The starting point is to realize we have choices—like meaningful work, authentic relationships, and gratitude.
We come into this world naked with nothing to count on but love.
Along the way, we pick up other ideas about what’s important—status, possessions, money, a bucket list of experiences and accomplishments. But those who reflect back, as they near the end of life, often rediscover love as the source of real happiness.
It is a form of happiness that endures because it starts with the fundamentals and aspirations of being human.
Philosophers and religious leaders have long warned against getting distracted by petty ambitions. “It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly,” said British philosopher Bertrand Russell.
Still, many of us do get distracted and confused. After all, we need material security to live, and support our families, and our increasingly unequal society makes that more and more difficult. Meanwhile, advertisers spend billions to convince us that buying more stuff will make us happy; the elusive goal of material well-being stays just out of reach.
It is true that all of us need a basic level of material security. But after that, more stuff does not bring more happiness. The research shows that sustainable happiness comes from other sources, like having meaningful work to do (paid or unpaid) and having authentic relationships. It is a form of happiness that endures, through good and bad times, because it starts with the fundamental requirements and aspirations of being human.
In the nearly 20 years we've been covering sustainable happiness, we’ve found a remarkable consistency to what spiritual leaders, philosophers, and researchers say about it.
A starting point is to realize that we have choices.
Viktor E. Frankl, concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing: your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”
Here are some of the things we've learned that you can do right now:
1. Show up for your life mindfully
Mindfulness—and its sibling, compassion—can lighten the burdens of your past and lessen your worries about the future. Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and translator for the Dalai Lama, says that by fully inhabiting the present moment, we become conscious of the interplay of our emotions and desires and less at the mercy of events around us.
2. Kick your addictions
If you rely on drugs or alcohol to get through the day, then kicking that addiction and dealing with the underlying causes is your first step. But many forms of addiction are more subtle. Maybe you spend so much time on Facebook or checking email that you miss out on connecting with the people around you. Some cafés now have laptop-free days to encourage customers to show up ready to interact with each other. Or maybe you’ve gotten addicted to shopping and having the best or the latest. Make conscious choices about where you direct your attention, and consider what brings deep happiness.
Getting clear on the work that ignites your interest and passion adds greatly to your happiness.
3. Find work you love
In a time of chronic unemployment, this may seem like a luxury. But getting clear on the work that ignites your interest, if not your passion, adds greatly to your happiness. When Shannon Hayes finished her dissertation, she realized what she really wanted was to work on her family farm. And she risked everything she had worked for to make it happen. There are times when we have few choices—when we have to take whatever job is available. But there are also moments when we do have choices, and doing work that taps our deepest gifts and desires is among the most satisfying experiences we can have.
4. Live simply and liberate your time
With less clutter, you can spend time on the things that offer you the most meaning and enjoyment. If you don’t need as much stuff, you have more freedom to choose how much time you spend working for pay. If you make or grow more of what you need and trade with others, you can be less dependent on the cash economy and paid employment.
5. Find and celebrate gifts—yours and those of others
Too often, we lose track of our uniqueness because our gifts don't fit the expectations of schools or work places. Puanani Burgess, a native Hawaiian poet and community builder, learned this lesson when she met a so-called at-risk student who was struggling with school, but he came to value his gifts as a fisherman and the resources they provided for his family.
6. Give the gift of your time
Share meals with your family and friends, like author and mother Cathy Garcia-Prats, who spent years of dinner time feeding her children’s minds and souls, not just their bodies. This holiday, instead of shopping to exhaustion, give repurposed gifts or gifts of service. Instead of multitasking, give your coworkers or acquaintances your full attention.
7. Choose gratitude
We can rehash over and over every slight or perceived insult, allowing the sense of being wronged to dominate our experience. Or we can choose to turn our attention instead to what we appreciate. Some people keep a gratitude journal, noting things each day that bring beauty or pleasure. Research shows that these journals increase happiness. Take Pavithra Mehta, who with her friends started a restaurant where meals are free—paid for by the voluntary donation of other customers. Once you’ve eaten, you can choose whether to make a contribution to cover someone else’s meal.
Sustainable happiness is enhanced when everyone is doing well.
The good news for our world is that sustainable happiness doesn’t mean we have to use up and wear out the planet in a mad rush to produce more stuff. We don’t need people working in sweatshop conditions to produce cheap products that feed an endless appetite for possessions.
Instead, sustainable happiness is enhanced when everyone is doing well. It comes about in thriving communities free of the poverty and powerlessness associated with highly unequal societies. And it flourishes when we live in a healthy, natural world, where other animals, birds, and fish also thrive.
The work of rebuilding thriving communities can be difficult and contentious. But this is the way to authentic and sustainable happiness. When our families, our neighbors, those we meet on the street, and the creatures of the natural world are doing well, their happiness contributes to our own. Trust and well-being become a generative cycle. Sustainable happiness in one realm fosters well-being in all the other realms of life. Interconnectedness—love, even—is unleashed.