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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 September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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