When it comes to the conversation on happiness, I’m something of a junkie. I read, write, listen, talk, and make weird little illustrations about so many different self-improvement topics, but at the center of them is one simple question – what does a legitimately happy and fulfilling life look like?
I love to talk about productivity, and money, and achieving your goals, and building great habits, but without understanding how those things relate to happiness, what’s the point? 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 every one of those things can fit into an overwhelmingly happy and fulfilling life. But not without a “why.” Not without understanding what actually makes us happy, and how those other goals can help us find fulfillment.
So let’s jump right in and look at eight core elements of a legitimately happy and fulfilling life.
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, interesting, 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. We make fewer new memories. So the timeline has more empty space and it makes those periods feel shorter. This is why 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 a great tool for accomplishing goals, but a life defined solely by routine cruises by and leaves us little to cherish. Which is why we need to shake it up.
A joyous life, when reflected on, is a life filled with interesting memories. They don’t all have to be big showstoppers or cost tons of money. You can have an awesome, 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 find great people to experience it all with. Which brings us to another essential element of a fulfilling life…
How better to make great Memories than side by side with people you love, who make you smile?
This point needs little explanation. But it does need to be said. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops. It needs to be tattooed across each of our foreheads as a reminder. Human connection is everything.
Healthy relationships make us feel happy. They make us stronger and inspire us to do better. They lift us up in our most trying moments. Spending time with people we want to be around makes the good times better, and the tough times easier.
Mind you, I say all of this as an introvert. Most social interaction takes a lot out of me. It makes me tired. And sometimes I don’t feel like doing it. But all the same stuff is true about cardio, which is just as essential to my health and happiness.
Oh, and one last thing – Not all relationships are created equal. It is always your right, your responsibility to yourself, to have boundaries and to distance 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. What happens when we zoom out to your relationship with your community at large?
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 do land side by side, you can plainly see that they are only separated by one letter. 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:
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 too.
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, self-isolation is inextricably tied to unhappiness. When we are alone, the joys are diminished and the pain is complete. Miser-y is misery.
Contributing to your community, listening to and learning from them, and putting purpose to your compassion builds a deep well of happiness.
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. Most likely, it 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?
I’ll do my best not to climb too high onto the “chase your dreams” soapbox here, because we do live in a complex and messy world in which buying groceries must take precedence over living your truth as a professional jellyfishing instructor (when the two come into conflict).
But we do need to demand two things out of our jobs (seems fair to me considering all that our jobs demand of us). I challenge you to hold your occupation responsible for meeting two requirements:
- You feel pride that the work you do benefits your Community or society in some way, large or small
- The work makes adequate use of the skills you have to offer, and attracts your interest
The first point is about purpose. We have a deep longing 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 boring work. And no one wants overwhelmingly difficult work. 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 the work we do contributes significantly to a helpful purpose, and makes great use of our skills and interests. The best (and most satisfying) work of your life happens wherever you can meet these two needs.
5. Negative Space
If you were asked to choose between a brick house and a house-shaped stack of loose bricks, you’d hopefully pick the former. (If you wouldn’t, let’s have a separate conversation, but for the purposes of this post let’s assume we all agree that the first one sounds better.) But why? The difference is mortar.
Hi, welcome to my cement blog where we talk about all different kinds of cement and how great they are. Concrete t-shirts coming soon. They don’t say anything on them, they’re just made of concrete. Please don’t leave.
Okay, just kidding. But back to that mortar for a second. What does it bring to the table? Well, apart from being the adhesive that holds the wall together, it also reserves space in between the bricks. It spreads them out. That negative space in between the bricks is what gives the wall its beauty and keeps each brick secure.
Your life stacks up the same way. The negative space in between your work and projects and activities isn’t just a bunch of annoying cracks that 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 filled with more stuff, more activities, more people, more more more. 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 be able to feel healthy love for others. And a life defined by love opens the doorway to compassion, generosity, gratitude, and better Relationships. All of these wonderful things are the swirling arms of the hurricane of happiness that your life can have. And the eye of that hurricane is self respect.
For a deeper grasp on what self respect really is, how it works, and why it can ravage your life with a category 5 happiness hurricane, check out my earlier post diving into the concept. But with the space I have here, I will simply say: listen to your internal compass. Make choices to lead a life that you respect.
Follow that one simple 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 a variety 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 basic 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 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 get better, 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 too do the results.
A positive outlook is essential to a fulfilling life for two reasons. First, when your mind is engrossed with the positive, you feel more positive about your situation (who knew, right?). And second, pouring your attention into better outcomes constantly proves to make those outcomes reality. There is scarce limit to what humans can accomplish, and that counts double for those who invest their energy in optimism.
Leadership is another frequently misunderstood concept – by both followers and leaders, alike. 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 important. But it’s a totally separate thing from leadership.
True leadership is being a living example of your ideals and offering others a guiding influence through your words and actions.
Whatever your beliefs, whatever ideal you have 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 each and every one of us can be a leader. And it’s something we all ought to consider, because living boldly by your values and effecting change you believe in creates a surge in personal satisfaction and happiness.
Don’t tell people what you think we should believe or what you think we should do, show us. Lead with your actions, and if we are convinced we will follow.
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 to live by their values, and they inspire 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 of them can help us build our happiness, but we can’t conflate those things with happiness on their own.
What matters is the foundation you build underneath these surface-level elements, as well as how you treat yourself and others along the way. To sum it all up:
- Shake up your routine to make today special and forge new Memories
- Find great people to experience it all with and build strong Relationships
- Work together with your Community and lift each other up
- Center your life around meaningful work that gives you Purpose
- Use Negative Space to make more room in your life for the things you truly care about
- Make choices that raise your Self Respect, rather than lower it
- Open up new possibilities and enjoy the journey with a Positive Outlook
- Embody Leadership in your beliefs, and take pride in your purpose
If you want to lead a legitimately happy and fulfilling life, start here. These elements strike to the core of what we want and need as people. If we work on these, all that other stuff can be built on top to create an even more thrilling and satisfying life. But every house must first have its foundation.