Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness — masterful wording, isn’t it? Fitting for an official document like the Declaration of Independence. But when you apply it to real life, there’s a problem.
If we look at the first two values, things are pretty obvious. We can all agree that nobody has a right to decide your life. And that you should have the liberty to live it as you wish (if you’re not disturbing the rest of us). But once we start talking about happiness, things get complicated.
What is happiness? I’m sure your idea of happiness is different from that of a Buddhist monk or a heroin addict. But we all have the right to be happy in our own way. So first we need to define happiness.
Suppose we manage to do that. Another question arises instantly: how do we get it? My first impulse says, Easy, you pick up the phone and order it. They deliver it in a cardboard box, covered in mozzarella and pepperoni. This might work a few times, but it gets old pretty fast. So does driving a Ferrari or living in a beach house. Which brings us to the next problem.
If we somehow manage to discover happiness, how do we keep it? Is there such a thing as lasting happiness? And if so, where can I sign in blood to get my share?
These are questions I’ve been asking myself for over a decade. I’ve read ancient texts, compared psychology journals, and listened to people who have seen more than you and me combined. Then I took it all and started experimenting in my own life. Some seemed to work for a while, but failed miserably once the going got rough. Only one method delivered consistent results, even under the darkest, most desperate circumstances.
The good news is, I finally found it. And it’s simpler than you think. The bad news is, you still need to put in the work — a lot of it. But if you’re willing to do that, by the end of this article you will know the surprisingly simple secret to lasting happiness.
Why I Went Looking for Happiness
It was a weird chain of events that led to this. Just a few months back I remember thinking, This is the life! After years of effort and uncertainty, I’m finally truly happy. It felt like all the pieces had fallen into place: the dream house, the promising career, the beautiful wife and wonderful daughter — I had it all figured out. Until I hadn’t.
With no warning signs, things took a sharp turn for the worse. In a matter of days, I felt like everything was falling apart — including my sanity.
How could this be? I still had all the things that had made me so happy a few weeks back. Why was I not enjoying them anymore? At first, I thought this was a fluke. So I decided to do what any real man would do in a tough situation: suck it up, down a few whiskeys, and plow through.
But things just got worse. I was in a constant state of frustration. Irritated by nothing and everything. And when things started to affect my family life, I knew I had to do something.
What comes next is a method that has survived for thousands of years. Modern psychological studies have confirmed its effectiveness. And it made a real difference in the life of yours truly.
So if your current happiness level could use a helping hand, give this a try.
Temples, Chariots, and Happiness
The more I read about the ancient Greeks, the more I come to the same conclusion: they weren’t all that different. Sure, they preferred to race in overpriced chariots instead of overpriced streetcars. And they got their pregnancies predicted by a high priestess instead of an algorithm. But by and large, they were facing the same problems we are, 2000 years later. That’s why I began my search for lasting happiness by reading what one of the wisest men of that time had to say.
Aristotle knew a thing or two about happiness. It was a central concept in his philosophy and his view on life. He viewed happiness as the highest human good. But to him, it encompassed a lot more than you and I think of today. That’s why he used a different word: eudaemonia. It’s a word that gives translators a hard time, so they usually lump together a few English words that come close to what Aristotle meant. These include modern-day happiness, well-being, flourishing, and blessedness.
Historians still argue if Aristotle was the first one to use #blessed. But they all seem to agree on one thing: eudaemonia is the attainment of excellence — being at your best.
So now we have a working definition for happiness — what we really mean by I want to be happy. It’s fulfillment and well-being. It’s the perfect mix of flourishing, happiness, and blessedness. It’s living the best life we can.
The happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action.Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics
One small caveat: for it to work, Aristotle said you should exhibit excellence in accordance with reason. So excelling at gossip or being the queen of naked selfies won’t bring you happiness. Strive for excellence in a virtuous activity and — according to Aristotle, Epicurus, and other long-dead philosophers — you shall find lasting happiness.
This may have been the end of the story if you were reading it on some random pop-culture blog. But not here. Admittedly, the ideas of these ancient thinkers seemed promising. Then again, these were people who thought women were inferior and having slaves was OK. So I started looking for more evidence.
Finding Happiness During World War II
What do a pyramid, Greek mythology, and World War II have in common? They all offer clues in our quest for lasting happiness.
The Second World War is a strange place to look for happiness. Still, two of the most important pieces in our puzzle were published at the height of the war, in 1942 and 1943.
The first one is an essay published by Albert Camus, the second-youngest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Even though there were bombs flying all around him, this guy somehow found time to think and write about an old Greek legend: The Myth of Sisyphus.
Sisyphus was a Greek king, who managed to cheat Death. He literally bound Death in chains and left it there, merrily going about the rest of his day. As punishment for this disrespectful act towards the gods, Zeus sentenced him to roll a huge boulder up a hill. Whenever Sisyphus would be near the top, the boulder would roll down again. So he had to do it again and again, for eternity.
Camus had a modern take on the whole thing. If you want to read his essay, you can find it online for free. But here’s the gist of it: life is absurd and inherently devoid of meaning.
That doesn’t sound so happy, right? Not so fast. Camus argues that, even if your life is absurd — although I bet you can hardly compare it to shoving a boulder up a hill all day long — you can still find happiness. How? By struggling towards excellence. By doing whatever you’re doing better and better every day. Even if it’s just rolling a freakin’ boulder up a hill. Here’s the closing line in Camus’s essay:
The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
The second piece published during WWII is called A Theory of Human Motivation. But you and I know it by a different name: Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs. I’ve written about how you can use it as a cheat sheet for happiness, so if you haven’t already, please read that post first.
At the top of the pyramid is the cream of the crop, the Roger Federer of tennis, the Pamela Anderson of your adolescent dreams… it’s what Maslow called self-actualization. Which is just fancy jargon for achieving your true potential.
So even in the middle of the greatest war the world has ever seen, even when people were bombing the hell out of each other, the psychologists agreed on one thing: the pinnacle of happiness is achieved by fulfilling your potential. And the only way to do that is by striving for excellence.
If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your lifeAbraham Maslow
A Modern Take on Happiness
Ever since the first Olympian threw his javelin, people seem to have known one thing about happiness. It’s not about winning the gold, having your name carved in stone, or attracting the babes with the short togas. Those things are nice too, but what we actually want is something else: to live the good life.
Throughout its history, humanity has obviously had other priorities. We first had to invent the hula hoop, the Tamagotchi, and inflatable dolls. But in 1998 someone finally came up with the idea of creating a field dedicated to the scientific study of the good life. That someone was Martin Seligman.
He called this new discipline Positive psychology. Its sole purpose is to find the factors that contribute most to a well-lived and fulfilling life — or what Aristotle had called eudaemonia, 2000 years earlier. And although our longing for happiness hasn’t changed through the ages, our means for finding the recipe have. The scientific method, the rise of peer-reviewed journals, and — most of all — the internet, are new tools we can use in our search for lasting happiness. So I was quite curious about the more modern developments in this field.
When asked to name the world’s leading expert on positive psychology, Seligman didn’t even blink: it’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Besides being a professor with an impossibly-to-spell name, Csikszentmihalyi is someone who has spent a lifetime studying this field. Here’s what he found: people are happiest when they are in flow — a state of complete absorption with the activity at hand. So to achieve the highest level of happiness… better than lifting the Super Bowl trophy, better than a cold beer on a hot summer day, even better than slapping your favorite politician… you have to get in a state of flow.
This is all nice and dandy. But how do you get in such a state? And is it a lasting mood? Could this really be the secret to long-term happiness?
Putting Together a Recipe for Lasting Happiness
It’s been a long journey. We started in Ancient Greece, blazed through WWII, and finally arrived in the modern world of science. We’ve seen how the pursuit of happiness has evolved through the ages and what humanity has learned during the last 2000 years. Now it’s time to put it all together, to reveal how you can finally be happy — and stay that way.
In the words of professor Csikszentmihalyi, here’s what you have to do:
To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high.
This may seem a bit confusing, so let me clarify. Here’s the simple plan I used to get my head out of my ass and finally live a happy life:
- Find an activity that’s worthwhile and enjoyable. Think of what you like to do during your spare time. Or remember what you most enjoyed doing as a kid (no, eating ice cream does not count as a worthwhile activity). For me, this is writing. I’ve enjoyed doing it since 5th grade and it’s only gotten more fun with the years.
- Get better at it, strive for excellence. This may sound trivial at first. But just get going and you will soon realize it’s not. Getting better requires performing at the edge of your comfort zone, with the occasional step beyond. Track your progress. Fully immerse yourself in the thing you’re doing (that means not thinking about your workday, the long to-do list, or if the baby is still breathing), focus only on that one thing. Get in flow and aim for excellence.
- Rinse and repeat. Work on it every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Don’t break the chain and you will soon you see signs of progress. Which will give you joy, pride, and the drive to do it more. And, of course, happiness.
Happiness is the joy you feel while striving towards your potentialNeil Pasricha
The key to lasting happiness is the pursuit of excellence. This is what the founding fathers forgot to mention in their famous declaration. But hey, humanity needed over 2000 years to finally figure out how to become and stay happy, so who can blame them.
One Last Word of Caution
Don’t confuse the pursuit of excellence with the hunt for perfection. I’ve been guilty of this more often than I like to admit. The pursuit of excellence is a lifelong quest, one that has the potential to bring you happiness at every step. The pursuit of perfection is a road that should be left untravelled. It’s like trying to reach the horizon: you will never get there and there’s a good chance you will drown along the way.
Pick your activity and start working on it. I mean it! Stop reading and start doing. Keep doing it for a few weeks, then send me an email and let me know how it went. I’ve been doing my writing for years now. Although I’m still miles away from excellence, it has offered me great things: prizes, exposure, the ability to connect with people around the world. But one thing outranks them all: lasting, recurring, long-term happiness.
I truly hope you find yours.