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What’s It Going to Take to Make You Happy?

What’s It Going to Take to Make You Happy?

Happiness

    I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. What does it take to be a happy person? Obviously the answer is going to be different for each person, but what worries me is that, as far as I can tell, most people don’t even ask – and those that do don’t have a very good answer.

    Ask someone what would make them happy, and their answer is likely to be pretty vague. “A good career”,” they might say. Or, “Family.” “A strong relationship with my partner,” they might add after a moment’s reflection.

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    There’s nothing wrong with these things, of course, but there’s not much meat to them as answers. They don’t give us much to chew on – which is to say, they’re not really actionable.

    And I think that’s because we don’t give much thought to the question. Maybe we’re a little suspicious of the very concept of “being happy”. After all, our grandparents/parents/[insert fabled ancestors here] came to this country with nothing and scraped and toiled to build a better life for themselves – they didn’t sit around thinking about whether or not they were happy. They were miserable and they liked it!

    That’s the American Way, right? More and more, it’s the Modern Way, hardly bound to the US borders. Work hard, hunker down, tighten your belt, and make a better life.

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    There’s no dignity in happiness, not in this worldview anyway. Happiness is frivolous, fleeting, ephemeral. Dignity is found in the grave and serious, not the frolicking and joyful.

    There’s another reason I think we aren’t willing to face the question of what makes us happy: we’re afraid that the answer will prove to be something out of our grasp. Maybe you need a million dollars to be happy, and you only have $3.62. Maybe you need a better job than you’re capable of holding, or a bigger house than you can afford, or a prettier wife or more handsome husband, or better-behaved children. Maybe you need to be smarter, better-looking, more outgoing, taller, healthier, more disciplined, thinner… someone else.

    I don’t buy it. There are unhappy people in all walks of life. If it were brains, there wouldn’t be unhappy smart people – and there are. If it were money, there wouldn’t be unhappy rich people – and boy are there! If it were looks, there wouldn’t be unhappy beautiful people – and Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t have taken her own life.

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    And vice versa – there are unhappy dumb people, poor people, and ugly people as well. Just as there are happy rich people, happy poor people, happy dumb people, happy smart people, happy beautiful people, happy ugly people – happy people of every stripe.

    What makes them so special?

    I think the answer has to be self-knowledge – facing the question of what it will take to be happy head on. It’s obviously not something external to us that “makes” us happy; we make our own happiness. But it’s not so simple as just deciding to be happy. We make our happiness by determining what it will take, according to our own individual taste and character, to be happy, and chasing after those things and only those things.

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    Maybe you need to be rich to be happy – that’s the kind of person you are. Or maybe you just need to be comfortable, to not have to worry. Or, quite possibly, you need the edge of poverty to come really alive – stranger things have happened! You can’t know if you’re not willing – or not able – to face yourself and figure out what money means to you. Not whether rich people are shallow or profound, whether poor people are lazy or victimized by a social system that needs poverty to secure cheap labor – but what money means to you.

    Or maybe you need a different job. But what job? Maybe you need to move – but to where? Maybe you need to get healthier – but how? In what way?

    The trick here is to move beyond empty platitudes and hollow stereotypes and really look at our own lives. That’s where happiness starts to take root.

    Your assignment – and mine, too – is to figure all this out, to sit down with a pad and paper and start writing out our answer to the question: what’s it going to take to make me happy? Be specific – what exactly do you want from life? How is each thing on your list supposed to help you create happiness in your life? Most important, are you sure these are your answers, and not society’s, not your friends’, not your parents’? It’s so easy to internalize everyone else’s talk about what makes people happy – but the proof’s in the pudding: are they happy? If not, what are you doing listening to them.

    Sit down, write your list, and tuck it away somewhere safe. Then go out and do the things on your list, and let me know how that works out for you. Let’s see if we can’t all figure this out for ourselves, ok?

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    Last Updated on January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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