How To Be Happy: 10 Timeless Principles for Lasting Happiness
A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.” ~ Hugh Downs
Are you happy? How happy would you say you are, on a scale of 1-10?
Our society today is entrenched in low levels of consciousness of fear, desire and pride. Despite the increasing affluence of people in our world, it seems people are more and more unhappy today. From unhappiness with work, unhappiness with their life, unhappiness with the world, unhappiness with themselves. If you think that the people around you seem quite unhappy, let me tell you that this is a common issue everywhere in the world – be it countries/cities I’ve been to in Asia, in Europe, or in America.
In light of this epidemic, I’ve created a guide on how to be happy. The mark of a good life is one that is filled with happiness. If you’re not happy at all, then what’s the point of doing any of this to begin with?
I see this as a timeless guide, with 10 of my universal, timeless principles to achieve happiness. May you find these 10 principles useful in your quest for happiness. Know that at the end of the day, happiness comes from within, not from outside. This is why the guide focuses on intrinsic, permanent steps to achieve happiness, rather than extrinsic, surface-level tips which only have a temporal effect (such as listening to music, going shopping, etc).
#1. Attend to Negative Emotions / Thoughts; Don’t Repress them
Many of us in the modern society today do not know how to properly deal with our emotions. Just look at what most of us do when we are unhappy/angry/upset/stressed/fearful. We either (a) sleep it away (b) eat it away (emotional eating) (c) drink it away (alcoholism) (d) smoke it away (e) bury ourselves with other things, usually work and/or (f) ignore those emotions altogether.
So what happens when we do not deal with our negative emotions appropriately? Our emotions / thoughts are unaddressed and get repressed. It may look like the unhappy emotions / thoughts are gone the next day, but no, they are never gone – they are just buried beneath the surface.
It’s a matter of time before they re-emerge in the future – usually when we face a situation that triggers latent memories. During which we can either respond via avoidance again, hence repeating the cycle all over again, or by dealing it the right away this time. To do the former is to live an unconscious life, no different than a sleepwalker. To do the latter is to take the path of courage and start living consciously.
How should we deal with unhappy emotions / thoughts then?
- First, unload your mind, especially if the incident just occurred and you’re faced with a big influx of negative emotions. I find the brain dumping exercise very helpful for this purpose. Meditation also helps in calming your mind. It’s okay to use destressing methods like playing games, taking a break, taking a walk, venting, listening to music, etc – as long as you return to the issue at hand after you are done destressing.
- Identify your source of unhappiness via asking yourself: “What’s making me feel unhappy?“. The answers can be very revealing. If you’re someone who has never questioned your emotions/unhappiness before, this will point you in the right direction, because rather than take your emotions as they are, you’re now making an effort to understand them. If you are a conscious individual, with high awareness of your emotions, this will bring you a step further.
- Create a list of steps that will help you address the source of your unhappiness above. See next step.
#2. Take Action on What’s Making You Unhappy
I’d say I’m by and large quite a happy person. It’s not because I don’t feel unhappy emotions. Like everyone, there are times when I’m unhappy. There are times when I’m angry too. And there are times when I can be downright miserable.
What do I do during these times? Do I let myself sink in the negative emotion? No, I don’t. That’s pointless and a waste of my mental energy.
What I do is this – Whenever there is something making me unhappy, I fix the issue right away, in a 3-step approach. Firstly, I identify the issue at hand. Secondly, I locate the action steps that will resolve it. Then, I execute those steps immediately.
A simple example : I was recently in New York City (Nov-Dec ’11), as part of my US travel. While NYC is terrific and I love the city, its winter climate is too cold for me, since I grew up in a tropical country (Singapore). It got so cold that I would much rather stay in than go out. It was quite miserable.
Rather than let the situation perpetuate though, I checked the weather in west coast, and realized the southern west coast has a much conducive climate for me. So during Jan ’12, I traveled on to Los Angeles, California, where it is much warmer. Problem solved, and I became a much happier person.
There have been many other situations where I wasn’t happy and took action to address them:
- Quitting my previous job because it was not my passion
- Parting ways with my best friend because our friendship was no longer making us happy
- Working on my relationship with my parents because it wasn’t where I wanted it to be
- Working doubly hard on growing Personal Excellence (thereafter reaching 1 million pageviews a month) because it wasn’t growing as fast as I wanted it to
- Addressing my emotional eating issue because it was causing me so much anguish, both in life and in terms of staying true to my weight loss plan.
Likewise, if something is bothering you, fix it. Don’t let your unhappiness linger, because your happiness should be your #1 priority. Below are some tips:
- Fix the issue right away. No point waiting. The longer you wait, the more unhappy you are.
- Focus on what you can effect, not what you can’t effect. This includes (a) things in the present (b) your thoughts and actions. Not (a) things in the past or things that have yet to take place yet or (b) thoughts and actions of other people.
- Remember that every problem has a solution. You are only limited by the confines of your mind. It’s up to you to expand your frame of thought and find the best-fit solution.
- Once you have done everything within your control, let go and let things run their course. You have already done what you can. Now it’s up to the others and the universe to do what they must.
#3. Update Your Belief System
If the problem still persists despite having done what I can to fix it, or if the source of the unhappiness is irreversible (for example, death of a person or changing the past) or something out of your span of control (such as other people’s thoughts or actions), then it’s a cue that something is wrong with my framework of thought.
For example, in How I Moved On From a Heartbreak series I wrote back in 2010, I shared G’s non-reciprocation of my feelings for him left me broken up on the inside. I had subconsciously concluded from his non-reciprocation that something was wrong with me, that I wasn’t good enough, and that I was doomed not to meet anyone else in the future.
However, I later found out my unhappiness was misplaced, as I elaborated in Part 3: Forgiveness, Closure and Moving On. The conclusions I had made were not true. I had wrongly defined my worth based on whether he wanted to be with me or not, when my worth was independent of this event. I had also wrongly concluded I wasn’t able to meet anyone else, when all it meant was he just wasn’t the right guy for me. Realizing the falsehoods behind the beliefs naturally removed the unhappiness.
The best beliefs to have are the ones that empower you. If there is something that’s making you unhappy, there is no point holding on to the thought, because you are just making your life miserable. This doesn’t serve you, nor the others around you. It calls for an internal reflection and an updating of your belief system, where you dissolve disempowering beliefs and adopt empowering ones. Be sure to read:
- Ask Celes – Is It Possible To Let Go of Unhappy Past Forever?
- Be a Better Me in 30 Days Program – Day 25: Forgive Yourself
#4. See the Positive vs. Negative Side of Things
Have you ever heard the phrase: “Behind every dark cloud is a silver lining?”. What it means is, no matter how dire a situation may seem, there is always a positive side.
For example, below is a list of things most of us would regard as negative, especially if they occur to us.
- Arriving late for a meeting
- Slipping on weight loss plan
- Failing a job interview
- Getting laid off
- Breaking up with partner
- Facing a difficult situation
What if I were to tell you there is a positive side to every single one of the situations above?
Situation typically seen as negative occurrence -> Positive side(s) of the situation
- Arriving late for a meeting -> (1) You now know the boundaries to stick to if you want to be punctual (2) You learned the importance of being punctual, albeit via the hard way.
- Slipping on weight loss plan -> You are now aware of a new pitfall of your weight loss plan, which means one step closer toward your goal.
- Failing a job interview -> (1) Troubleshooting the interview will help you learn things to avoid in your next interview (2) What you learned from this encounter may well help you secure a better job after this.
- Getting laid off -> (1) Free time to reflect over what you want to do in life (2) You can now embark on new opportunities – From working in new companies, to taking on new roles, to exploring new career paths, to possibly starting your business
- Breaking up with partner -> (1) Being relieved of a relationship which was not working out. It takes 2 hands to clap. If your partner was not happy in the relationship, you could not have been much happier yourself. (2) You now get to meet new people, and possibly meet someone who is a much better match than your ex.
- Facing a difficult situation -> (1) Dealing with this will help you develop strength and wisdom (2) You get to learn and grow much more than those who have never dealt with this before.
Some people may comment that I’m being overly optimistic with what I wrote above. But I’m not. What I wrote above is fact, not fiction. I know of multiple people who have failed job interviews with good companies, only to secure jobs with the companies of their dreams after that. I know of many people who had painful break ups, only to enter the relationship of their dreams after that. I myself have been in multiple difficult situations before, which helped me gain tremendously (in strength and wisdom) as a result.
Everything in life has a positive side to it. Once you realize that, it is up to you to identify the silver lining and expand on it. After you do it for a few times, you’ll realize that the entire situation has been the silver lining all along.
Here are some tips to spot the good things in each situation:
- Recognize there is always something good to be gained from each situation. It’s up to you find that.
- What experiences have you gained from this incident? Everything you experienced, both good and bad, would not have taken place if not for this encounter.
- What lessons have you learned? You would never have gained these lessons if not for this encounter.
- What does not kill you will make you stronger. What soft skills and hard skills have you developed from this?
- Every problem comes with its set of opportunities. What opportunities lie before you now as a result of this problem?
#5. Let Go of Expectations (and Focus on Intentions)
Focus on your intentions, not narrow definitions of your intentions. I found a lot of things that made me unhappy in the past was because I had very specific, narrow definitions of how things should be. And when I focused on my intentions vs. specific definitions of how they should manifest, it made me a lot happier. The most important thing – what I wanted would then come true after that, and in spades.
For example, I used to narrowly define my ideal family relationship as one where there is open communication. However, the relationship between me and my parents (since young) was one where there was little to non-existent communication. No matter what I did, I could not attain my desired relationship, as I shared in Part 2: A Pervasive, Widening Gap. Not only did this make me miserable, it also made my parents unhappy, because I would constantly resist what they did, since I thought they didn’t care.
It was only after a long, drawn out struggle that I realized I had approached the situation wrongly. What I really wanted was a loving relationship with my parents, and I thought open communication was the way to go. But the ironic thing was that my parents had been trying to express their love for me all this while, albeit in their special way. I was just not able to see it because I was so hung up on this one expression of love.
Attaching myself to my higher intention for a better relationship with my parents, vs. my specific definition of what an ideal parent-child relationship should be, helped me to attain a better relationship with them. I no longer resist my parents’ lack of openness since that is just the way they are. My non-resistance also made them more ready to express their love for me.
Realize that: (1) every goal we have reflects an intention we want to manifest (2) there are countless ways this intention can be manifested.
Hence, do not get hung up over the 1 definition of your goal. Continue to have goals and to pursue your goals, but stick to your higher intentions, not set definitions of how you want those goals to manifest. Once you do this, you will realize that you now make faster progress than ever, and it was your narrow definitions that had prevented you from moving forward initially.
#6. Be Grateful For What You Have
Do you know that no matter where you are right now in life, there are always people who are worse off than you? And no matter how bad things may seem, things can always go much worse?
For example, someone who complains about having a small house should look at the homeless man on the street, who has no home to speak of, no place to seek refuge even in the cold winter. Someone who complains about having just lost his/her job should talk to the guy who just lost his limb from a car accident. Someone who complains about his/her parents being naggy should speak to a recently orphaned child, who has no parents to speak of.
So, take stock and be grateful for the things you do have. Be grateful you’re not dealing with worse situations. Be grateful you are alive. Be grateful for your senses. Be grateful for the people in your life. Be grateful for the air you get to breathe every day. Be grateful for the problems you get to face.
- How To Start When You Have Nothing
- 60 Things to be Grateful For in Life (bonus article in Personal Excellence Book, Volume 2)
- Live a Better Life in 30 Days Program, Day 14 – A Day of Gratitude
- Be a Better Me in 30 Days Program, Day 15: Show Your Appreciation
#7. Think of Your Ideals vs. Problems
Most of us tend to turn our energy to our problems. However, such an approach puts attention on the negative and reminds us of things we don’t want, which breeds more negativity. Not exactly an effective path toward happiness.
Here’s a better way – Rather than wear yourself out with liabilities, think in terms of ideals instead. Always ask yourself: “What is my ideal vision?” (Day 2 of Live a Better Life in 30 Days).
This is my favorite question which I always pose to anyone who seems bogged down by his/her problems. And it never fails to light a spark in the person’s eyes, after which he/she begins talking excitedly about what he/she wants, not seemingly able to stop.
There are 3 important benefits of focusing on ideals vs. liabilities. Firstly, it gets you thinking of possibilities rather than limitations. Secondly, helps you to get clarity of what you want, which makes it easier to achieve your 100%, ideal life. Thirdly, by thinking of your ideal vision, it puts you in a positive mental state, which, by default, already makes it easier to address any challenges in your way.
That’s not to say that you ignore your liabilities and pretend they don’t exist. It means you don’t let them tie you down anymore, but remain mindful of them
For example, if you have a $100k debt to clear, don’t focus on that – be aware of the debt, but focus on wealth-generation opportunities. If you are working in a job you don’t like, focus on the ideal career you do want, and how you can create that. If you just lost your job, focus on the new jobs you can now pursue. If you are surrounded by negative people, focus on the positive, new people you are going to meet. If you are single and constantly getting into bad relationships, focus on your ideal relationship you would like to have, and the qualities you would like your ideal partner to have.
#8. Live a Purposeful Life
Living a purposeful life, one where you have an empowering life purpose and noteworthy goals, paves the way for a happy life.
Have you established your life purpose? If not, perhaps now is the time to do so. I’ve written a lot on this subject, which I recommend you to read:
- Are You Sleepwalking Your Life Away?
- How To Discover Your Real Life Purpose (7-part series)
- How To Know What You Want To Do In Life
- Live a Better Life in 30 Days Program, Day 16: Life Purpose
As you define your life purpose, you want to set life goals, because they bring out your highest potential. Read the following on goal setting:
- 6 Important Reasons Why You Should Set Goals
- ESPER: 5-Step Successful Goal Achievement Framework (7-part series)
#9. Recognize Happiness is a Choice
One of the most stressful points in my life was back when I was in my previous job.
At that time, I was denied of bigger projects by my manager even though I had delivered my work without fail and was exceeding expectations. It had nothing to do with my performance, but simply my (lack of) seniority in the company. I felt unfairly boxed in by my position, and was extremely frustrated. What was the point of staying on if I wasn’t allowed to grow? I was unhappy with my manager, with the situation, and with my life. Repression was the word of the day.
It was during this darkest period, as I cried to myself while I was showering, that I realized that no matter how painful the situation may be, I always had a say in the matter. I could either lament about the sorry state of my life, or I could make the best out of what I was given. I could either struggle in this pain, or I could tap into it and forge it into strength. I could either see this as a liability, or turn it into an opportunity. I could either be unhappy and miserable, or I could be the happiest person in the world.
So I chose the latter. And since then, whenever I’m caught in a situation which makes me feel unhappy in any way, I would go for the latter. I know no matter what happens, no one can rob me of my happiness. My happiness is my choice
The same goes for you too. Are you caught in a situation outside of your control? Are you letting it affect your feelings? Are you going to let it drag you down, or are you going to smile and turn it into gold?
Read: You Always Have a Choice
#10. Don’t think “What if”, but “Next time”
You know how many of us like to go “what if” whenever things don’t go our way? “What if I had done this instead?” “What if I had done that instead?” “What if … this? “What if … that?”
Well, who cares? And what does it matter? No amount of “what if“s is going to change the reality.
On the other hand, what will help is this: “What can I do such that this doesn’t happen next time?” This will help you learn from what has happened, so you can make things different – be it preventing the same problem from happening, or taking a different course of action so you create a different outcome.
So instead of thinking “what if“, start thinking “next time“. The former is entrenched in the past, while the latter is forward-thinking. The former is disempowering, while the latter is empowering. It will make a world of a difference.
I hope you found this guide useful. Please share it with others if you found it helpful. Let’s spread the art of happiness to as many people as we can.
Here is a related article worth reading: 13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way. This one teaches you how to deal with the daily setbacks in life.
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