The policy of being too cautious is the greatest risk of all.

~ Jawaharlal Nehru ~

Actually How To Be Happy

February 21st, 2013 ~ Est. reading time: 3 mins, 50 secs

The puzzle of how to be happy.

There’s a lot of trash said about how to be happy. The Internet, magazines, movies, and bookstores are full of it. That’s why I suggest reading everything carefully and reflectively.

Amongst it all, there is plenty of sage advice. Unfortunately, it’s mixed with a whole lot of shallow-minded, useless, and potentially dodgy twaddle in one big unhelpful mess.

You might be thinking, “Surely working out how to be happy can’t be that complicated. What’s the problem?” Or, conversely, that it’s too hard to know, unless you’re a psychologist, neuroscientist, or someone who thinks the answer to everything is “43”.

In this diverse, haphazard world, you can probably get away with saying nearly anything because most people won’t notice. With more people talking than listening, our lives are being swamped by ideas. Yet, whichever way we live, we all want to live well, and that’s where understanding how to be happy matters.

I have to admit I groan when I see so much ill-considered advice dictating terms to people seeking answers. In the “happiness industry” (as I like to call it), a lot of comment is tied to:

  • Product (you know the stuff: We’ll get you walking on coals, signing up for our exclusive course, and a whole lot more, blah, blah, blah)
  • Feeding egos and demanding control (“Follow me!” “Only we know the answers to the mystery…” [Insert maniacal laugh])
  • Editor pressure (Where the journalist s told, “Write me an article on how to be happy by 5.00 or don’t bother coming in tomorrow morning.”)
  • Delusion (The kind who suddenly declare, “God told me to eat your chocolates and now I know the answers – oh, and He said you need to go out and buy me more candy.”)

So much of happy industry patter is quite useless, such that if you really did want to know how to be happy in life, you’d have to wade through countless window dressing tips.

Even people who should know better, like New York Times best sellers, make sweeping comments that feel uncomfortably superficial. Take Gretchen Rubin, a wealthy New Yorker who has written several books on the subject of happiness. In an online article at she writes: “Stop nagging” “Buy some happiness” and “Fake it till you feel it”. These tips are certainly harmless enough. But they are hardly going to bring lasting satisfaction to your life either.

Geoffrey James from wrote about “9 Daily Habits That Will Make You Happier”, which, amongst some reasonable recommendations included: “Eat high quality food slowly andLet go of your results. The big enemy of happiness is worry… Focus on the job at hand rather than… what might happen.” The fact that he wasn’t declaring “how to be happy” but “ways to be happier” is commendable. But I’m not sure telling us that “worry is bad so don’t do it” is especially helpful.

Then again, how about, “Cece Suwal & Mark Brener, Cofounders of The One World Initiative & Coauthors of the national bestseller, A Guide To Your Supreme Power”?

Presenting their opening website gambit with “Attention friend: Here’s your passport to becoming the happiest person you know!” you are left rather breathless. Under the heading “How To Be Happy” they then immediately tout, “A special mini-course on How To Be Happy from Cece & Mark – $50 Worth of FREE Gifts for You” And so it goes, on and on. Well, you get the picture. To cap it all off they even attempt to give their pitch cred with a photo and quote endorsement from the First Lady of the United States herself, Mrs. Michelle Obama!

The trouble with these approaches is that they don’t touch the sides. It would be much fairer to say that nobody has all the answers on how to be happy (far from it). It’s more accurate to suggest instead that all of us know something about happiness – whether we’d describe ourselves as satisfied or not.

The problem with forever focusing on the ephemeral elements of how to be happy is that, at best, it’s self-defeating. A happy life needs guts to it, not just self-stroking or ego feeding.

Making meaning, and expressing qualities of character build happiness. Not directly maybe, but definitely more sustainably. Finding out how to be happy is a byproduct of living with dignity, which incidentally is not first world dependent (e.g. thankfully you don’t need to “buy some happiness” to enjoy it). Nor does it flow from a model of the “self-made man” (where we must make ourselves happy to prove our ultimate success and prowess).

Making lists, tidying your shelves, choosing to be happy, being nice, and starting each day with expectation are fine, of course. But they aren’t at the heart of how to be happy. This is what my book is about, and why I write around this theme every day. Perhaps I’m deluded too? Or, maybe my ego is out of check? I want lots of people to find their own kind of happiness, so I’m not sure what that says. But, to me, the essential message is that being genuinely happy is ultimately an intimate thing. If some bloke from faraway Tasmania shares something with you that makes sense, that’s great. But what’s far more important is the sense you make finding happy purpose in your own life. Why? Because you deserve to live well.

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