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Hacking Happiness:

The New Radical Self-Reliance

You hear a lot of talk about radical self-reliance at Burning Man, where thousands gather each year for a week of merriment and survival skills in the Nevada desert. Radical self-reliance on the playa means bringing enough food to last in a city with no stores, enough water for scorching hot days, and insulating yourself from dry chilly nights.

For one week participants celebrate relying only on themselves.

I think we can take this further. I believe we can rely on ourselves not just for survival one week of the year, but for happiness all year long.

It’s tempting, I know, to link happiness to external events. Did I sell my company or close a round of funding? Did the guy I like call?

I believe there is a better way.

I have a theory about happiness. I think we can make happiness independent of anything good or bad that comes at us throughout the day. This idea should be empowering because it makes happiness something we can attain at every moment. It puts happiness in our control. But how?

First, it’s important to say that true happiness comes from within. We’ve all read about wealthy people who are miserable and people with few material objects who radiate light. Real happiness is not winning the lottery, acquiring a new customer or vacationing in Bali, moments that Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, in his book Delivering Happiness, wisely calls “rock star happiness,” fleeting wisps of joy.

I believe true happiness comes from living with a core set of values you’ve chosen for yourself and then ensuring each of your actions, all day, stems from these values. At the end of the day you can ask yourself if you lived in accordance with your values. If you did, you should feel happy. Not a momentary high from a fun night out or a win at work, but a deeper feeling of happiness. A sense of inner peace. Calm.

If you live by values, and respect yourself for doing so, you’ll begin projecting something people around you will notice. It’s the energy of not seeking external praise or validation, not glowing from a hundred likes on your latest Facebook post. It is, instead, looking only for validation from within. Are you living with integrity, according to your values, even if you’ve never shared them with anyone else? If you live or die by your values, letting them be a key gauge of success, the world starts unfolding in a beautiful way. You derive happiness from yourself. You’re more even throughout the day.

There’s another benefit, too.

Focusing your energy not on what’s happening to you but how you handle it puts you in control of your life.

Numerous studies highlight the benefits of believing you have this control. I often think about a study by Yale psychologist Judith Rodin, who offered nursing home residents a few simple decisions to make about their lives: how to arrange their furniture, where to receive visitors and which day of the week to watch a film shown at the home. Eighteen months later, the group offered these options was more alert, active and happy than a control group not offered similar choices — and, shockingly, had exactly half the mortality rate (15%, compared to 30% for the control group). In the book Anticancer, author David Servan-Schreiber cites a study of men in Finland who, healthy at the time, were asked to analyze two statements indicating helplessness: “I feel it is impossible to reach the goals I would like to strive for” and “The future seems to me to be hopeless.” Six years later the men who rated both statements “true” had a mortality rate three times higher than those who answered false to both – and developed 160 percent more fatal cancers. Believing you have control over your life literally makes you healthier.

You can choose the values you like. I adopted four of the five values from Vipassana meditation. No lying, no killing, no stealing (I speak up now when I’m undercharged for a meal or hotel, even if it’s a painfully large amount) and no intoxicants (occasionally I’ll have a drink, but rarely). I’ve also added a few of my own. I strive to believe we’re all equal, so I aim to treat servers as well as celebrities. I try not to accept bad behavior from anyone, even New York men. (Just kidding. Mostly.) I also try to live my truth, rather than saying or guessing what others want from me. If I can live a day following these precepts, that’s probably a great day, regardless of what’s thrown at me.

The day I wrote the first draft of this piece was a tough travel day. Attempting to cross the entire island of Sicily, from Taormina to Palermo, I missed two buses – one by half an hour, because I looked at an incorrect schedule on the Internet, and the other by two minutes, because my first bus driver wanted to finish a cigarette during a stop. I should have arrived in Palermo at 3:45pm and instead got in at 6pm, too late to join the activities I had planned for my one afternoon and evening in the city. All day I was frustrated, especially with a driver in Catania who wouldn’t sell me a bus ticket on the bus, thereby forcing me to wait an hour for the next bus in a hot, filthy bus station.

In the end, it was a blessing. A relaxed evening in Palermo meant I woke up early the next morning and booked a trip to a famous pilgrimage site, then joined a fantastic street food tour through the Arab markets. My time in Palermo ended up being better than I had hoped, just not when and what I expected.

But if during my travel day I could have focused less on what was happening to me and more on how best to respond mindfully to each situation, I could have enjoyed the spare hour at the bus station reading a great book and chatting with fellow travelers. If I had handled the frustrating moments graciously, I could have been happier with myself, and happier overall, than if I hadn’t faced a challenging situation at all.

Anticancer cites a fascinating study published in Science from the University of Pennsylvania, where rats were grafted with enough cancer cells to create a fatal tumor in 50% of them. In the experiment, they were then divided into three groups: a control group, a second group given random electric shocks they couldn’t control, and a third group given the same random shocks but also a lever they could press to prevent additional shocks.

The results were stunning. One month after the graft, 54% of the control group survived and only 23% of the second group. But the third group, given some control over the number of shocks they received, had a higher percentage of survival than even the rats left alone: 63%. It wasn’t the shocks received that spread the tumors in the rats in the second group but the feeling of helplessness, that they had no control over their lives.

It’s not what happens to us during the day, but how we react to it that’s important.

And this is where we have complete control, a perfect full range of potential actions. We just need to focus on activating the best ones.

I issue you a challenge: write out some values you want to live by. Try living the next week 100% in line with them. Each night assess how you did. And then, see how you feel about yourself if you lived in accordance with these values or if you did not. I believe that by taking happiness into our own hands, we can live more calmly and feel more control over our lives. That is a wonderful, happy – and, as it turns out, healthy — way to live. It’s also radical self-reliance all year, because you need no one and nothing else to make you happy, but yourself.

Dina Kaplan is a certified meditation teacher who leads online Meditation Teacher Training programs. Dina is also founder and CEO of The Path, which teaches meditation for the modern mind, including corporate wellness programs, private meditation coaching and the renowned Mela meditation retreat. Dina has guided meditations, retreats and corporate meditations across the U.S. and around the world. Previously Dina co-founded a web video start-up and was an Emmy award-winning news reporter. She has been named a Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Entrepreneur and has published articles about mindfulness in The New York Times, Marie Claire, Town & Country,, Time Magazine’s Motto brand, and more. Please follow Dina at @dinakaplan on Instagram, follow The Path at @the.path and join Dina for meditations and more at



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