The Keys to Happiness

Happiness is described as a subjective state of well-being, joy, and ease. Anyone can be happy and full of joy. The problem is that we often look for it in the wrong place. Like lost car keys found right in front of us, happiness too is right in front of us. Too often we forget to look in the most obvious place and make the search difficult for ourselves.

The Keys to Happiness

The topics of happiness and well-being are some of the most researched and studied topics throughout history. Wise people from ancient civilizations wrote about happiness, peace, and serenity. Their writings are as true today as the day they were written. People from every generation since have put their own spin and updated language on it, but the essence goes back to antiquity. No matter how advanced we become as a society we are still grappling with one of the oldest problems of mankind. How can I be truly happy?

The biggest reward for being happy is that you can give it away to others. Share on X

Viktor started a brilliant career. He was an honored and successful medical student. Completing his residency in neurology and psychiatry, he helped thousands of women avoid suicide and find meaning in life. He married the love of his life, Tilly. Then, on September 25, 1942, Viktor Frankl, his wife Tilly and his parents were deported to a Nazi ghetto. Death and starvation surrounded him. His wife and parents were killed in the concentration camps. After his liberation in 1945, he wrote one of the most influential books of the century, Man’s Search for Meaning.

One day while in Auschwitz Viktor had a moment of clarity. When given his daily meal of a bowl of dirty water and a smelly fish head, he saw beauty in the bowl. His interpretation of the event gave him hope. He started to imagine his wife with amazing detail. It lifted his spirits even while he was abused physically and mentally by the guards. He compared his thinking with what he witnessed in the camp. He saw that many died soon after they gave up hope. They allowed their external life situation to dictate their thoughts and feelings.

Viktor Frankl went on to write 39 books, earn 29 honorary doctorates and spoke all over the world including this wonderful TED talk. To this day, Viktor Frankl is an inspiration and a lesson for all of us. His story and those from throughout history provide a thorough understanding of what to do and what not to do in order to be happy and share that happiness with others.

In this article, I cover the barriers to happiness, the rewards of being happy and the 10 keys to obtain happiness and well-being.

Barriers to Happiness and Well-Being

There are five major barriers to living a happy and joyful life. See if you connect with one or more of these barriers to happiness.

1) Looking to External Things or People

I hear quite often comments like these:

  • “When I get that promotion, I’ll really be happy.”
  • “When I’m married, I’ll be happy.”
  • “When I get a new car, that will make me happy.”
  • “If I just had a boyfriend, I’d be happy.”

These comments all point to an external thing or person. The problem with relying on something external is that it can be taken away. If you base your happiness on something external to yourself, and it is taken away, you leave yourself no alternative than to be sad, depressed and unhappy.

Many external things or people can help us have happy moments. That’s different than basing your happiness on something external. A sunny day around 70 degrees can definitely make me happy. It puts me in a good mood. However, if I base my happiness on that weather condition I’m going to be unhappy quite a bit. Compare this, like Viktor Frankl seeing beauty in a bowl of dirty water and a smelly fish head, to someone who sees beauty in all weather conditions including hot, humid, sunny, cloudy, rain, snow or sleet.

2) Complexity

Too often our days are full of activities and issues we bring upon ourselves. We strive to keep up with the Jones’ or following what our friends do by getting a 2nd car, planting more grass in the yard, put the kids into several after-school activities, buy “stuff” to be cool or wear fashions to impress others. What we end up doing is keep ourselves busy fixing what breaks, running errands and maintaining all the stuff we’ve accumulated. Our days are too complex. By making our days so complex we are depriving ourselves of enjoying the simple things that really matter in life.

3) Suppressing Feelings

From an early age boys and girls are taught to hide their true feelings. Don’t cry. Don’t be vulnerable. When we suppress feelings it builds up in us until a time when it has to come out and explodes. Suppressed feelings make us doubt others. It leads to a lack of trust in others. If one can’t trust another with how they feel, how can they have a solid relationship built on love and trust? We end up playing mind games with one another, emotional walls are erected and we feel the need to protect ourselves.

4) Focusing on Problems and Not Solutions

When we focus on our problems we manifest more problems into our lives. Listen to the conversations in any company break-room and you’ll hear problem after problem after problem. In some cases there is a competition going on as to who has the bigger problems. The 2006 movie called The Secret revealed that what we focus our thoughts and energy on we bring into our life. The car needs new tires. Little Johnny needs braces. The company is scaling back workers and you’re afraid for your job. These and the myriad of problems we face can be daunting. Focusing on the problem, however, does not lead to happiness and does not bring about a solution.

5) Too Much Social Networking in a Digital Life

Something new to this age are the digital elements like Facebook, Twitter, forums, smartphones, tablets and game consoles. The digital life is addicting. A beep from a smartphone gets all nearby people reaching for their devices to see what’s happening like Pavlovian dogs. Being present and focused on what is really happening takes second place to whatever might be happening on our electronic devices. Face to face conversations take a back seat to our LED screens. Quiet time is fast being pushed out by nonstop tweets and posts. Digital life is supplanting real life. Enough time has passed since the invention of these devices where academic studies are coming out about their use. Almost unanimously they uncover how damaging the digital life is to real life and the results include unhappiness, isolation and separation from reality.

The Reward for Being Happy

You cannot give away what you do not have. If a friend is hungry and asks you for an apple, you cannot give him an apple if you don’t have one. Simple, right? If you don’t have love within yourself, how can you give love to someone else? If you are not happy, how can you help someone else be happy?

Besides being happy yourself, the biggest reward for being happy is that you can give it away to others.

How wonderful would it be to give happiness to others? The only way you can help someone else to be happy is if you have true happiness within yourself.

How to Have True Happiness

When I study the vast amount written about happiness, I see several common threads. It doesn’t matter if it is recently published by Brendon Burchard, Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Jack Canfield, or a time long ago from the Buddha, Bible or Loa Tzu. While many focus on specific elements of happiness, I take a more holistic view. Rather than narrow my opportunities for happiness, I like to broaden the scope of happiness and make it easy to obtain. The following are my 10 Keys to happiness. You don’t have to do all 10 to be happy. One might be enough for you. I do know that the more keys you consistently integrate into your life, the happier you can be regardless of the turmoil in your life. Give these 10 keys a chance, be happy and spread it around to other people.

The 10 Keys to Happiness

1) Gratitude

Happiness is born out of an attitude of gratitude. David Steindl-Rast gives an awesome TED talk about this. We often take our lives and everything in it for granted. When we stop and observe what is really happening now and think about the things we can be grateful for, doors of happiness are open to us.

I can look around my office and be thankful for the painters who created the pictures hanging on my wall. I can be thankful for the maker of the computer I type on. I can be thankful for the farmers who toiled and harvested the asparagus I ate for lunch.

Simply look around you. What can you be grateful for? Write it down. Start a gratitude journal. When you wake up in the morning, rather than hitting the snooze button, think about a few things to be grateful for. When you go to sleep, let your last thoughts of the evening be on what you are grateful for.

2) Live in the Present

When we focus our mind to the present and not in the past or future, we can enjoy the moment. Eckhart Tolle writes in his book Power of Now the benefits of being aware of the present moment. Too often we live in the past by remembering past hurts, stupid things we’ve done, stupid things others have done, or anything that supports why life is not good. Leadership and success author Brian Tracy says we too often focus on things other than the task at hand. When we are at work we’re thinking about the kids, when we are at home we have work to do since we didn’t get it done when we were at work, and when we are in a conversation with our husband or wife, we’re thinking about the ball game, kids, friends or something other than the conversation. This leads to unhappiness, dissatisfaction and anger.

Living in the present is paying attention to what we are doing and not allowing anything else to interfere. When in a conversation we are paying close attention, actively listening, and participating. Anywhere we might be from walking down the street, at work, or driving the car, we pay attention 100% to what we are doing. We don’t interrupt what we’re doing to pick up the smartphone every time it beeps. When in a conversation with friends you keep the topic in the present. It’s about staying focused in the now.

3) Embrace Silence

From the moment we wake up to the time we go to sleep many of us are inundated with nonstop noise all day long. From the alarm clock radio, TV when making breakfast, music on the way to work, ringing telephones at work, to TV at home before we go to bed, we never allow ourselves time to have a private thought to ourselves.

Deepak Chopra is an expert on the teachings of the Buddha and one of the most important things we can do every day to be happy is to have time for silence. Unplug. Go someplace quiet and have time to yourself where you meditate. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, clear your mind of all thoughts and focus on the air going in and out of your nose. This focus on your breathing is relaxing, reduces stress, and opens the mind to inspiration. Just a few minutes here and there throughout the day reduces stress and helps clear the mind of unhappy clutter.

4) Relinquish the Need for External Approval

Too often we do things to make others happy. Early in life, we might take a job that makes our parents happy. We strive for success to make someone else proud of us. Their stamp of approval is necessary for our happiness. The problem is that such approval is easily manipulated and often never reaching. It can make us feel like we can never do enough. We need to stop basing our happiness on the approval of others.

We need to look inward and find out what makes us happy. Taking the time in silence and meditating is a great way to discover our own beliefs and true feelings. We all have needs and when our needs are fulfilled in positive ways we can be truly happy. Look inward and strive for your own approval and not from others.

5) Get Rid of Toxic Thoughts, Emotions, and Habits

We often stay so busy and lead such complicated lives that we never take inventory of what we are really doing. Without such an inventory we never discover what is going on inside of us. That inventory will discover thoughts, emotions, and habits that are toxic and making us unhappy. We might discover things like gossiping, procrastination, pornography, negativity, drugs, alcohol, or not take responsibility. A snake bite doesn’t kill anyone. The venom, on the other hand, if not rid of the body, spreads and destroys us from within. Toxic thoughts, emotions, and habits are venom eating at us.

We must take quiet time in silence to focus on our life, thoughts, and deeds. When we take such time the toxic elements in our life will reveal themselves. You’ll become aware of things that need to change. Such awareness brings a beginning level of happiness all by itself.

6) Replace Egocentric Thinking with Divinely Inspired Thinking

True happiness comes when we focus not on ourselves but on others. When we get the car we want to drive, the house we want to live in and do the activities we want to do, the focus is on us. While it might bring short-term satisfaction, the long-term is rarely satisfying. We’ll always want more, bigger or better stuff.

In his movie called The Shift, internationally renowned author and speaker Wayne Dyer teaches about a fulfilling shift from egocentric thinking to divinely inspired thinking. Divinely inspired thinking puts the focus on the needs of others and off of our wants and desires. As we do this we discover that our wants and desires are fulfilled in the helping of others giving us true happiness.

Famed author and speaker Zig Ziglar has a line that inspires me every day. I printed it out and have it right next to my desk.

“Help enough people get what they want, and you can have everything you want.” – Zig Ziglar

7) Love Yourself

Take a moment and think about several ways you express love to someone else. Write them down. Do you say words of affirmation? Do you give gifts? Do you do acts of service? What else do you do to show love to another person? Now, of these things you thought about or wrote down, how many do you do to yourself?

Ancient scripture, Matthew 19:19, offers the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We are to love ourselves. How often do you tell yourself that you love you? Go someplace where you have a mirror. Look into the mirror. Observe yourself. Now, tell yourself that you love you. Say it over and over again and use your name often. This can be done in the car as you are driving. Turn the radio off and tell yourself out loud that you love yourself. The more love you have for yourself, the more love you can share with others.

When of the best ways to show love to someone is to spend time with them. How often do you take time by yourself, expressing love to yourself?

8) Make Superior Evaluations

It has been said that there is no such thing as reality, but rather each person’s interpretation of events. Two people can experience the same event and walk away with 2 very different meanings about what happened. The interpretation is the evaluation we give to the event. Recently I saw some pictures posted on Facebook from a college graduation. It is a day of celebration, right? One picture I saw was of a mother and her daughter with two huge frowns on their faces. It was raining that day and they allowed the rain, an external uncontrollable factor, to bring unhappiness to an otherwise happy event. That was their evaluation.

A superior evaluation doesn’t allow external uncontrollable factors interfere. The superior evaluation looks at how any event can be made better. When you are on your way to work and there is road construction or heavy traffic inevitably going to make you late for work, some will find it easy to get mad, stressed or unhappy. At that point in time can you control the situation? Does getting mad or unhappy resolve anything? No. A superior evaluation will turn the event positive. Use the extra time to silently meditate. Do some advance planning of your work day to save you time once you do get to work. Plan to leave the house earlier from that day forward so as not to be late when the events happen again. Asking the question “What good and joy can I get out of this situation?” helps set a positive evaluation. When the weather does not cooperate for a special event, make the best of it and remember what the event is really about.

9) Change the Words You Use

As we grow up we tend to use certain words and phrases repeatedly. We establish metaphors. Life is like_______. Work is like ________. My husband/wife is __________. When someone asks you how your day is going, how do you usually reply? That is one phrase I am trying to improve for myself. My usual response has been “Not bad.” Really? Does “not bad” portray confidence, happiness and joy? No. I’m working to change the “not bad” to “fantastic,” “I’m having a great day,” or “I’m doing very well, thank-you!”

Changing the words and metaphors we use is a way of resetting our internal happiness thermostat. It can paint a very different picture for us. Tony Robbins tells a story of how a negative situation brought about 3 very different responses from those involved. He experimented and found that a situation can be made much more positive simply by changing the routine words we use. The next time you are about to describe yourself as “angry” or “frustrated,” change those words to “concerned” or “uneasy.” The milder terms will set the tone.

10) Set Goals and Visualize Them

Optimists are generally healthier and happier people. The key is to have something to be optimistic about. Setting goals and visualizing them is crucial to optimism. Unlike New Year’s Resolutions which are usually generic wishes or hopes, a goal is specific, assigned a date to have it fulfilled by, and a plan to achieve it.
Here is an excellent way to properly set goals:

  1. Get a pad of paper and a pen, think about what you want to have or achieve, and as quickly as you can write everything down on the paper.
  2. Categorize the goals financial, health, spiritual, family, personal, etc. Write it all down.
  3. Once you have your list, go through them and put a checkmark next to the ones you want to be completed within 1 year. Focus only on these from this point forward.
  4. Within each category prioritize the most important goal, next most important, etc.
  5. Re-write the most important goal for each category on to a new page, one goal per page.
  6. Underneath each goal write a paragraph about why you must achieve that goal.
  7. Finally, under each goal and reason, write what action you are going to take to achieve the goal.

A very important step in the achievement of your goals is to visualize your achievement of the goals. As in meditation, close your eyes and vividly imagine you having/achieving your goals. Attach strong emotions to the visualization. Who is congratulating you? How are you feeling now that you achieved it? See yourself in your mind’s eye living the life of your achievement.

Happiness in Marriage

As you read this article, does something interesting stand out for you? Perhaps you noticed that in all the keys to achieving happiness, none of them indicate that your happiness comes from your spouse? Did you also notice that one of the roadblocks to happiness is basing your happiness on an external person, like your husband or wife? As a certified strategic interventionist, one of the most important points I try to teach clients is to understand that their own personal happiness does not come from their spouse. Marriage coaches often hear statements from a wife that their husband ought to be their primary source of love, and that particular love would make them happy. Husbands say similar things. Ideally, yes, your partner will love you, and that love will contribute to your happiness. The reality is that we should not have the expectation of such love and that your partner has the choice to express love to you or not, and regardless of the choice, it should not hinder your own happiness.

That last line is often a massive revelation to a client.

Expectations and choices are two vital topics regarding marriage and love, best kept for their own post. For the time being, understand that the happier you are individually, the happier you will be in the marriage. When you are happy, you can give your happiness to your spouse, and that happiness can result in more love shown to you.

Make sense? I hope so. Read this post again and again if necessary to fully understand all that it contains. Start today to follow the 10 keys. A good way to get started is to focus on one key this week. Next week, focus on another key. After ten weeks, you will have devoted some serious time to each key. Then repeat the cycle starting again with key #1. Ben Franklin used this method to focus on virtues. He focused on one virtue at a time and cycled through them throughout most of his life.

This article covers a lot of material and links to many references. Happiness is attainable and right in front of us. Reach for it. Take it. Live it. Share it. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

About the author

Mark Jala is a certified marriage coach, researcher, and consumer advocate. Certified in Strategic Interventions, Mark bases all of his services and advice on verifiable research. With nearly 40 years of problem solving experience, Mark has developed a holistic approach to marriage coaching which provides a context and execution plan not seen in ordinary marriage services.

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