For the longest time, I believed that happiness was something I could achieve. It was a goal, a destination to reach.
I’m certainly not the only person who believed that. If you look around you, most people are busy pursuing happiness as if it was a goal to be achieved. People work for the purpose of earning money to spend on travel, restaurants, or Netflix. They buy things they don’t like and have sex with people they aren’t connected to, to feel a quick high. They work hard to achieve status and the approval of others.
Yet it’s easy to observe that doing those things doesn’t lead to true happiness in the long-term at all. There are people who become unhappy when their travel flight is delayed. There are people that binge-watch Netflix only to later complain that they did nothing all day. There are plenty of rich, high-status people who look miserable.
After much study and thought about happiness, I’ve come to a very firm conclusion: happiness is a skill.
Now I’m definitely not a scientist, nor am I a psychologist. But my conclusion does come from a lot of study of philosophy, psychology, meditation, observation, and personal trials. Happiness is a skill that, once built up, can lead to a much more fulfilling life.
Changing Your Goal to a Skill
Bad — happiness as a goal
Whenever you have a goal, it is common to form a set of required criteria that define the success or failure of reaching that goal. For example, if your goal is to be rich, then your criteria might be having a net worth of one million dollars. Or another goal can be having a sexy body, where the criteria is having visible six-pack abs.
The problem with such a method is that it is either pass or fail — there are no points for partial progress. If you got the one million dollars then you succeeded in your goal of becoming rich; if not, then you’re a failure. If you don’t have visible six-pack abs, then you’ve failed and aren’t sexy.
The same thing goes for having happiness as a goal — it becomes all or nothing. One small mistake or missing criteria could derail your happiness. That’s a very dangerous way to live as life is always ever-changing; you can’t rely on things going so smoothly all the time. Economic recessions, death, breakups, or just plain bad luck could screw you over from achieving your criteria for success.
Even if you do reach your goal, the train never really stops. There’s always another big goal and the desire to climb higher and achieve more. It’s a never-ending loop.
Good — happiness as a skill
Happiness as a skill makes a lot more sense.
Instead of it being win-lose, a skill is something you can apply at any time. Someone who is good at being happy can choose to be happy at any time in their life, regardless of the circumstances.
If you lose your job, happiness as a goal might make you sad and depressed. But you can also apply your happiness skill by choosing to be happy. Even though you’ve just lost your job, you look at the positive side of things: now you have more time to relax or look for a much better job. You’re good at being happy, which helps you to have an optimistic outlook and move forward.
Lots of traffic can mean that you now have more time to listen to music or an audiobook. Your favourite restaurant being closed means you have the chance to try another. A bad breakup means you have extra time to have fun being single.
All in all, your happiness is no longer dependant on an external outcome. Your happiness comes from within. It’s a skill, one that can be applied at any time you want. You can choose to apply it and be happy in any situation.
This is a much more encouraging definition of happiness. You never need to meet any external criteria for success, so there won’t be anything blocking you from being happy. It’s a lot more flexible since you can have a happy life at any time, rather than just sometimes, simply by applying your skill and making the choice to be happy. Being happy becomes easier, and that certainly leads to a better life.
We also have another very powerful outlook: if happiness is a skill, that means that anyone can learn it and even become really great at it.
We now look at how to develop our happiness skills.
How to Get Better at Being Happy
Anyone can learn new skills, including the skill of happiness. It might take more time for some people and less time for others, but it’s always possible.
There are many ways one can train to acquire the skill of happiness. Here we focus on what I believe to be the 5 best of them, inspired by ancient philosophers and renowned psychologists.
1. Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation is all about spending the time to become intensely aware of what is happening in your mind. You sit down, close your eyes, and focus on observing your thoughts and feelings as an external viewer, without interpretation or judgment.
You become fully focused on “the now,” setting aside all anxiety and negativity in favor of just feeling present. Substantial psychology research supports mindfulness as being an antidote for better psychological health.
With practice, you will eventually be able to notice your own thoughts, catching them as they come up. You’ll be able to see your negative and unhappy thoughts, recognize them, and put them aside in favor of happy thoughts. I most definitely recommend the Great Meditation YouTube Channel for their amazing guided mindfulness meditations.
2. Spend time with happy people
Jim Rohn famously said:
“You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with”
Darren Hardy wrote in his book The Compound Effect:
“According to research by social psychologist Dr. David McClelland of Harvard, [the people you habitually associate with] determine as much as 95 percent of your success or failure in life.”
There are several psychology studies that back up both of those statements.
When a friend talks about how sad and depressed they are, it feels bad just listening to them. Their negative energy rubs off you, sometimes just a little bit, and sometimes so much that it puts a damper on your whole day.
On the other hand, listening to a friend talk about their amazing travel adventures and ambitious career plans for the future is motivating and exciting — it feels great just being around them. The energy and mindset of those around you rub off on you one way or another. Do your best to spend time with positive and happy people.
3. Study stoic philosophy
Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy, designed to make us more resilient, virtuous, wise, and mentally strong. The main point of stoicism is that you have control over your mind, but not outside events. Therefore, stoic practices focus on training the mind to be strong and able to control your own thoughts and feels.
Some of the best stoic practices include voluntary discomforts, journal writing, perception training, and thinking intensely about your own morality. These exercises will train your mind to go through mental challenges, constantly improving it to become more resilient. Check out this article about the 3 best books for getting started with stoicism to learn more about it.
4. Opportunism — always ask yourself “what’s next?”
A lot of unhappiness people have comes from expectations. You expect something to happen and it doesn’t, so you’re unhappy.
The solution to this is to cultivate a fully opportunistic mindset for all situations in your life. You establish in your mind that everything that happens to you in life is a positive opportunity. My favorite exercise for doing this is what I call the “what’s next” strategy. Every time you feel down or stuck, just ask yourself “what’s next?”
Lost your job?… “what’s next?”
Had a bad breakup?… “what’s next?”
Feeling sad or tired today?… “what’s next?”
You’re using “what’s next” as a prompt. It nudges you to keep on moving and looking for the next opportunity. Being sad and stuck happens because you end up in your head, thinking. But with “what’s next,” you are encouraging yourself to take action and grab onto the next opportunity.
5. Make it a habit and track it
Habits stick in your brain like nothing else. They’re automatic actions that you execute without much mental effort at all. If you can make happiness a habit for yourself, then you’ll have no problem being happy all of the time. Lucky for us, there’s already plenty of great psychology research out there on habit formation.
To make happiness into a habit, practice applying it every day. Every morning, take a few minutes to think about how you will make happiness a top priority. Then go about your day, doing your best to stay happy in every situation. Sometimes it’ll work, sometimes it won’t — that’s OK, it’s the effort that counts.
At the end of the day, do a review. In which moments were you really happy, especially when overcoming challenges? In which moments were you not happy? Having reflected on those moments, you can make a plan for the next day to get better at being happy. Repeat this cycle for a few weeks or however long it takes to feel really good. Eventually, your efforts to improve will pay off as you make happiness a habit, purely built into your life.
Happiness is a skill, one that can be learned, improved upon, and applied at any time. The key is that you can choose to be happy at any moment of your life, regardless of circumstances or conditions. Cultivate this mindset of happiness being in your control and will have a more fulfilling life.
There are 5 ways you can improve your happiness skill:
- Mindfulness meditation — to understand and control your own thoughts and feelings
- Spend time with happy people — to get their happy vibes to rub off on you
- Study stoic philosophy — to learn how to build a resilient mind
- Opportunism — always ask yourself “what’s next?” — using the “what’s next” prompt nudges you to constantly take action towards happiness
- Make it a habit and track it — to make happiness an automatic, built-in part of your life
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
The Almanack of Naval by Eric Jorgenson