you erase this page? jejeje LOL. Well, before she learns to read and search internet, well she used the mouse already and daddys handy better than me, well i dont have cell phone ;). Ok, before she reads something somewhere I speak with her all the time, I guess with just 3 years feels and knows better than us. If I cry she automatically knows is because “mamayola”, thats how I call my mom ;). She also hands me tissues to dry my face. I talk to her always with the true, and believe me; my daughter will know first from me anything she can posible find out in the future from posts or other pages and wherever. Hopefuly things can change and all this will be just as an anecdote ;). I guess I just have to start to do things that amakes me happy, well to be with my girl makes me the most happy person of this world, she tell me “te amo mami” and i get melted :). i just need to do things for myself and I hope that helps. Best regards.
Were you married before? How do you transfer from a normal husband to a cool and bad-ass happy hermit? One thing I really want to ask you about is how to travel and live alone? Usually my idea to pursue freedom is immediately overshadowed by the idea of what am I going to do if I don’t have travel company or go in a restaurant by myself? As a savvy traveler, is there anything you can share to travel alone comfortably with feel awkwardly?
I am generally happier alone, probably because I am easily (intellectually) bored or even annoyed by other people. Some things are weird doing alone, like going to a restaurant, but then I take a book or a newspaper and read while I eat. I have gotten completely used to going to the cinema alone and it’s the most normal thing in the world for me now. On long train rides, it’s beautiful to have time to read a whole book while watching new landscapes whiz by.
On the other hand, you sometimes meet people while travelling and you can walk with them for half a day if they are funny or interesting.
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