I’ve had a theory of happiness since my twenties.
I’ve often wished I’d listen to it more since it’s powered the really good parts and decisions in my life. And strangely, I’ve found it holds for most people, in most places, I’ve been. And I’ve been around.
I don’t talk about it much, because I’ve often thought it’s obvious, even silly. But it’s been surprisingly transformative for people I’ve told about it who nudged their lives in its direction.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot over covid, and how I define success and a life well-lived, especially when lockdowns put longer term sabbatical plans on hold. In particular, how I should double down, be less worried about my future, and ignore the inevitable societal side-eye you suffer when you’re the crab leaping for the rim of the bucket.
I’m writing about it now because I’ve noticed a lot of people who spoke about changing their lives over covid seem to have suddenly forgotten themselves. In the relief of countries opening up, they’re slipping back to old, unhappy ways and not remembering their promises to themselves and happier futures. So, hoping this reminds a few people of themselves and their aspirations. And that the best time to plant a tree that takes a decade to grow is right now.
The Science of Well Being
There’s a lot of science about happiness these days. Researched. Literature. A lot of it tells us that many of the things we think, and that society tells us, will make us happy simply don’t. I recommend the (free!) Yale course on The Science of Well Being’s videos as a run through if you want to make an easy investment in your own happiness. The science is surprisingly informative and hard to disagree with. It might change your life.
My theory of happiness is even simpler. You just need three things to describe your life as happy when asked:
The three are intertwined and perhaps even self-reinforcing, but the real value is thinking of them explicitly as buckets to evaluate and invest for in your life.
You need to do something you feel is worthwhile and has value to you. It’s not so important what it is, or how society may value it (though that definitely helps and fundamentally reinforces the second pillar, Belonging, since it yields social proof), but the fact is you need to feel that how you spend your time resonates with you.
It’s deeply tied to ideas of purpose, self-actualization, autonomy, and growth but meaning is the thing which for you creates your perceived value, gives agency to your actions, and adds to the fabric of the world, society, and your relationships.
Too many people try to define or manifest this through their job. And often fail. I think quite often because many jobs (not careers) often try to act as a proxy for all three of the pillars.
Work itself is just a mechanic to create meaning, it does not define it. If your work is out of alignment with any real meaning or purpose, or fails to allow you to prioritize the things in your life that do have meaning, it will fail to nourish you at some level in the future and lead to unhappiness or discontent.
That is not to say that work cannot be a mechanism to create meaning in other ways. Earning enough money to provide for someone else or raise a family are deeply meaningful, but I feel a number of companies and particularly startups in the last decade have warped the idea of purpose and a meaningful mission to try to induce loyalty from their staff. Often in tenuous and frankly, disingenuous ways.
Meaning is not simply how you spend the majority of your time, but what you do with your time when you actually have it to spend.
Yes, for some people they see their jobs as this or the businesses they may try to build as a way to create impact (it is definitely the aspirational zeitgeist of many entrepreneurs, though perhaps more a societally acceptable way to pursue money, power, and fame and means of hero worship), but there are so many other ways to create this for yourself and any of them are correct as long as it has resonance for you. There is nothing wrong with a job just being the way you finance the meaning you’re actually creating in your life.
For some meaning is a cause, art, discovery, faith, family, or even simply bearing witness, but the fundamental thing is that you spend your time doing things which are important and deeply valuable to you. I would also say there is a very close correlation between people’s perception of meaning and the idea they are contributing in some way, or to make it sound more altruistic, helping.
This is not to say that whatever thing it is for you is easy or not frustrating and hard and challenging. In fact, I’d argue nothing meaningful was ever accomplished without struggle. It is perhaps even the struggle and hardship that gives the thing its value and ultimately create happiness. Easy things are rarely satisfying, except in comforting after hard-won effort on other milestones - like cruising the top of the mountain after the hard climb.
While this may be counter-intuitive, it also sort of slots into another idea I have about happiness: you can’t just “pursue being happy”. Happiness is not a thing you acquire or pursue, but a virtuous effect of the other things in your life aligning along the pillars.
Growing up, movie and tv heroes were pumped individualists who monosyllabically needed no one else. The opposite of self-reliance was weakness. It was a poor model for living in society or collaborating, and one which I think I still struggle with personally (honestly, few of us realize how molded we are by the tropes of the societies we grow up in.).
Humanity is a social species. We need to belong. We need our tribe(s). The isolated and alone are often deeply unhappy. There’s a reason solitary is one of the harshest punishments in prison. And why banishment and ostracism were the height of tribal and Athenian sanction.
I imagine there are a dozen anthropological reasons why we need to belong, and the modern world gives us an embarrassment of technological riches in terms of how we can develop deep ties into groups and communities both IRL and online beyond immediate geographies.
Identity is largely driven through association and signalled through the artifacts and rituals of those groups. And don’t believe that your actions aren’t largely dominated through you copying the behaviours and concerns of those groups you identify with in your mind. And do not underestimate the social pressure of the groups that do surround you in defiing and constraining your actions and opportunities (It’s one of the reasons travel can be so liberating, since it frees you from the social constraints and influences that inherently constrain your identity and behaviours. )
Anthropology aside, my observation is that those are happiest who contribute to their communities along with the depth and quality of those contributions. Some do this through engagement and support, some through acts of service, some in ways that are merely imagined (yet relevant to them), but the universal constant in them are support of groups formed to accomplish or do things simply not accomplished or appreciated alone. It is perhaps one of the defining tenets of being human, that we coordinate actions and outcomes collectively that would be impossible by ourselves.
The depth and richness of the belonging is important. Manipulative social media (not all) and even working for some companies trick our brains into feeling we belong without actually giving us the deep and satisfying impression and thus benefits that we crave (or worse, the downsides of groups, without any of the benefits.). This “shallow belonging” that lacks the reciprocity of belonging or community that Douglas Coupland talked about in terms of “air families.”
There are not hard and fast rules here. I have seen healthy, knit together online organizations of enormous benefit to the people who engage with them, as well as companies with truly supportive, healthy cultures where people do gain nourishment from working there.
At the end of the day though, the ties that bind us to our societies are fundamental contributors to our happiness through experiences and contributions. An important thing to think about when considering how culturally aligned you are with the society and social constructs where you live.
I am always a bit surprised at how my theory revolves around the idea of your interconnectedness to other people. Especially the quality of bonds, rather than their number. (Perhaps because I find myself introverted.). “Happiness science” does seem to bear this out.
Most research on happiness and wellbeing indicates that living for someone or someones else; a partner, friend, child, family, tribe, is a critical and essential part of not just happiness, but even goes so far as to affect the longevity of individuals statistically, which is surprising and a bit stunning. There may be deeper truth to the idea “loneliness kills.”
While there is a seeming strong overlap here with Belonging, the fundamental difference on the degree of connection and commitment to another individual versus groups you belong or identify yourself with.
More anecdotally, there’s a reason a large predictor of job satisfaction is the question, “do you have a best friend at work?”.
Having individuals who anchor areas of your life like love, friendship, and work end up defining your quality of life and happiness.
Strengthening the Pillars
A lot of people have tried to add things to the Pillars when I’ve talked about them: security, health, freedom from pain, and even financial wellbeing, but I have found few of them actually held up to scrutiny when I looked at wider examples in society.
They were definitely things that could impact happiness in the short term, but large swaths of examples of people who were still happy in the long-term despite uncertainty, illness, hurt, or lack of money.
In fact, I’m surprised to the degree to which people recover from short term shocks and hedonically adapt to reach steady states of happiness defined by the three pillars over the longer term than any short term shocks, despite their severity. this is not to say that there are not situations which do not induce unhappiness or even outright misery in the short term. But over a longer term horizon, the things which truly seem to matter to people and define the base levels of their happiness seem to be defined by the pillars.
So, what can you do to make your life happier? I’d suggest 3 things. One for each Pillar.
1. What’s meaningful to you?
Figure out what is actually meaningful to you. Ask yourself explicitly. Figure out why. Start put aside time for it.
Yeah, this sounds obvious but it’s astounding if you ask people openly what they think is meaningful and how much of their time they spend on it, what sort of answers they get. Perhaps people simply don’t think about it that much, or are simply too used to media telling them these things, but fact is, most people are not aligned with the things they find meaningful in their lives (beyond perhaps, a partner and family — for some, maybe that’s enough.). But I find if you talk to people about what they’re passionate about, beyond simple hobbies, most people want to feel a sense of meaning to their lives. I often find peoples’ hobbies - how they spend time when they aren’t working but aren’t actively thinking about meaning, to be instructive here. And I find many of them tied to basic human drives to understand, communicate, belong, and contribute, but finding a reason and embracing it will make you a happier person longer term.
2. Invest in experiences and relationships, not things
Use your money, resources, and times to engage in experiences with people and forge memories and bonds.
Accumulation rarely provides anything but a short term bump to happiness. If you do need to buy things, give them as gifts. You’ll more than likely feel way better about them than if you had bought them for yourself in the longer term (this certainly is true of me.).
Hang out and do stuff that doesn’t involve sitting in front of a television or screen. Especially now we’re getting to post-covid, you’d imagine people would be desperate to spend time with other people, but after an initial rubber band snapping of people back into place, most people seem to have gone back to both pre- and pan-covid modes of behaviours in terms of how they spend their time.
3. Be a better friend, partner or civic member
Change starts with you. Really. I often hear people complain about how they wish they had better friends or met better potential partners, but people often seem to think little of how they might be a better friend or partner to people.
Invest in the people in your life that are worth it. Focus. Often people feel they need new things, rather than investing or caring for the things they do have.
Change your mindset to seek out making new friends or meeting new people (cause quite often we’re all so busy running about our daily lives we don’t even see people that might be interesting or have fundamental effects on our lives.).
Figure out even small things you can do for your community, even if a little outside of what you’d normally consider doing (for example, even here in Singapore, I’ve tried volunteering for the zoo, as well as offered to help the aunties in my estate with the community garden they grow. Further back, I started a data science for good charity here in the city.).
Volunteering is a shockingly surprising way to make yourself feel happier, and so many organizations need the help. Consider a food bank, cause you care about, civic issue that you have experience with, or other problems that you could contribute expertise or even time to in order to help improve the civic body or tribes you feel yourself highly aligned with (note: this can be harder than it sounds getting started as many volunteer organizations are too used to fly by night folks who show up once or twice but don’t have staying power which they can depend on.).
I think everyone deserves a happier life.
Not only that, I think happier people end up creating this virtuous cycle that causes more happiness in other peoples’ lives. So, here on the far side of the start of the pandemic, it’s important to not forget promises you’ve made to yourself for a better life during those times, and not fall back into old habits of existing versus living.
I hope my little three pillars theory makes more actionable some more abstract feelings about a happier life than just a “better job”, “better partner”, or “better life” in more concrete and actionable terms for you.
My fervent hope here is that this post helped you puzzle a path to try actioning making your life just a little bit happier. I’d love some feedback on the 3 pillars idea. I’m always curious to hear how it’s gone for people or hear more about what may have worked for you or other things that have made a huge difference for you or that I should take a shot at or make addenda. Feel free to mention me as @awws on twitter or email me at via email email@example.com.