Happiness 101: The Beginner’s Guide for How to be Happy (Money, Simplicity, Relationships, Culture)
This is the first post in the 3-part series on happiness. You can jump to the second and third posts here:
- Happiness 201: The Advanced Guide for How to be Happy Psychologically (Expectations, Practice, Choice, Purpose)
- Happiness 301: The Master’s Guide for How to be Happy Spiritually (Presence, Letting Go, Transcendence, Joy)
“To be happy.”
This seems to be the go-to answer for one of humanity’s universal questions: “What is your goal in life?”
Consciously or not, directly or indirectly, in the short or the long term, whatever we do, whatever we hope, whatever we dream — somehow, is related to a deep, profound desire for well-being or happiness. — Matthieu Ricard, Biochemist turned Buddhist monk often described as world’s happiest person
Many have attempted to define a formula for happiness:
The grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for. — Washington Burnap
Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. — Gandhi
But, does happiness really need a formula or to be a future goal? Can you simply be happy now? Right now? And, an even deeper question, should happiness even be the goal?
This 3-part series isn’t intended to be another clickbait listicle about happiness. We’ve all read too many of those. Instead, while reading and writing about other topics for the last few years, I’ve been tucking away a vast variety of perspectives on happiness. With over 100 quotes, this series will give you plenty of food for thought to define happiness for yourself.
(The word happiness) is commonly used to designate something intricate and ambiguous, one of those ideas which humanity has intentionally left vague, so that each individual might interpret it in his own way. — Henri Bergson, French philosopher
I’ve organized the three posts into a rough “hierarchy of happiness.” It’s not necessarily intended to be strictly hierarchical in the sense that you need to follow it step-by-step, but it is loosely hierarchical in the sense that each post goes deeper than the one before it. Here’s a preview:
Happiness 101 Post Contents:
1. MONEY: Happiness can be “bought” (up to a point) — aim for the ever-elusive enough
2. SIMPLICITY: Happiness comes from simplicity of living and keeping your relationships with material things in check
3. RELATIONSHIPS: Happiness comes from relationships with people and is best when shared with others
4. CULTURE: Happiness — and a broader sense of well-being — can be learned from other cultures and environments
The Beginner’s Guide for How to be Happy: Money, Simplicity, Relationships, Culture (& 25+ Happiness Quotes)
Let’s begin with the basics: the external factors for happiness that are the usual topics of conversation in the mainstream. And, the most common combination: happiness and money.
How to be Happy #1 (MONEY): Happiness can be “bought” (up to a point) — aim for the ever-elusive enough
As someone who has personally experienced lifestyle inflation by buying the big house and nice car after getting the high-paying job, I learned the hard way that these things do not equal happiness. In fact, it was quite the opposite in my experience. So, my theory was that too much actually has a negative affect.
On the other hand, no one would choose to live in poverty. Obviously, too little also has a negative affect.
There has to be somewhere in the middle that’s the sweet spot when it comes to money.
Happiness is a place between too little and too much. — Finnish Proverb
Poverty is involuntary and debilitating, whereas simplicity is voluntary and enabling. Poverty is mean and degrading to the human spirit, whereas a life of conscious simplicity can have both a beauty and a functional integrity that elevates the human spirit. — Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity
Sure enough, there’s some research on this exact point. I encourage you to read my full summary of the research (with supporting visuals and sources), but here are a few key findings:
Money only affects emotional well-being (happiness) up to an annual income of $60,000-$75,000.
At $40K, health, relationships, and purpose become more important:
Once you get to an individual income of around $40,000, other factors such as health, relationships and a sense of purpose, seem far more important than income. — 80000Hours.org
Around $50K, more income had no relationship with day-to-day happiness:
If we look at day-to-day happiness, income is even less important. ‘Positive affect’ is whether people reported feeling happy yesterday…This line goes flat around $50,000, showing that beyond this point income had no relationship with day-to-day happiness. — 80000Hours.org
If you do start making more money, don’t expect to be too much happier:
Going from a (pre-tax) income of $40,000 to $80,000 is only associated with an increase in life satisfaction from about 6.5 to 7 out of 10. That’s a lot of extra income for a small increase. — 80000Hours.org
Once a person or family reaches a moderate level of income, here are the factors that research has shown contribute most to happiness: good health, personal growth, strong social relationships, service to others, connection with nature. — Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity
What’s going on here? Why doesn’t more money keep buying us more happiness? The answer may be related to the hedonic treadmill (or hedonic adaptation):
The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness…
Hedonic adaptation is a process or mechanism that reduces the affective impact of emotional events. Generally, hedonic adaptation involves a happiness ‘set point’, whereby humans generally maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives, despite events that occur in their environment. The process of hedonic adaptation is often conceptualized as a treadmill, since one must continually work to maintain a certain level of happiness. Others conceptualize hedonic adaptation as functioning similarly to a thermostat (a negative feedback system) that works to maintain an individual’s happiness set point.¹
Make a mental note of “expectations and desires.” We’ll come back to them in this series. If more money doesn’t equal more happiness, then we should dig deeper into that ever-elusive idea of: enough.
If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough…On one level, we all know this stuff already…The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. — David Foster Wallace, This is Water
People who live far below their means enjoy a freedom that people busy upgrading their lifestyles can’t fathom. — Naval Ravikant
The new roadmap says that there is something called ‘enough’…’enough’ is this vibrant, vital place…an awareness about the flow of money and stuff in your life, in light of your true happiness and your sense of purpose and values, and that your ‘enough point’ (having enough) is having everything you want and need, to have a life you love and full self-expression, with nothing in excess. It’s not minimalism. It’s not less is more (because sometimes more is more), but it’s that sweet spot, it’s the Goldilocks point. Enough for me is one of the absolute fulcrums between the old roadmap for money and the new roadmap for money…Once people start to pay attention to the flow of money and stuff in their lives in this way, their consumption drops by about 20–25% naturally because that’s the amount of unconsciousness that you have in your spending. So, when you become conscious, that falls away and many people say they don’t even know what they used to spend their money on. — Vicki Robin (Note: She’s right, our spending dropped 30% in a year once we started living intentionally)
How to be Happy #2 (SIMPLICITY): Happiness comes from simplicity of living and keeping your relationships with material things in check
Simplicity is more complex than it first appears. And, it can be interpreted a number of different ways.
Since we just covered money, let’s start with simplicity of possessions:
Most smart people over time realize that possessions don’t make them happy. You have to go through that…As you get older, you just realize that there’s no happiness in material possessions. — Naval Ravikant
I can think of no greater happiness in life than to be surrounded only by the things I love. How about you? — Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
Everyone started out a minimalist. Our worth is not the sum of our belongings. Possessions can make us happy only for brief periods. Unnecessary material objects suck up our time, our energy, and our freedom. — Fumio Sasaki, Goodbye, Things
It’s less about the possessions themselves, and more about your relationship to them:
Appoint certain days on which to give up everything and make yourself at home with next to nothing. Start cultivating a relationship with poverty. For no one is worthy of god unless he has paid no heed to riches. I am not, mind you, against your possessing them, but I want to ensure that you possess them without tremors; and this you will only achieve in one way, by convincing yourself that you can live a happy life even without them, and by always regarding them as being on the point of vanishing. — Seneca
You don’t necessarily need to be as hardcore as Seneca, but do think about your relationships with material things.
Next, we can think about the simplicity of life itself:
Happiness is simple pleasures, is spending time doing what you love and spending time with those you love. — Leo Babauta, Zen Habits
Simplicity of living plus high thinking lead to the greatest happiness! — Paramahansa Yogananda via Swami Kriyananda
Some may think that life in such a community is repressed, strict, and difficult, but that is not the case. A monastic life is characterized by simple beauty and unexpected joy. Monks find happiness in things that may seem trivial to those who pursue the material trappings of success. Watching the seasons change — the blossoming of the magnolias, the dazzling fall foliage, the first snowfall — brings indescribable joy and gratitude. A simple meal made with fresh ingredients from the nearby mountains is a source of great contentment. Because our monastic brothers are our friends, teachers, and family, we are never lonely. — Haemin Sunim, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down
Remember, life is made up of way more simple moments than extraordinary ones:
There are many more ordinary hours in life than extraordinary ones. We wait in line at the supermarket. We spend hours commuting to work. We water our plants and feed our pets. Happiness means finding a moment of joy in those ordinary hours. — Haemin Sunim, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down
Personally, I believe simplicity is a key part in humanity’s future evolution:
In the 1980s, simplicity was seen primarily as ‘downshifting,’ or pulling back from the rat race of consumer society. Several decades later, there is a growing recognition of simplicity as ‘upshifting’ — or moving beyond the rat race to the human race. Increasingly, the mainstream media and society are recognizing how people’s search for happiness is taking them beyond consumerism to a more balanced and integrated approach to living. — Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity
How to be Happy #3 (RELATIONSHIPS): Happiness comes from relationships with people and is best when shared with others
Perhaps the most well-known quotes here are:
Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared. — Siddhārtha Gautama
Happiness only real when shared. — Christopher McCandless
They were right, and there’s research to back it up.
Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger is currently the director of a 75-year-old study on adult development — one of the longest studies of adult life. The Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked the lives of over 700 people and monitored their physical and mental health, their work lives, their friendships, and their romances. Here’s what Waldinger says they’ve learned:
The lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.
Looking back on their lives, people most often report their time with others as being the most meaningful part of life and what they’re proudest of.
Taking it a step further, Waldinger outlines three big lessons about relationships:
The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected…And we know that you can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson that we learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters…And the third big lesson that we learned about relationships and our health is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains.²
Many people are catching on to this:
Emotional happiness is primarily social…The very best thing that can happen to people is to spend time with other people they like. That is when they are happiest. — Dr. Daniel Kahneman³
One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; one of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself. — Gretchen Rubin
The happiness in serving ourselves is real but often fleeting; the fulfillment in serving others is lasting. The problem comes when there’s a lack of balance between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of fulfillment. That’s not just philosophy; it’s biology. — Simon Sinek, Find Your Why
You don’t need huge ambition to be very happy, you just need a bunch of friends to drink green tea and talk with. — Héctor García
How to be Happy #4 (CULTURE): Happiness — and a broader sense of well-being — can be learned from other cultures and environments
I’m considering this “external” in the sense that it relates to geography and environment, but it covers such a wide variety of factors that it could be included in either of the two following posts.
Again, let’s start with some research: The World Happiness Report.
The World Happiness Report is in its 7th year. It aims to survey the state of global happiness and ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be. They look at a variety of well-being measures and track how happiness has evolved over time.
Here are the countries that have ranked in the top 10 for both of the most recent study years (2019 and 2018): Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, and Canada.
The US ranked 19th and 18th in the same studies.
So, you start to wonder about questions like: Why do these countries consistently rank so high in happiness? What do the people in these countries do to rank so high in happiness? And, how can we incorporate their lifestyle learnings into our own lives if we don’t live in one of those countries?
This is something I plan to study more deeply in the future, but you’ve probably seen some viral buzzwords the last few years: hygge, niksen, and ikigai (to name a few).
These words may tell part of the story, but we really need to look at the lifestyles as a whole to get the full picture.
Perhaps Danish happiness is not really happiness at all, but something much more valuable and durable: contentedness, being satisfied with your lot, low-level needs being met, higher expectations being kept in check.4
It’s probably no surprise that these same characteristics are common among the Blue Zones, the locations on Earth where humans live longest. The locations include: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California.
I’ve previously mentioned that I believe the Ikarians may be the sanest (or most well) people on the planet:
Long healthy life, minimal impact on the planet, meaningful relationships (‘us’ vs. ‘me’), plant-based diets, drink wine and tea with family and friends, clear purpose based on satisfying low-level needs, no care about time, walkable communities, gardening, enjoy physical work and find joy in everyday chores, enjoy being outside, etc. And, they are almost entirely free of dementia and other chronic diseases affecting Americans.
When you view the Blue Zones holistically, you typically find cultural lifestyle factors like:
- Connection: Meaningful relationships (“us” vs. “me”)
- Modified Mediterranean Diet: Mostly plant-based diets, drink wine and tea with family and friends
- Clear Purpose: Based on satisfying low-level needs (the popular purpose concept, ikigai, comes from the Blue Zone in Okinawa, Japan)
- Time Abundance: No care about time or watching the clock
- Natural Movement: Walkable communities, gardening, enjoy physical work and find joy in everyday chores, enjoy being outside, etc
- Down Shift: Little to no stress or anxiety (that leads to inflammation which leads to diseases). More good reasons to get started with downshifting.
- Spirituality: Practicing any faith can add years to your life
- Sleep: Wake naturally, naps in the afternoon. Naps are having a comeback. Now nap science and research backs their benefits.
- Environment: Live near water or nature
That wraps up the first post in the happiness series! What was most impactful to you? Please let me know in the comments and continue reading the series below. If you loved the post, please share socially!
Continue to the next posts:
Originally published at Sloww | The Art of Slow Living | Lighter Living • Higher Purpose.