Since the dawn of time, humans have been solving problems that no other living species in the universe has been able to solve (as far as we know) and yet despite this amazing knack for solutions… many of us still can’t figure out how to be happy.
We’ve done, on the face of it, impossible things. As just one of the 5 great apes (can you count the other 4?) we’ve been able to survive, and thrive, in every physical environment on Earth – from the Sahara to the Arctic, and all in spite of our hairless, fairly vulnerable bodies.
What really sets us apart in the natural world is our genius, our creativity, our ability to see things from another perspective and to create solutions to some of the most complex problems in the universe.
We came out of the tropics, spread across the globe, soared into space, stood on the moon and some of us even live in the frozen wastelands of Antarctica. Brrrrrr!
So exactly how did we achieve these amazing feats of creativity, exploration and scientific advancement and what the hell has that got to do with personal happiness and our desire to figure out exactly how to be happy?
Would you believe me if I said it’s all down to mind over matter?
How Our Imaginations Created The World
Everything in the human world was imagined by someone before it was created.
From the humble pen to the mighty skyscraper everything you see around you was, at one time in the past, just the spark of an idea in someone’s mind.
Unlike nature, which evolves over time, the human world was created. We created our world.
Wouldn’t it follow then, that if the human mind was capable of imagining and creating the entire human physical world, from streets, to cars, to whole cities, then surely it has the power, when used in the right way, to work out how to be happy?
Can we use the awesome power of our minds in order to find opportunity, success and happiness in our own lives?
Without a doubt.
“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change”ALBERT EINSTEIN
But if we all knew how to be happy wouldn’t we all be, well, happy?
This is where taking a deeper dive into the science might help. A study from Stanford University found that if you have an inherent bias to a certain outcome in any given situation then that outcome is likely to materialise.
Simply believing in a certain physical outcome is more likely than not to result in that situation.
This research focussed on physical endurance and diet. But it’s not just your immediate physical self that can be influenced by the mind.
The research blog Scientific American describes studies into the existence of vibrations and a new theory of consciousness. Tam Hunt, philosopher of mind, biology, and physics at the University of California, believes ‘all things in our universe are constantly in motion, vibrating’.
Hunt argues that the more complex the synchronization is, the more complex the consciousness. So, for example, the billions of neurons that fire in the brain together to make a decision and form our experience of the world are extremely sophisticated, yielding a rich and dynamic sense of self. He refers to this sense of self as perception.
Ok, so the world’s vibing and that influences our perceptions of it.
But what exactly does this mean for our personal happiness and how can a better understanding of this help us learn how to be happy and change the way we feel about ourselves and the world around us?
The answer lies in how we choose to utilise the greatest tools at our disposal: our minds.
If you believe your mind is a dominant voice in your head, large and in charge, controlling the narrative and leaving you a mere passive ‘passenger’ observing the endless stream of thoughts that pop into your head… then… well you will always be a passive passenger, along for the ride.
Once you accept, however, that a mind is simply a tool that allows you to perceive the world around you, then you can begin to adjust it’s ‘settings’ and start to upgrade your experience and perception of life.
That’s why I’ve created this list of 17 essential changes that anyone can make to their lives to help adjust their settings.
These changes, if you choose to implement them, will have an immediate, beneficial impact on your mental wellbeing, your physical health and your financial situation.
And if you want to work out how to be happy then it’s probably worth looking through the list.
17 Keys To Happiness:
1. Think For Yourself
This is not as easy as it sounds. Do not underestimate the social control that our media, government, friends and family exert over us.
It can be truly difficult to step away from that and really think for yourself. The expectations of those around us can place a heavyweight on the decisions and choices that we make.
Ultimately this can lead to a scenario in which other people’s expectations are more important than your own happiness. The right job, the right politics and even the right partner can be heavy pressures placed upon us by well-meaning family or friends.
To consider, or even question, the world around you and your place in it requires us to see oneself as an independent entity that doesn’t exist as a consequence of the actions of other people but as an individual that has power and control.
In other words a person who can take steps to shape their own destiny.
Question the narratives of those around you and your own internal monologues. Think about the things that will help you work out how to be happy. Think for yourself.
2. Find out what your true values & priorities are
Values are the things that you hold at the core of the way you live and work.
If we have constantly been told by culture, religion and the education system what our values should be it can be difficult to define them for ourselves.
If you want to understand what your values are then consider how you would treat someone who was vulnerable and in need of your help. The way you treat that person is probably a good indication of what your values are.
Would you help them? Would you be patient? Or would you be cruel to be kind?
These are the beliefs that can help guide your attitudes and actions and they help determine your immediate priorities too.
It’s also important to remember that when you are confident about what your core values are then you must try to live in a way that reflects them.
When there is a gap between the way we live our lives and the values that are important to us this can be a great source of anxiety.
When you want to work out how to be happy it’s important you understand how your actions can impact those around you. If you believe in compassion but do not provide compassion to others then the dissonance between what you value and what you do will create negative feelings of hypocrisy.
If you believe in personal freedom, but feel constantly restrained, then your values are not being met and your wellbeing will suffer.
By identifying our values and very clearly outlining them in detail, we can begin to start taking steps and priorities that will help us live by our core values.
3. Take responsibility for your life
Taking responsibility for your life, including the way you think, feel and look, is probably one of the hardest steps any of us can take.
We grow up thinking that life is something that happens to us rather than a stage upon which we are all active players.
But until we all take responsibility for our own lives we will find it difficult to meet the challenges that life throws at us.
It’s too easy to blame everything else except yourself especially when things don’t turn out the way you hoped or dreamed.
Figuring out how to be happy is not a passive exercise. It’s a personal journey that is unique to you and it’s something you will need to consciously pursue if you want to change your life for the better.
It’s easy to let this happen because taking responsibility for your own life is not safe. It’s much easier to blame your upbringing, your parents, your work, your genes, your addictive personality.
They have an addiction because they have an… addictive personality (it’s never them), they are overweight in spite of following all the right diet and fitness advice, they are depressed because it’s written into their genes as sure as night follows day.
People think they have no choice.
I have had friends and family members who had serious addictions. I never told them to quit because I know that I would never do something because someone told me to, but I always reminded them it was their choice.
You can always blame something else for your problems. But in the end, how many f*cks does life give?
Even if life has thrown the very worst at you, always come back fighting because if you end up believing that life is something that happens to you then, then the only thing you will successfully create is a sense of victimhood that will pervade every aspect of your life.
It is so easy to be a victim, even comforting. But life doesn’t care.
Addictions, over-eating, laziness all start with a choice to do something or not do something. They only end if the person chooses for it to end. But taking responsibility for your life is the first step towards finding happiness.
4. See the world from another perspective
In our modern world where the personal narrative is paramount, we can often lose sight of someone else’s point of view.
It often seems that only be satisfying the ‘self’ will we ever work out how to be happy and a big part of that includes reinforcing our view of the world and what we believe about it.
Not being able to understand where someone else is coming from… is probably one of the main contributing drivers behind all arguments, conflicts and wars in the history of us. Ever.
“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”EDGAR ALLAN POE
And it’s getting worse. Social media creates an echo chamber in which algorithms automatically filter out any opposing perspectives in your digital universe.
Anyone who disagrees with your worldview is slowly filtered from your digital life. Which means people are often outraged now when they happen to encounter someone with a different point of view.
It’s important we all learn to respect and listen to what other people have to say.
Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean what they have to say might not teach you something new.
If you find yourself around someone who simply believes that shouting loudly makes them right then gently explain to them that everyone has a different perspective and everyone has the right to be heard.
If that person then refuses to accept any other perspective other than their own then accept that it’s not your job to change them but ultimately you have the choice over who you spend time with.
Ok, I do understand that choosing not to spend time with someone is just another way of filtering them out. But life is short and you’re not going to change anyone who fervently believes in their own opinions in a 5-minute conversation.
Sometimes you just need to accept it’s not your job to change people and move on.
I believe everyone should have a broad picture of how the world operates and our place in it. It can often help to put our worries in perspective.
“There are no facts, only interpretations.”Friedrich Nietzsche
5. Take control of your debt
If debts are a problem in your life they will never go away until you acknowledge it is a problem.
It’s also really important not to tar all debt with the same brush.
Not all debt is bad. Debt is simply the opposite of wealth and as such it has no inherent qualities that make it good or bad. As with wealth, people make it good or bad.
The negative and positive effects of debt come about from the way we manipulate it for our own purposes.
I can promise you this; if you have mounting bad debts and you do not tackle them head on you will never figure out how to be happy.
There’s just too much stress, and worry connected to it.
I know because I’ve been there.
In my 20s I had massive debts which reached a breaking point when debt collectors visited my mother at her home after she had just returned from the hospital.
Obviously, they didn’t know she had just come out of the hospital but, for me, this was the shameful wake-up call I needed and I was shocked into finally taking responsibility.
I spent the next year working very hard to pay off my debts, cut back on everything, lived like a recluse and made sure this never happened again.
I became a hermit for a year, scraped together everything I had and made sure every debt was paid off, not an easy task when you live in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Later on, when I started learning more about personal finance, I repaired my credit file and took out three buy-to-let mortgages in addition to a credit card (paid off in full every month) in order to build up my credit rating in order to support my mortgage applications.
This debt enabled me to create 3 income-producing assets, apartments that I still own today, which kick-started my journey into passive income-producing assets.
Debt is neither good or bad; it’s the way that it’s utilised that as either a positive or negative effect on your life.
Some forms of debt, like mortgages, can as per the example outlined above, enable the transfer of wealth to you. Whilst other forms of debt, like payday loans, can enable the rapid accumulation of more debt and the subsequent transfer of wealth away from you.
Paying off bad debt won’t make you happy or even teach you how to be happy but it will take away a lot of the problems that can make you sad.
If you’re struggling with bad debt, check out my guide: Dealing With Debt When Your Finances Are a Mess.
Wealth and debt have good and bad influences on your life depending on the kind of debt you have.
Mortgages have enabled billions of people around the world to acquire homes, or assets if they choose to rent them out and the right type of credit cards can be useful to build a credit rating; a necessary evil in today’s world.
Control your debt, don’t let it control you.
6. No regrets
You may have heard of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing – a book written by a palliative nurse who recorded the most common regrets of the dying and how they influenced her own perspective on life.
Before I get onto them specifically I think it’s really important to say you should never regret your life.
By all means, regret the things you said or did in your weaker moments (if you don’t have any regrets at all then you might possibly have psychopathic tendencies – seek help!).
The point is everyone has regrets – use them to help shape the future you into a better and more evolved human being. But don’t regret your life. Because if you do, you are using anxieties about the things you can no longer change to influence the way you feel about the future.
That doesn’t mean we can’t reflect on things and ponder how we might have done things differently.
The secret is to make time available to go through this process before it becomes too late. Until then we can learn from those in the very unfortunate position of realising life truly is short.
And the top 5?
The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying
Use any regrets you have now to learn and grow, to change yourself into a better person and to make sure, in your twilight years, you can have fewer regrets and more contentment.
7. Just do it!
…THIS wouldn’t be a world-famous sports logo if people around the globe didn’t find it an incredibly inspiring message to get up and… just do it.
And the reason why? Because motivation is overrated and the words ‘just do it’ simply tell you to get on with it.
After all, motivation is elusive, it depends on the individual and their current state of mind.
Motivating people, and/or yourself doesn’t work because it can be transitory, temporary and misguided. We are generally already motivated, we just need to get on with it.
Most people want to succeed, when we look at motivation you are starting from the point of view that they need an external stimulus in order to progress.
Instead, we should be creating the right environment in which to succeed. And so much of that comes down to how much we, as individuals, can influence our working environment.
I work best outside of the physical space of an office and for myself, when I am in control of my own time and when I am working for myself.
If that wasn’t enough to persuade you, then maybe Shia LaBeouf will, in this calm, eloquent and insightfully motivating speech from the actor himself:
8. Life By Design Or Life By Default?
This is a question that most people never ask themselves because no one ever tells you should design your own life if you want to know how to be happy.
Your parents or your careers advisors might have suggested the kind of subjects or careers that you could be interested in but that operates within the very narrow spectrum of a) education and b) what society expects of you.
To even think about designing your own life from the ground up is something that’s almost universally discouraged because the power of social expectations is so strong most people simply conform.
We’re constantly told to follow our passions, to live our dreams or to make our dreams a reality. This sells a narrative that is, for the most part, unachievable. That’s because the dreams we are ‘sold’ relate to things that involve spending money, propping up the ‘system’ and have nothing to do with what will really create happiness and sense of fulfilment.
If I’m honest I think there’s too much pressure on young people to ‘pursue their dreams’. I myself didn’t even really know what those might be, but as I grew up I began to realise the power that money has to control everyone and I couldn’t help but wonder why this wasn’t taught in schools.
I became obsessed with understanding and educating myself in personal finance and how I could invest what little money I had in order to create the freedom I have today.
In my pursuit of a better understanding of the power that money holds over all of us and the lack of education around personal finance in our younger years, I was slowly disentangling myself from a life lived by default and creating a life lived with conscious design.
I was trying to figure out the things you do can enable the dreams you might have. The advice to ‘live your dream’ isn’t necessarily wrong, but it puts pressure on us to only do the things that are directly connected to the living of ‘our dreams’.
And sometimes it’s difficult to even know what your dream might be. But if you take the time to figure it out then you will end up creating a life lived according to a plan in order to achieve a clear purpose.
This will naturally lead to a more fulfilling life and create a purposeful life that resonates strongly with your deeply held values and priorities.
9. Be flexible, evolve constantly & never, ever give up on yourself!
Remain flexible, life is forever changing.
You must adapt your approach as you go because if you find something that isn’t working and your money is involved then the chances are that you will lose money.
Knowing when to step back from something that you are not enjoying and when to seek out the alternative is key to finding a strategy that works best for you.
Flexibility requires an open mind and a welcoming of new alternatives.Deborah Day
A lot of people find it very difficult to give up on something because they feel that is an admission of failure. But ‘flogging a dead horse’ will not help you learn how to be happy. In fact, it could increase the factors that will cause significant stress in your life.
For example, if you are committed to a failing business that is eating up all your money then you could end up with the kind of money stresses and worries that could lead to depression.
If something isn’t working it’s important to be able to change and evolve your approach. But that’s not the same as giving up. It shows determination, intelligence and the flexibility to evolve when needed.
10. Know when to let go
This is very much related to being flexible knowing when to let go is key to adopting a strong, yet flexible, investment policy.
I have lost tens of thousands of dollars worth of investment in certain stocks because I didn’t know when to let go.
I became emotionally invested and my ego wouldn’t allow me to recognise that I’d made the wrong decision. The day I sold one particular loss-making stock was a big blow to me and required me to take some very deep breaths in order to do it. I had gotten the better of myself and forgot it was a business.
On the flip side, in the very same stock that I am referring to here, I also didn’t know when to let go when it doubled in value. Greed took over and I imagined that 200k would turn into 400k and so on.
Ultimately not knowing when to sell meant that I lost over half the value of that particular initial investment.
11. Limit negative people and stick up for yourself
It can sometimes be difficult to avoid toxic people when they are close to you because they might be family members and or close friends that you have in a mutual circle of friends. But avoiding toxic people does not mean you have to banish them from your life completely, especially when it might be difficult to do so.
I’ve experienced a friendship where I ultimately left each encounter feeling way more negative than I had before I met that friend. It brings to mind the expression ‘who needs enemies when you’ve got friends.’
But I came to realise that that particular friend was negative because ultimately they were insecure about their own status in life. The friend in question would meet me and constantly talk down aspects of my life, from my job to my relationships to my wealth.
It was difficult for me to address this because a) I am not a confrontational person and b) we had a wide circle of mutual friends.
However, when it finally came to a head I realised that if you value yourself and believe that you treat people as you would want to be treated, then sticking up for yourself is the best policy.
I started to stick up for myself and explain to this friend why their comments were rude. It came as a shock to my friend and I honestly believe that people don’t always realise how negative they can be because it’s subconsciously ingrained into them by their own childhood and social blueprint.
It’s not always possible to avoid toxic behaviours but you can limit them in those around you calling it out and make sure negative individuals mind their manners.
12. Question social expectations & norms
Society expects you to study, graduate, work and well, die. Ok, so you can’t do anything about the dying bit that comes to us all. But you can question everything else and decide if that’s the path that you want to walk.
All of the other points within this list come from the point of questioning social expectations.
You don’t need to do this vocally to everyone you meet, however, if you start to think about what you want out of life then you’ll begin to understand if social norms are the way you want to live.
Just because everyone is walking in one direction doesn’t mean you need to join them. The power and influencing of conforming to what society expects of you is ingrained into us at school. No one wants to be picked last in the team line-up.
But what if I told you one of the most successful businessmen in the world, Elon Musk, was bullied so badly at school that he was thrown down a flight of stairs and ended up in the hospital. That didn’t stop him seeking huge success, changing the world and figuring out how to be happy.
Ok so I’m assuming that he’s happy but I’m sure his success has been helpful.
13. Take care of your needs | Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Taking care of your needs is essential in providing the foundations from which you can lead a well structured, healthy and positive life that will help you build the foundations when figuring out how to be happy.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs classifies the needs of individual humans living within the broader influences of a collective society. They are:
By making sure all of the needs within your life are met you are creating a strong foundation in which to grow.
Life experiences will mean that this does not always follow a smooth path upwards. But the route to self-actualisation can give us some sense of where we are at and where we need to be.
14. Focus on Finding Meaning, not Happiness
Sounds odd considering the title of this post is how to be happy?
There’s a great deal of focus on pursuing happiness in the 21st Century. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry with thousands of books and articles published each year on obtaining the elusive goal of happiness.
But a great deal of this focuses on the achievement of happiness as a goal rather than a by-product of the things that we do to lead a more contented life.
It’s better to think of happiness as the byproduct of doing other things. Which is why the pursuit of happiness is misguided. The chances of encountering happiness are greatly increased when we pursue meaningful endeavours instead.
16. Eliminate addictive behaviours
I was raised by incredibly open-minded and liberal parents. This meant that I was free to experiment and try different things with an open mind and walk my own path in learning how to be happy.
I’ve also experienced first hand what it’s like when loved ones develop addictive behaviours that are damaging to their health and wellbeing and create anxiety for those around them (including myself!).
I consider myself an open-minded person and my approach has previously been one of experimentation. But now I take a more nuanced approach that takes into account two main factors.
The first is to consider why people want to get drunk or high. What is it about their lives that lead them to this level of escapism? And why would you want to escape reality? I think for a lot of people who get drunk on a regular basis (which used to include myself) the answer is life is hard and sometimes you want to forget it.
It’s the separation of the working week from the weekend. A celebration of the end of that week’s work. But it doesn’t have any long term benefits and, in fact, when I reflect on it, alcohol is up there with some of the most destructive drugs in society.
It’s not my job to tell you that drink and drugs, or any other potentially addictive behaviours, will not help you learn how to be happy. I’m just asking you to reconsider whether you do have any addictive behaviours in your life that are causing damage.
The second factor is to consider what benefits alcohol or drugs might bring. For someone quite introverted like myself it can be handy to make me more relaxed. But those benefits are dwarfed by the physical, mental and emotional toll that alcohol has caused in the past. A panel of British experts assessed 20 different drugs and concluded:
Alcohol is the world’s most dangerous drug when you consider the harm it does to drinkers, their friends, and families and to society in general. The harm that alcohol does exceeds the dangers of even heroin and crack cocaine when the overall danger to the user and others is taken into account.1
Science is beginning to suggest that even one alcoholic drink a day is too much, causing negative consequences. For me, the nature of alcohol is that one drink always needs another. And I am by no means an alcoholic but I can say in the past that over 90% of the bad experiences I had occurred when alcohol was involved.
Addictive behaviours can cause problems across many aspects of life: it’s all too easy to be addicted to porn, shopping, social media, unhealthy foods! Spend your time doing activities that benefit you physically, emotionally and mentally and eliminate addictive negative behaviours from your life.
16. Stay fit, Eat Well, Be Healthy
Look better. Feel better. Function better.
Follow this rule. Simples.
Taking care of your health is one of the most important things you can do in learning how to be happy.
I know from personal experience that when I have been overweight I have been frustrated, depressed and un-social. But setting myself the goal of becoming healthy enabled me to work towards a new physical me, whilst also implementing the qualities that are important to achieving happiness across all aspects of life.
You could start running and train for a marathon. When I first started running I couldn’t even run 5km. Six month later I was running 10km several times a week.
There’s a reason why physically fit people are attractive and it’s much deeper than looks.
Because when you embark on a fitness regime you need to express qualities essential to completing that work.You need drive, you need discipline and a willingness to do whatever it takes to reach your goals.
It’s these qualities that will help to change your life in many different ways and will also make you attractive to other people.
The World Happiness Report clearly links a long, healthy to the happiness index:
The Happiness Index is defined as the weighted (by sampling weights) rate of respondents reporting “Very happy” or “Quite happy” less the weighted rate of respondents reporting “Not very happy” or “Not at all happy,” plus 100. The index thus ranges from 0 to 200.
Staying fit and physically challenging yourself helps you learn how to be happy by:
17. Start Meditating
I truly believe that learning to meditate can save your mental health.
And that’s because I’ve found the benefits have hugely improved mine. Don’t get me wrong, teaching myself how to meditate was one of the hardest things I’ve done.
After all, sitting down and doing nothing for 20 minutes each day is probably one of the most unnatural things you can do, besides hanging upside down like a bat!
So why exactly would sitting down and doing nothing be a good thing in this day and age?
Well its precisely because ‘this day and age’ is so fast-paced, so hectic and so crazy that the benefits of meditation are more relevant than ever before.
If you want to take a deeper dive into this than you can check out my post about the 14 Amazing Benefits of Meditation right here but I would say that for me, personally speaking, some of the main benefits to meditating on a regular basis have been:
I’m not going to lie, learning to meditate and staying consistent at it is difficult but remember, in the grand scheme of things, the time commitment is very small.
I meditate for 20 mins a day and the benefits alone are worth their weight in gold.
Where you do from here is up to you. This is simply a list of the things that worked for me and I truly believe they can work for anyone.
The keys to happiness are within you. It’s about consciously deciding what you want from life and making the changes that allow you to go out and realise that.
You can’t simply decide to be happy nor can hope that somehow you will passively learn how to be happy. But you can start to lay the groundwork for the kind of conditions that will allow happiness to arise.
You’re in charge of your life. You’re the Producer, Director, Screenwriter and Starring Role. At times it might seem like life is something that happens to you, but even when the chips are down it’s up to us to choose how we react.
‘An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty’ according to Winston Churchill, and he knew a thing or two about facing difficulties.
The story you decide to tell is up to you and you alone. It’s in your hands, make sure it’s a good one.
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