8 Keys for Unlocking a Happy and Fulfilling Life

What does a legitimately happy and fulfilling life look like?

I love to talk about productivity, money, achieving your goals, and building great habits, but what’s the point without understanding how those things relate to happiness? Without happiness, literally what else is there?

I want a life that makes me happy along the way and gives me something to look back on and cherish.

A life of great professional success, physical health, achievements, and material wealth is meaningless to me if none of it makes me happy. I believe that all of those things can fit into an overwhelmingly satisfying life. But not without a “why.” Not without understanding what it is that actually makes us happy and how those other goals can help us find fulfillment.

So let’s jump in and look at eight core elements of a legitimately happy and fulfilling life.

1. Memories

When an experience is new, different, and emotionally meaningful, it draws our attention and plants itself as a landmark in our memory. In contrast, periods that are familiar and routine don’t leave as much of a mark.

When we are young, everything is novel, engaging, and significant. Fresh memories form constantly, and that impacts how we perceive time. A timeline full of interesting points seems longer when we look back on it. But as we age, it is easier to coast through a routine and stick to the familiar. As a result, we make fewer new memories. So the timeline has more negative space, making those periods feel shorter. This memory effect is one reason life seems to speed up as we age.

Have you ever gotten in your car and “teleported” to work, feeling like you don’t remember driving there? A routine like that demands very little attention and is unlikely to create new memories. With nothing interesting on the timeline, 20 minutes can feel like 5, and a month can feel like 20 minutes.

Routines make an excellent tool for accomplishing goals, but a life defined solely by routine happenings cruises past us and leaves little to cherish. That is why we need to shake it up.

A joyous life, when reflected on, is a life filled with exciting memories. They don’t all have to be big showstoppers or cost tons of money. You can have an excellent, memorable day right at home. All you need is a willingness to try new things and add new pages to the story of your life. Do weird stuff and with great people.

2. Relationships 

How better to make great memories than side by side with people you love, who make you smile?

Human connection is everything.

Healthy relationships make us feel happy. They make us stronger and inspire us to do better. They lift us in our most trying moments. When we spend time with people we love, it makes the good times better and the tough times easier.

Not all relationships are created equal. It is always your right, your responsibility to yourself, to have boundaries and to distance yourself from people who consistently hurt you, take from you, or otherwise bring you down. Life is fleeting and full of fascinating people, don’t waste another minute on toxic relationships.

Now that’s just relationships on an individual scale. So what happens when we zoom out to your relationship with your community?

3. Community

Relationships are crucial to a happy and fulfilling life, and when you bring that advantage to the level of your community, you’ll find a whole new layer of a happy and fulfilling life.

Consider these two words: miser and misery. You may never think of the two in the same context. But when they land side by side, you can see that only one letter separates them. As is often (but not always) the case with language, that’s no coincidence.

Being a miser– someone who keeps to themselves, hoards their resources, and shows little interest in helping others- and feeling miserable both originate from the same root. The Latin word miser described someone who was unfortunate or wretched. 

Take a look at the OG of misers, Ebeneezer Scrooge. Seem like a happy guy to you? 

DICKENS SPOILER WARNING (too soon?) – he’s not. That is, of course, until the end of his story. I submit that there is but one difference, apart from ghost-centric PTSD, between beginning-Scrooge and end-Scrooge: community.

When we first meet the man, he is concerned with one thing only: keeping his wealth away from others so that he can use it to create more wealth for himself. But, once he’s standing on the other side of an uncomfortably close look at himself, that all changes. He leaps at the chance to share all he can with his community – not just his money but his energy and kindness.

This single shift upends the miser’s whole life and replaces his misery with joy and excitement. 

Down to the level of the very language we speak, we connect self-isolation to unhappiness. When we are alone, the joys are diminished and the pain is complete.

Contributing to your community, listening to and learning from them, and putting purpose to your compassion builds a deep well of happiness.

4. Purpose

If you hate Mondays, you may have an issue. Being unenthusiastic about a day, or a week, here and there, is fine. We all need extra rest sometimes. But dreading the same day each week is not a good sign. It most likely means you’re spending nearly ¾ of your days doing something you don’t want to do. What sort of memories are you creating, then?

Of course, we live in a complex and messy world where buying groceries must take precedence over living your truth as a professional jellyfishing instructor.

But we do need to demand two things out of our jobs (seems fair to me considering all our jobs require of us). I challenge you to hold your occupation responsible for meeting two requirements:

  1. You feel pride that the work you do benefits your community or society in some way, large or small
  2. The work makes adequate use of the skills you have to offer and attracts your interest

The first point is about purpose. We deeply long to feel like our work is helping (and not actively hurting) others. See the Scrooge example above.

The second point is about enjoyment. No one wants tedious work, but we don’t want it to be overwhelmingly complex, either. The sweet spot in the middle leads to flow – which, besides being a great source of fulfillment, is also one of the keys to personal evolution.

We all want to feel like our work contributes significantly to a useful purpose, and we make great use of our skills and interests. So your life’s best (and most satisfying) work happens wherever you can meet these two needs.

5. Negative Space

If you had to choose between a brick house and a house-shaped stack of loose bricks, you’d hopefully pick the former. But why? The difference is the mortar.

What does mortar bring to the table? Apart from being the adhesive that holds the wall together, it also reserves space between the bricks. It spreads them out. That negative space between the bricks gives the wall its beauty and keeps each brick secure.

Your life stacks up the same way. The negative space between your work and projects and activities isn’t just a bunch of annoying cracks you couldn’t fit more bricks into; it’s supposed to be there. It’s the mortar.

A happy and fulfilling life has many beautiful things. And it also has space in between them.

We don’t need every moment and square inch of space to be full of stuff, activities, people, and everything else. When you learn to create more space in life for its own sake, a weight evaporates off you as you find room to appreciate the things that matter to you the most.

6. Self-Respect

I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating. Self-respect is so much more than outward confidence. It is a tool that helps you keep your choices, words, and actions in tight synchronicity with your innermost values.

It takes real love for yourself to feel healthy love for others. And a life defined by love opens the doorway to compassion, generosity, gratitude, and better relationships. All these beautiful things are the swirling arms of the hurricane of happiness that your life can have. And the eye of that hurricane is self-respect.

Listen to your internal compass and make choices that you respect.

Follow that principle consistently, and you’ll quickly start to notice a more happy and fulfilling life with fewer regrets and the loving arms of a hurricane shaping your life story into one that fills you with pride.

7. A Positive Outlook

It comes in various forms: what some associate with the Law of Attraction, or divine intention, you may know simply as optimism. I like to think of it as “Thinking Big,” after one of my favorite books of all time, The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz.

Whichever ideology you prefer, the fundamental premise that unites them all is this: you can change your life by holding steadfast faith in the possibility of positive outcomes.

Optimism is not just about silver linings, smiling through the pain, and looking on the bright side. It’s not about pretending to be happy when you’re feeling down. It’s much more than that. You don’t need to ignore sadness, anger, and struggle to consider yourself an optimist.

Optimism is about driving your attention away from unnecessary suffering and toward the opportunities for things to improve and how we might get there. It’s about keeping your head up, believing in a better tomorrow, and focusing intensely on making that tomorrow a reality. Wherever you point your focus, there goes your effort, and so do the results.

A positive outlook is essential to a fulfilling life for two reasons. First, when your mind centers on the positive, you feel more positive about your situation (who knew, right?). And second, pouring your attention into better outcomes proves to make those outcomes a reality. There is scarce limit to what humans can accomplish, and that counts double for those who invest their energy in optimism.

8. Leadership

Leadership is another frequently misunderstood concept by both followers and leaders. It’s not about giving orders, sitting at the head of the table, getting the biggest share, or being in charge. That’s more like management, or coordination, which is also essential. But it’s a separate thing from leadership.

Authentic leadership is being a living example of your ideals and offering others a guiding influence through your words and actions.

Whatever your beliefs and ideal of what the world should be, you will be overwhelmed with self-respect and purpose when you stand up to lead others toward that vision. 

Not everyone can be a manager-type, and we don’t all need to be. But every one of us can be a leader. And it’s something we all should consider because living boldly by your values and effecting change you believe in creates a surge in personal satisfaction and happiness.

Leaders aren’t those who order others into battle; they are those who charge into battle themselves and inspire others to follow. Leaders lead, which you can’t do from behind. True leaders feel fulfilled by living by their values and inspiring their communities to pursue a brighter future.

Putting It All to Work

Let’s stop debating whether money, praise, material goods, recognition, or particular experiences can create a happy life. Because they don’t, but they also don’t not. This is not the right question to be asking. It’s okay if you strive for some of those things; I know I do. Some can help us build our happiness, but we can’t conflate those things with joy alone.

What matters is the foundation you build underneath these surface-level elements and how you treat yourself and others along the way. To sum it all up:

  1. Shake up your routine to make today special and forge new Memories
  2. Find great people to experience it all with and build strong Relationships
  3. Work together with your Community and lift each other up
  4. Center your life around meaningful work that gives you Purpose
  5. Use Negative Space to make more room in your life for the things you truly care about
  6. Make choices that raise your Self-Respect, rather than lower it
  7. Open up new possibilities and enjoy the journey with a Positive Outlook
  8. Embody Leadership in your beliefs, and take pride in your purpose

These elements strike the core of what we want and need as people. If we work on these, all that we can continue to build on top to create an even more exciting and satisfying life. But every house must first have its foundation.

Avatar for Sam

Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

4 thoughts on “8 Keys for Unlocking a Happy and Fulfilling Life”

  1. Hi Sam. That’s a very interesting read – thank you.

    Here’s a question for you – can you be too positive. I’m generally a very positive person and very rarely stress about anything. My wife tells me that this is because I lack the imagination to see all of the things that can go wrong and because I am overly optimistic. Fortunately, I don;t worry about that either! But I am curious …

    • Very cool question. My short answer is no – I don’t think you can be too positive.

      As far as imagination, the positive and negative are both all there, it’s just a matter of what you choose to look for and put your energy into.

      That said, I do think it’s possible to be positive in an unhelpful way, i.e. denying reality. Some things just plain suck, and that’s okay. It’s not the optimist’s job to pretend it’s all cool and good. The optimist’s job is to acknowledge those things that suck, and then look for a way that they can get better.

  2. I have worked with Tony Robbins and been a student of “what works”. I find your take on Happiness spot on. Anthony

    • I’m glad to hear that, Anthony! Tony Robbins can be a great motivator, and has some really empowering ideas for building the life you want to live 🙂


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