As Aristotle famously wrote, “[h]appiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Yet, while each of us wants to live happy, fulfilling lives, many don’t know how to achieve happiness.
Some think happiness results from wealth, a perfect mate, a great car, a large home or some other possession, or something else. Inevitably, people who only pursue these avenues to be happy will be disappointed. Happiness does not reside externally. Happiness is an inside job!
What can you do to achieve real happiness? Are there any rules you can follow to attain true happiness? What guideposts can you set for yourself that point in the direction of experiencing true happiness?
There are four core principles for achieving happiness in your life. These are easy to recite, maybe hard to understand, and for some possibly difficult to apply. The four core principles, which this article highlights, are:
- Be as healthy and physically fit as you can be.
- Do not expect perfection. Perfection is an illusion that exists only in your mind.
- If you think your best days are behind you, you are right.
- Every day make someone else’s life better without expecting anything in return.
How did I discover these four principles for attaining happiness? I have experienced successes and failures, periods of intense happiness and times of discontent, and feelings of self-assurance and self-doubt.
I have experienced fear. Will I have enough money to live on? Will I die prematurely as my mother did? Will I recover from a rare form of cancer I had? Will my marriage be successful? Will I succeed in my profession? Will my children and grandchildren love me? Will I slip into a deteriorated mental state as I age?
From these experiences, I discovered that for me to be truly happy, I need to follow these four rules – and stick to them, no matter what external factors tug at my life.
I have explained these four principles for happiness to many people. Some have said they are life-changing. In one instance, I ran into an acquaintance I had not seen for several years. He said my explanation of these principles was the most important conversation he had ever had and that afterward, he started living his life very differently, attaining much greater happiness.
As I noted above, it’s easy to state these four principles of happiness. It is harder to practice them and to incorporate them into your life. But like many other patterns of behavior, the more you practice, the more skilled you become.
Let’s explore the four in more detail.
The First Principle
Be as healthy and physically fit as you can be
Frequently the foundation of your home or office building goes unnoticed. Yet, the foundation holds your structure erect and firmly in place. It also keeps out rodents, water and tree roots. It protects against extreme heat and cold. Builders know that the foundation, which must be strong and steady, is the most important part of the building.
Your body is your foundation. Your entire life will be influenced, positively or negatively, by your physical foundation. It provides support for everything you do including walking, sitting, sleeping, eating, breathing and thinking. If your body foundation is shaky, like the shaky foundation of a building, it will imperil your entire structure, weaken your essence and negatively affect much of what you do throughout the day.
This leads to the First Core Principle – be as fit and healthy as you can be. Optimal fitness and health will positively influence your life. It will provide a steady and sound foundation for you to enjoy a happier life.
To build this foundation, you should exercise regularly for strength and cardiovascular conditioning, eat healthy foods whenever possible, and use knowledgeable and accessible health care professionals. These are the building blocks of a solid life foundation.
Many people who exercise regularly do so because they want to look and feel good, and be attractive to others. Those who frequently visit gyms have told me this. These are healthy and worthwhile goals.
However, there is another reason for building and maintaining a sound physical foundation. At 73, I needed serious abdominal surgery. It wasn’t an emergency so I could schedule the surgery three months away. During that period I trained even more diligently, hoping to enter the surgical suite as fit and as healthy as I could be.
In my first post-surgical visit, the surgeon stated that it was among the easiest operations he ever performed and that my recovery was remarkable. I ask him why that was so. The doctor replied, “because you were extremely fit.” That was an eye-opener.
So this is another compelling reason to be fit and healthy. That is, no matter your age you may be thrown a curveball which could be an injury, disease or serious illness. You will be much better positioned to meet such challenges if your foundation is strong – if you are as fit and as healthy as you can be when that curveball comes your way.
Happiness begins with building a strong physical foundation. That is the First Core Principle.
The Second Core Principle
Do not expect perfection. Perfection is an illusion that exists only in our minds.
Stephen Hawking said, “[o]ne of the basic rules of the Universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist. Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.”
Many of us seek perfection. We might want to find the perfect mate, drive the perfect car, live in a perfect house in a perfect neighborhood, take a perfect vacation or work in a perfect job. But as Hawking observed, perfection does not exist. I would add, perfection does not exist except in our own minds.
We may be able to visualize a perfect mate, car, vacation or job. We can even aspire to perfection. But it must always be with the understanding, as Hawking knew, that perfection is unattainable. You might have a great mate, car, vacation, house or job. But none of these will be perfect. Each will have imperfections, sometimes large and sometimes small.
What happens to people when they fall short of perfection? Many become disappointed, and sometimes angry. Some unable to achieve perfection may have self-doubt. None of these reactions, though, are likely to result if you understand that perfection is never attainable. As Winston Churchill said, “perfection is the enemy of progress.”
This leads to the Second Core Principle for attaining happiness – never expect perfection in any person, anything or any experience. And especially not in yourself.
The Third Core Principle
If you think your best days are behind you, you are right.
If you think your best days are behind you, you are right. If you think your best days still lie ahead, you are right. After all, happiness is a contemporary frame of mind, accessible to us every day of our lives.
Oprah Winfrey once said, “The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change their future by merely changing their attitude.”
In my own life I reached a crossroad. Three years ago I retired from the practice of law. I had been successful; I had attained international prominence. This professional identity was the essence of who I was. Surely nothing going forward would match these achievements.
I was wrong.
I came to understand that I had confused achievement with happiness, and now, upon entering a new phase of my life, I was free – and empowered – to focus on attaining increased happiness, a fulfillment equal to or greater than my professional success.
At first, fear was my enemy. My four happiness principles became my friends. They have guided me ever since and led me to the “magic elixir” in my life – optimism.
Optimism about the future has positive effects. It propels you to achieve greater heights. It may cause people of all ages and circumstances to be attracted to you. Optimism keeps you young as you age. It enhances mental alertness and can reduce stress. It helps to cope with adversity. And, finally, optimism about the future helps you to be happy. It is optimism that suggests that there is more to come, and that what will come will be good, motivating and satisfying.
In fact, the Mayo Clinic reports that there are a number of health benefits associated with optimism. These include less depression and anxiety, a reduced risk of death from cardiovascular problems, and an increased lifespan.
If you live your life believing your best days are behind you, you sacrifice the wide range of important benefits that can result from genuinely believing your best days still lie ahead. The days ahead are likely to differ from those in your past. But within these differences lie new and exciting possibilities, new and enriching relationships, new insights and new achievements.
Every night, when I put my head down to sleep, I excitedly think about how great tomorrow can be. Not how perfect it will be. Not how it will be problem-free. Not that it will be free of stress. But it will be rich with opportunities to learn, grow and connect with others.
Let optimism be your GPS!
The Fourth Core Principle
Every day make someone else’s life better without expecting anything in return.
Plato once wrote, “[h]appiness springs from doing good and helping others.”
The Ancient Greek philosopher was on to something. Scientific research has produced compelling data that show helping fellow human beings can contribute to your happiness and contentment.
As Jenni Santi, an author who has written extensively on happiness, stated in her Time magazine article titled “The Secret to Happiness Is Helping Others”,
“Through fMRI technology, we now know that giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. Experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in the brain—and it’s pleasurable. Helping others may just be the secret to living a life that is not only happier but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful.”
Service to others can be performed in many ways, of course. You can join a non-profit organization that helps others, work in a food pantry, or make a charitable donation. Such activities do not have to be on a grand scale or time-consuming. Instead, your goals should be to engage in works that provide you with meaning.
One small act of kindness or compassion, intentionally done each day, can contribute significantly to your happiness. I have found this to be true over and over. I feel lifted, kinder, and more caring – all “happiness ingredients”.
Give up your subway seat to someone older. Open the door for a mother and her young children. Say something with a smile such as “I hope you are having a nice day.” Check on a neighbor who is living alone. Buy a cupcake for a shopkeeper who you see regularly. These small acts of service and generosity can be performed with ease.
There is a Chinese saying that applies here: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”
As noted earlier, I discovered the Four Core Principles for Happiness by examining my own life, including my successes and failures and my own twists and turns. From these experiences over the past 75 years, I learned what rules work for me. Others who have practiced the Four Core Principles for Happiness have said that their lives were changed, and that they are enjoying more happiness and contentment. And here’s the big payoff: the happier you are, the more you will want to be happy.
While each of the Four Core Principles can be applied individually, there is a profound synergistic effect when they are practiced together. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The happiness and contentment you receive through one Core Principle will enhance the positive effects of the remaining three, and you can experience greater happiness and contentment.
As the Second Core Principle shows, you will never attain a life of perfection even if you practice all Four Core principles. Being human always has cuts and bruises, and warts and scars. These are unavoidable. But if you follow the Four Core Principles for Happiness, you will be much better equipped to deal with life’s imperfections. As Helen Keller wrote:
“Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.”
Finally, remember the words of the Dalai Lama, who wrote, “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.”
The Four Core Principles for Happiness are the roadmap for a happier and more contented life. Like any skill set, the more your practice these Principles, the easier they become.
Start applying the Four Core Principles! Life is such a powerful journey, and time is precious. A rich and unique future awaits you!