7 Rules To Live A Happy Life13 min read
Sixteen years ago, I had an awful experience, a traumatizing experience. Something I never thought I would talk about on the internet. I was 11-years-old, and my mom accidentally threw away my Super Mario 64 game, and I lost all the progress I had made. Mario was dead.
It was almost like all the happiness was taken from my life. I wondered if I needed counseling, if I would ever recover from such a traumatic event, and if I should find a new mom on the internet.
I wandered around aimless, blank, destitute, trying to find a new purpose in life and find my happiness. Then, gloriously, my mother revealed a shining white ball that shone with the brilliance of a thousand suns atop a castle of creamy brown moldings. It was artwork, brilliance, perfection – she had made me a vanilla ice cream cone. I had discovered happiness once again.
So, I have to tell you guys today that the key to happiness is ice cream.
Well, at least, that was the rule for happiness for 11-year-old Zach.
But, actually, happiness is much more elusive and much harder to define. What makes someone happy? Are you born happy or unhappy? Is it a skill that can be learned?
Modern psychologists define happiness as a combination of positive emotion or positive effect, not much negative emotion, and a high satisfaction with life; when you have all three, apparently, you are happy.1
Now, I am definitely a complete novice on this whole happiness thing, and ice cream cones still make me happy, but I wanted to see if there is an answer, if there are rules for a happy life. I looked to current academic research and ancient philosophers’ teachings and found seven lessons that consistently appeared.
Here are 7 rules to live a happy life.
1. You Won’t Always Be Happy
Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.Henry David Thoreau
Eternal and persistent happiness is something difficult to come by. It may not even be possible, but to be happy, you need to realize it’s ok not to be happy.
One of the best lessons I’ve learned recently is that everything is transient. Good things happen in life, and bad things happen, but things being bad or things being good is never the rule. Neither state is permanent.
You won’t always be happy. However, you won’t always be sad.
I still remember the day I was accepted into my top-choice medical school; after the phone call from the admissions director telling me I was accepted, I went to my knees because of just how happy I was. It felt like nothing in the world could touch me, and this level of happiness stayed with me for a couple of days. Eventually, however, like all things, it faded.
I started to think about how hard it would be, the things I needed to study, and what the acclimation to a new way of life would be like. I wasn’t unhappy, but I wasn’t happy either, which was ok.
Things come and go in life; that’s ok; enjoy the good times while they are there and realize the bad times won’t last forever.
2. You are in charge of your own happiness
The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depends upon himself, and not upon other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily.Plato
You can learn to be happy, but you must realize you are responsible for your happiness and take action to achieve it.
Complaining, blame, indecision, dependence, and negativity are never beneficial. Realize you are responsible for your success and happiness; you are responsible for your life.
Yes, of course, there are things you can’t control, but why think about them? Why harp on them? There is absolutely no gain, no benefit to complaining, blaming, or being negative about things. Instead, think about what you can do to flip the situation around. Think about what your impact is; think about what you can do, because that is the only thinking worthwhile.
By reading this post, you are taking control; you are searching and trying to learn how to be happier. Well done, that’s a step in the right direction.
Happiness is also a choice. If you’re so smart, how come you aren’t happy? How come you haven’t figured that out? That’s my challenge to all the people who think they’re so smart and so capable.Naval Ravikant
3. Do what makes you happy
One fantastic teacher and psychological researcher, Dr. Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, led an annual seminar discussing primary scientific literature around happiness, including homework with happiness exercises. In the end, he defined his formulation of the good life:
[The formulation of a good life is] identifying one’s signature strengths and virtues and using them in work, love, play, and parenting to produce abundant and authentic gratification.Martin E. P. Seligman
Students during the course identified what made them happy, what was pleasurable to them, and if they were pursuing the proper path in life. One Wharton student said, “I came to Wharton to make money because I thought money would bring me happiness. I was stunned to find out that I am happier helping another person than I am shopping.”
Now, this quote from the Wharton student may seem a little vain, but imagine the intense soul-searching this student must have done to come to such a conclusion. Isn’t it amazing that he found out what made him happy while he was still a student instead of 30 years later?
Being on a team and interacting with patients in the hospital makes me happy; writing this post makes me happy, being with my family makes me happy, and playing soccer makes me happy. So, for now, I am trying to do those things.
Try to find your purpose, what makes you happy?
I don’t know my true “purpose” yet, and I doubt I will know for a while. However, I know certain things bring me joy while others do not. I am continuously evaluating what I am doing: what do I think about most of the day? What am I doing after “work?” What am I a “natural at?” What made me happy as a child?
Find your purpose, find what makes you happy (this isn’t easy), and pursue it.
4. Increase your amount of time of being in the moment
Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.Soren Kierkegaard
Being mindful always, which means being genuinely aware of your surroundings and thoughts, is extremely difficult and likely impossible. However, just being mindful more is one of the best changes I’ve made in my to improve my general happiness.
The guy from headspace, Andy Puddycombe, describes mindfulness the best, “[being mindful is like] sitting on the side of a busy road, the passing cars representing the thoughts and the feelings. All you have to do is sit there and watch the cars.”
Daily meditation is one of the best strategies to help build this “in the moment” and mindfulness muscle. Because, normally, when we experience the thoughts and feelings, we want to rush in and interact with them, it takes focus and training to be able to sit and watch them; to let them pass by.
I often feel truly in the moment when I am playing soccer. I just care about the ball and the players around me; I am not thinking about school or food or relationships, just the ball and the players, that’s it.
When I’m playing soccer, the present moment is all that matters. All past moments were present moments, and all future moments will be present moments, so why not just focus on the present moments right now? When you dwell on past moments or stress about future moments, you are screwing up the present moment you are in right now, which is the only moment that matters.
Meditation is intermittent fasting for the mind. Too much sugar leads to a heavy body, and too many distractions lead to a heavy mind. Time spent undistracted and alone, in self-examination, journaling, meditation, resolves the unresolved and takes us from mentally fat to fit.Naval Ravikant
5. Be Content with What You Have
The greatest blessing of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.Seneca
Having more money doesn’t necessarily mean being happier. For example, in 2012, the U.S GNP per capita had risen by a factor of three since 1960, but the measures of average happiness remained unchanged over the past half-century.1
Psychologists repeatably have demonstrated that individuals who put a high value on higher incomes are generally less happy and more vulnerable to psychological illness than individuals who do not crave high incomes.2
More generally, in developed countries, as the income doubles or even triples of its population, happiness doesn’t move, and happiness doesn’t change.3
So how do we increase happiness? Well, one way is to be content with what we have. Be grateful for what you have. Live with gratitude.
Every morning, I try and list three things in my journal that I am grateful for; this is sneakily powerful. In combination with my meditation practice, gratitude has changed my life. For example, I may be walking outside in the park and saying, “ok, let’s be in the moment and notice the sights and sounds.” Then my gratitude practice just naturally comes into play, “Wow, that breeze is nice, those trees are beautiful, it’s so nice to be in a place where I am safe and can just walk freely through a park.”
In one study, 577 people were asked to complete a baseline questionnaire about their happiness and depressive feelings. One group was a placebo group that was told to record a childhood memory every night for a week, while the other group was to write down what they were grateful for and their “signature strengths.” In the group that only wrote down childhood memories, the control, increased subjective happiness and decreased depression one week after the exercise. However, the group that did the gratitude practice had a sustained decrease in subjective depression and an increase in happiness for three months.4
There are fantastic things in your life; notice them.
People who live far below their means enjoy a freedom that people busy upgrading their lifestyles can’t fathom.Naval Ravikant
6. Hang around happy people
Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happinessBertrand Russell
Osmosis baby, you got to surround yourself with happiness to get that happiness into ya.
The common theme for this “tip” is to remove negative people from your life; I think this is a good strategy. However, as Bertrand Russell alludes, I think a much more powerful way to do this is to add passionate and loving and happy people into your life.
Great relationships have unexpectedly been one of the most positive impacts on life. And I’m not necessarily talking about romantic relationships here. Most of the positive impacts I’ve felt are from new, close friends.
Happy, fantastically positive people will not stand for complaining and negativity. Make sure you also contribute to these other people you hang around with. Make them happy. Then, you create an awesome positive feedback loop. You are happier because the people around you are happy; you, in turn, make them more happy because you are happier. The people around you are happier because you made them happier, which makes you more happy, and so on. See how great that is?
Surround yourself with happy, caring, exciting, fun, and loving people, and your life will be happier.
7. Keep your body and mind healthy
We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.Confucius
Exercise, eat well, sleep, write, read, get in nature, meditate, and take breaks. These are some personal rules I’ve established to keep my body and mind healthy.
I find there are three places where junk can sneak into my body and mind, making me less happy:
- Food: this is an easy example; I like cookies, ice cream, cake, pies, and chocolate. If I eat that every day for a week (which I’ve done), I feel like junk.
- Body: Occasionally, I get anxious; when I don’t exercise, my propensity for anxiety increases by at least 300%. I make sure to exercise at least 5x a week because it makes me feel good. If I don’t sleep enough, I feel junky. If I drink alcohol for more than two days, I feel junky.
- Mind: Watching TV, scrolling on Twitter and Instagram (the worst offender), and stressing about the future are junk. They make me feel junky.
Sometimes, when I feel unhappy, I search for some mental gymnastics I can do to make myself happy. Usually, however, I forget that there are multiple physical things running my emotions. Have I slept well? Have I eaten well? Am I hydrated? Have I exercised? Have I been outside? How long have I been on my phone? How long have I been sitting on the couch?
If I just answered those simple questions, I would find the reason for my unhappiness more than 75% of the time.
I remember during the COVID pandemic, I was trapped inside. I couldn’t go to the gym or be around my friends, and bad habits formed. One of the best things I did during that time was pick up running. Not only did it help my physical health, but it was the slight change I needed to return to good habits. After I started running, I began meditating again; I ate better, spent more time outside, got away from my phone, and spent more time with my family.
Before you pull any other levers or mental gymnastics around work or relationships to affect happiness, try to carefully analyze your physical health; you will be amazed by how quickly your levels of happiness change when you change your physical health.
When mind, body, and spirit are in harmony, happiness is the natural result.Deepak Chopra
But that is it, I hope this was helpful. Go get happy.
- Paulson S, Azzarelli KK, McMahon DM, Schwartz B. A new science of happiness: the paradox of pleasure. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 Nov;1384(1):12-31. doi: 10.1111/nyas.13068. Epub 2016 Jun 3. PMID: 27258656.
- Richard A. Easterlin, Income and Happiness: Towards a Unified Theory, The Economic Journal, Volume 111, Issue 473, July 2001, Pages 465–484, https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0297.00646
- Bouffard L, Dubé M. L’inégalité de revenus : un « virus » qui affecte la santé mentale et le bonheur [Mental income inequality: a “virus” which affects health and happiness]. Sante Ment Que. 2013 Autumn;38(2):215-33. French. doi: 10.7202/1023997ar. PMID: 24719010.
- Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Martin E. P. Seligman
- Seligman, Martin E. P. “Can Happiness Be Taught?” Daedalus, vol. 133, no. 2, 2004, pp. 80–87. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20027916. Accessed 3 Jun. 2022.