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Panda Notes on Happiness and Meaning

This post began as a gift to my friend Emily Esfahani Smith, who wrote an inspiring new book about The Power of Meaning. Giving to others when I can, in business and in life, has given my life meaning, and as a result it has brought me happiness, and many great givers I have met in this world share that belief.

As I was writing this post, the person who hijacked my startup PandaWhale’s domain shut our website down. PandaWhale started in January 2011, but instead of a happy milestone I have been dealing with sadness and frustration. Despite the negative feelings, I will focus on what I’m grateful for: Learning from PandaWhale has made me happy.

Over the years, our wonderful PandaWhale community has taught me considerably about happiness and meaning in life. This post offers a dozen lessons I have learned:

  1. The path to true happiness comes from pursuing meaning.
  2. We increase happiness and meaning by spending our time intentionally.
  3. “Happiness is (a) being content with the path you chose, instead of wondering what might have been, and (b) making others happier.” ~Adam Grant
  4. Five keys to happiness: be in the moment, be loving, be a spectator to your own thoughts, be grateful for at least one thing every day, be of service to others. (source: Ray Chambers, as told by LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner to Oprah Winfrey)
  5. Happiness fuels success, not the other way around.
  6. Happiness is a personal choice, but it’s an interconnected choice.
  7. We think we know what will make us happy, but often we cannot predict.
  8. Life can be hard. But remember, while the difficult moments may decrease happiness, they are essential for building meaning and character.
  9. In work and in life, our happiness is connected to our relationships.
  10. We become like the five people with whom we spend the most time. Choose wisely.
  11. There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.
  12. Lessons are repeated until they are learned.

Below I share my collected notes on each of those lessons. Please forgive the length of this post; I would have written less if I had had more time. As a lifelong learner, I am eager to learn more, so please tweet and share lessons you’ve learned in the comments of this post.


1) “The surest path to true happiness lies in chasing not just happiness but also a meaningful life.” ~Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer Aaker

I love that mindset. It’s from their NYMag article, which reminds us that meaning and health are connected: “Pursuit of happiness, it turns out, negatively affects our well-being… The pursuit of meaning leads to a deeper and more lasting form of well-being.”

Emily’s excellent new book The Power of Meaning explores four pillars of meaning — belonging, purpose, storytelling, transcendence — that are essential to lasting happiness.

The seeds of that book were planted four years ago when Emily wrote in The Atlantic that there’s more to life than being happy:

By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

Emily followed that article by exploring why meaning is healthier than happiness:

Feeling good is not enough for happiness. People need meaning to thrive.
In the words of Carl Jung, “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” Jung’s wisdom certainly seems to apply to our bodies, if not also to our hearts and our minds.

How do we pursue a meaningful life? Giving. In their NYTimes article, Emily and Jennifer Aaker sing my theme song, with their recommendation that giving connects to meaning: “Those who reported having a meaningful life saw themselves as more other-oriented — by being, more specifically, a “giver.” People who said that doing things for others was important to them reported having more meaning in their lives.”


2) “If we rethink how we spend time, and be more intentional on how we spend time (with whom and on what activities) — that may impact the happiness we feel.” ~Jennifer Aaker

Jennifer Aaker is a Stanford professor who has extensively studied happiness. Her interview with Eric Barker on how to increase happiness and meaning in life is memorable to me, because she advocates being mindful of how we spend our time:

People who spend more time on projects that energize them and with people who energize them tend to be happier. However, what is interesting is that there is often a gap between where people say they want to spend their time and how they actually spend their time…
Taking an inventory about where you’re spending your time is revealing. And then once you identify the activities and people with whom you want to spend more time, calendaring your time thoughtfully becomes critical. When you put something on a calendar, you’re more likely to actually do that activity — partly because you’re less likely to have to make an active decision whether you should do it — because it’s already on your calendar.

The rest of my notes in this post keep returning to these themes of relationships and projects. Bonus fun trivia: Jennifer Aaker is the person who introduced me to Wharton professor Adam Grant, whose definition of happiness resonates with me.


3) “Happiness is (a) Being content with the path you chose, instead of wondering what might have been. (b) Making others happier.” ~Adam Grant

That definition comes from Adam Grant’s Reddit AMA.

Point (a) connects happiness with meaning, because relationships and projects that bring meaning will likely make us content with the paths we choose. Mandy Hale has expressed similar sentiment:

Happiness is letting go of what you think your life is supposed to look like, and celebrating it for everything that it is.

For point (b) Adam Grant quotes John Stuart Mill: Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.” Adam explores this in his essay Does trying to be happy make us unhappy? :

The advice of psychologists Ken Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky: “Change your actions, not your circumstances.”
If you truly want to experience joy or meaning, you need to shift your attention away from joy or meaning, and toward projects and relationships that bring joy and meaning as byproducts.

Reading this reminds me of my favorite tweet from Adam Grant:

The meaning of life is making other people’s lives more meaningful.

Inspiring people makes their lives more meaningful, by encouraging them to pursue meaningful relationships and projects.

Encouragement is a fulfilling feeling to give someone. As Maya Angelou observed,

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

I met Adam Grant when he was writing Give and Take, and it made me very happy to learn that giving can be a winning strategy in business, as elucidated in his TED talk:

I am honored and humbled that Adam talks about five-minute favors — small ways to add large value to other peoples’ lives — as a way to protect givers from burnout at 5:30 in the TED talk. Five minute favors help givers set boundaries.

Five-minute favors are eloquently explained by Adam Grant in Give and Take:

Adam Rifkin taught me that giving doesn’t require becoming Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi; we can all find ways of adding high value to others’ lives at a low personal cost. The five-minute favor is my single favorite habit that I learned while writing the book. I particularly enjoy looking for ways to:
1. Share knowledge
2. Introduce individuals who might benefit from knowing each other
These five-minute favors have broadened and deepened my relationships, injecting greater meaning and satisfaction into my life.

Expanding on that, here are some of my favorite examples of five-minute favors:

  1. Write a short, specific and laudatory note to recognize, recommend, or thank someone on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, or another social place. Note that in this favor, as with all five minute favors, it is important to be authentic and sincere. Only say and do what you truly believe.
  2. Serve as a relevant reference for a person, product, or service.
  3. Read a summary and offer crisp and concrete feedback.
  4. Use a product and offer concise, vivid and helpful feedback.
  5. Share, comment or retweet something on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.
  6. Introduce two people with a well-written email, citing a mutual interest.
  7. Be a disagreeable giver. As Joyce points out, doing so is tough but worthwhile.
  8. Give someone a thank you note for something you sincerely appreciate, or give someone an affirmation during a time that s/he is in need of strength.

On that last point, when someone is learning resilience, we can be of great help. Whenever something in life or business is difficult, I think of the words of Bruce Lee:

Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.

I am looking forward to Option B, a book by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant about building resilience and finding meaning in the face of adversity, coming April 24.

I am grateful for everything I have learned from Adam Grant, and that thought makes me happy. Connected: I truly believe that gratitude is essential to happiness.

4) “Be grateful for at least one thing every day.” ~Jeff Weiner elucidating Ray Chambers’ five keys to happiness to Oprah Winfrey

Ray Chambers is a mentor of Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn. Ray was a master of leveraged buyouts on Wall Street and he gave up that success to spend time with philosophers and Buddhist monks. He decided he needed to be of service to others and began a life of extraordinary philanthropy, including combatting malaria.

As a result of his experiences, Ray concluded that there are 5 keys to happiness:

  1. Be in the moment.
  2. It is more important to be loving than to be right.
  3. Be a spectator to your own thoughts, especially when you become emotional, which is fundamental to compassion.
  4. Be grateful for at least one thing every day.
  5. Be of service to others.

Expanding a little on Ray’s point number 3, we note that Ben Horowitz acknowledges how hard it is to manage our own emotions in business, even for CEOs.

I love Jeff’s smile as he tells Oprah about Ray’s philosophy of happiness in 75 seconds:

The five keys to happiness are illustrated by Jeff describing what makes him happy:

It’s taken me over 40 years to realize what makes me happy — simply put, it’s looking forward to going to work in the morning, and looking forward to coming home at night. Applying the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in both facets of my life to the integrated whole, and not taking anything or anyone for granted, is one of the most important ways I can make that happiness an enduring reality.

This self-integration Jeff talks about reminds me of a quote from Mahatma Gandhi:

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

Research indicates that happiness precedes success, not the other way around, because our mindset influences deeply what we think, say, and do.


5) “Happiness is not the outcome of success but rather its precursor.” ~Emma Seppälä

Emma Seppälä is Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and she is Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She consults with Fortune 500 leaders and employees on building successful positive organizations.

Emma examines how happiness leads to success in her book The Happiness Track. She summarizes vast quantities of scientific research with six keys to happiness and success:

  1. Live in the moment.
  2. Be resilient.
  3. Keep calm.
  4. Do more of nothing.
  5. Be good to yourself.
  6. Be compassionate to others.

It’s not a coincidence that Emma Seppälä’s keys to happiness are similar to those of Ray Chambers. These happiness traits reside in many successful business people.

When I have trouble remembering all the keys to happiness, I remember this quote from Daymond John on Shark Tank:

Life is like business. It’s 20 percent what happens to you, and 80 percent how you respond.

Daymond’s observation feels like one ring that binds them all: If we practice keeping our attention in the moment, listening, being calm, and responding with a winning giver attitude of respect, kindness, and empathy, we can drive win-win outcomes.


6) “Happiness is a personal choice, but it’s not an individual choice. It’s an interconnected one.” ~Shawn Achor

Anyone who knows me knows that I believe in the interconnectedness of all things. Giving connects to meaning connects to happiness connects to success. Relationships matter because who we are connected with determines the meaning we find as thoughts become actions. Attitude matters because it is the connective tissue for our thoughts.

Shawn Achor is author of The Happiness Advantage, which pioneered the notion that happiness fuels success, not vice versa: “When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.”

Shawn’s funny TED talk explains why happiness inspires us to be more productive:

My favorite line from that video:

90% of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world.

Shawn’s observation about the interconnectedness of happiness is from his Heleo conversation: “Every time we choose happiness, we actually make it easier for other people around us to be more positive as well. We feel like we can say the negative stuff, “I’m stressed,” or “I’m working a whole bunch” but we wouldn’t want to say, “I’m really excited about something good.” When you do that, other people start telling you the good things. It’s about giving license to that.”

That said, because we are human we cannot predict the future. Often we won’t know how we will feel until we are in a particular situation.


7) “Did you know that people are very bad at predicting what will make them happy?” ~Jeff Bezos to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh

I cannot find the original Inc article with that quote but here it is on Consumerist. Tony was giving Jeff his standard presentation on Zappos, which was mostly about their culture, and he was talking about employing the science of happiness to better serve their customers and employees. Jeff blurted the above line out of nowhere, which happened to be the exact words on Tony’s next slide. Compatible cultures for the win.

We do not know what will make us happy, because often we cannot anticipate how we will actually feel when something happens. Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin cites this wisdom in her insightful review of Daniel Gilbert’s opus Stumbling on Happiness:

Gilbert’s main argument is that we aren’t very good at predicting what will make us happy in the future. This matters, because if we want to take steps in the present that will contribute to our future happiness, we need to be able to anticipate what, in fact, will make us happy — consider the person who splurges on a $300 professional tattoo today, only to pay a painful $6,000 in ten years to remove it. The job you have, the body you have, the city you live in — all reflect decisions you made in the past about what you’d care about in the future.

Daniel’s advice, according to Gretchen: “To predict what’s likely to make you happy in the future, ask someone who is having that experience at the moment.” This explains why our relationships are so important: They help us understand the potential for happiness (and the potential to avoid regret) of the many paths we could take.

We don’t know what makes us happy, but we think we do, says Jennifer Aaker, explaining her study co-authored with Melanie Rudd and Michael I. Norton, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology:

Although the desire for personal happiness may be clear, the path to achieving it is indefinite.
One reason for this hazy route to happiness is that although people often think they know what leads to happiness, their predictions about what will make them happy are often inaccurate.

File this in the Acts of Kindness part of your brain: “The researchers found that acts performed in the service of the concrete goal (making someone smile) made the givers themselves feel happier than the abstract goal (making someone happy).” In other words, when you are giving yourself a goal of giving, be specific.

It makes me happy to listen to Jennifer talk about predicting happiness in this video:

From that presentation, it turns out that dancing, humor, social skills, self-esteem, and free time matter more to happiness than we think.

Bonus: Even though we cannot predict future happiness, we can have fun with the subject of happiness. Maria Popova of BrainPickings made this fascinating 2-minute remix of TED talks on The Secret of Happiness, inspired by Gretchen Rubin. Enjoy:

On happiness, Maria writes: Find your purpose and do what you love.


8) “Life can be hard. But remember, while the difficult moments may decrease happiness, they’re essential for building meaning.” ~Eric Barker

Eric Barker is the creator of the extraordinary “how to be awesome at life” blog called Bakadesuyo, aka Barking Up The Wrong Tree. Whenever I’m searching for meaning or happiness, I find myself by getting lost in the insights on his website.

Eric’s site is deeply interconnected, so I regularly stumble on five regrets of the dying:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

On letting ourselves be happier, Eric posts actionable advice, backed by neuroscience:

  • Ask “What am I grateful for?” No answers? Doesn’t matter. Just searching helps.
  • Label negative emotions. Give it a name and your brain isn’t so bothered by it.
  • Decide. Go for “good enough” instead of “best decision ever made on Earth.”
  • Hugs, hugs, hugs. Don’t text — touch.

So what is a simple way to start the upward spiral of happiness?

Just send someone a thank you email. If you feel awkward about it, you can send them this post to tell them why.
This really can start an upward spiral of happiness in your life. UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb explains:
Everything is interconnected. Gratitude improves sleep. Sleep reduces pain. Reduced pain improves your mood. Improved mood reduces anxiety, which improves focus and planning. Focus and planning help with decision making. Decision making further reduces anxiety and improves enjoyment. Enjoyment gives you more to be grateful for, which keeps that loop of the upward spiral going. Enjoyment also makes it more likely you’ll exercise and be social, which, in turn, will make you happier.”

When I search Eric’s website for meaning in life, I find his summary of the work of Emily Esfahani Smith’s The Power of Meaning:

  • Belong to a group: I’ll be at lunch with Andy and the guys. Where will you be?
  • Give your work purpose: You’re not emptying trash cans. You’re helping get a man on the moon.
  • Craft your story: End it with redemption, not contamination, and become the superhero of your life.
  • Transcendence: Nature is big. Your problems are small.

I find Eric’s ability to tie these themes together to be inspiring:

Life can be hard. But remember, while the difficult moments may decrease happiness, they’re essential for building meaning. And that’s what matters in the long run.
We flourish around friends. Unbearable stress becomes yet another challenge when you have purpose. A superhero origin story gives you hope and redemption. And nature makes your big problems seem tiny.
Collect all four and you’re on your way to learning the meaning of your life.

Life is not about rushing through collecting of all four pillars of meaning. Life is about enjoying the journey, the lifelong learning of lessons, and the continual improvement.

Or as Steve Jobs says at 8:12 in the Stanford Commencement Address video, “Sometimes life is going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.


9) “Life is short. You should spend time working with people you enjoy.” ~Eric Schmidt to Marc Benioff

Eric Schmidt shared that wonderful line in their fireside chat at Dreamforce 2011. Marc Hedlund paraphrases the sentiment in his clickworthy set of Entrepreneur Proverbs:

The older I get, the more I think all that matters is working with people you like.

Reading that I’m reminded of what drives people like Joyce and me to create startups like PandaWhale. We love working with our community of people who we care about. Such founder passion for compassion is intrinsic to non-profit startups as well. Example: our friends at Refugees United regularly talk about how much they love working with each other and working with the people they serve:

The longer I live, the more I believe that meaning and happiness in life connect with who we spend time with and what we work on together. It’s that simple.

Meaning connects with decisions and actions. As Tony Robbins says,

The meaning you attach to an event will determine the decisions you make, the actions you take and your ultimate destiny.

When I am in need of inspiration, I re-read the Holstee Manifesto (below), found via BrainPickings:

I like the attitude in this line: “Life is about the people you meet, and the things you create with them, so go out and start creating.


10) “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” ~Jim Rohn

Celes Chua has a fine modification that includes self-consciousness: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, including yourself.”

I truly believe we become like the people we spend the most time with. This is why Oprah says “surround yourself only with people who are going to lift you higher.” People inspire you or drain you, so choose wisely.

Oprah also says that “the greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude.” Our attitude becomes like the attitudes of the people we spend the most time with.

Pay attention to whom your energy increases and decreases around, because that’s your intuition hinting who to embrace or stray from. Also, master networkers say that there are only five people you really need in your network.

Research from Eric Barker shows that over time, we develop the eating habits, health habits, and career aspirations of those around us. If we are in a group of people who have really high goals for themselves, we will take on that same sense of seriousness.

Naval Ravikant, founder/CEO of AngelList, offers a zoological variation of this concept in Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans:

There’s a theory that I call ‘the five chimps theory.’ In zoology, you can predict the mood and behavior patterns of any chimp by which five chimps they hang out with the most. Choose your five chimps carefully.

Tim Ferriss summarizes the mindset: “The belief, if I were to generalize it, is that you are emotionally, physically, financially, or otherwise the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

Remember that feedback swings both ways. We influence others as much as they influence us. Super author Paulo Coelho says to put it into action, in Tools of Titans:

The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.

Your example should include being present. Be who you are, wherever you are, as hard as you can. Now.


11) “There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

I learned of the philosophy of Google-influencing zen master Thich Nhat Hanh from Lori Deschene aka Tiny Buddha, who interprets this wisdom as: “Maybe happiness is really being where we are, and choosing to smile with the people around us.”

Elisha Goldstein finds similar meaning in the passage: “It’s not the conditions of our lives that make us happy (although some can certainly help at times), it’s the way we relate to ourselves and our lives that provide the happiness. It’s the way we walk through life.”

Viktor Frankl said it simply: “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.

Even though Henry David Thoreau did not say it, the butterfly comparison is apropos.

Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.

Happiness is not about what is happening; it is about mindset. As Hugh Downs said,

A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.

This emphasis on attitude is embodied in the next line of Thich Nhat Hanh’s affirmation:

You should be happy right in the here and now.

While I’m being here now, I feel inclined to share this summary of all of the lessons of history in four sentences, by Charles A. Beard:

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power.
The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small.
The bee fertilizes the flower it robs.
When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

There’s profound wisdom in all four metaphorical lessons, and Wikiquote even knows half of their origins: “The first statement is an ancient anonymous proverb, sometimes wrongly attributed to Euripides. The second is from Friedrich von Logau, “Retribution”, Sinngedichte III, 2, 24, c. 1654, as translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The origins of the third and fourth have not been determined.”


12) “Lessons are repeated until they are learned.” ~Chérie Carter-Scott

If you’ve made it this far, congrats! Your reward: 10 Rules for Being a Human Being by Dr. Chérie Carter-Scott from her book If Life Is A Game, These Are The Rules:

  1. You will receive a body. You may like it or hate it, but it’s yours to keep for the entire period.
  2. You will learn lessons. You are enrolled in a full-time informal school called, “life.”
  3. There are no mistakes, only lessons. Growth is a process of trial, error, and experimentation. The “failed” experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiments that ultimately “work.”
  4. Lessons are repeated until they are learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can go on to the next lesson.
  5. Learning lessons does not end. There’s no part of life that doesn’t contain its lessons. If you’re alive, that means there are still lessons to be learned.
  6. “There” is no better a place than “here.” When your “there” has become a “here”, you will simply obtain another “there” that will again look better than “here.”
  7. Other people are merely mirrors of you. You cannot love or hate something about another person unless it reflects to you something you love or hate about yourself.
  8. What you make of your life is up to you. You have all the tools and resources you need. What you do with them is up to you. The choice is yours.
  9. Your answers lie within you. The answers to life’s questions lie within you. All you need to do is look, listen, and trust.
  10. You will forget all this.

Be passionate about this mindset: Be a lifelong learner, not just of professional skills.

If this is too much to remember, just remember not to worry.

Worrying does not help. Worrying just drains us of energy and increases our suffering. Erma Bombeck was fond of saying that “worrying is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere.” Instead, we should apply our energy more wisely. We should employ our energy for giving instead of worrying.

Three quotes that assuage my anxiety when I feel myself starting to worry and want to shift my attitude toward giving:

  1. “No gesture is too small when done with gratitude.” ~Oprah Winfrey
  2. “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” ~Helen Keller
  3. “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Happiness is interconnected: “Whoever is happy will make others happy, too.” Identifying the source of this quote is challenging: Internet has attributed it sometimes to Mark Twain, and Anne Frank at other times. In any case, I believe it.

Giving is interconnected, too. A successful entrepreneur said about me in Adam Grant’s book Give and Take, “Adam always wants to make sure that whoever he’s giving to is also giving to somebody else.” When giving cascades, more people find meaning.

So I remind myself to keep practicing an attitude of giving. Giving connects to meaning connects to happiness connects to success in business and in life. Relationships matter because who we are connected with determines the meaning we find as thoughts become actions.


Notes on these notes: This Medium post was reblogged from LinkedIn, and also, I thank David Perell for making this pic of the lessons to share:

Please share what has resonated from this post — and the lessons you have learned about happiness and meaning — in the comments of this post, as well as on LinkedIn, and on Twitter. I’d love to learn more.

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