Our Mistaken Ideas About What Makes Us Happy


By Leo Babauta

Most of us are operating on mistaken ideas about what gives us happiness — and these errors are costly.

Think about how you normally spend your days — and then think about whether that’s making you happy. Now think about the cost to your health and long-term happiness.

Let’s give a few examples, so you can see what I mean:

  • Social media: If you spend a lot of your time on social media, perhaps for it’s entertainment value or distraction from things stressing you out … notice if this leads to better or worse happiness and mental health. For many, it leads to worse mental health and less happiness, and has huge opportunity costs.
  • TV, Youtube or other entertainment: Same as social media — it usually has diminishing returns on happiness (10 hours of TV makes you less happy than 1 hour of TV), and huge opportunity costs.
  • Work: Our hope is to get a lot of work done, to clear things out, so that we’ll have peace and feel accomplished. This, of course, never happens — there’s always more work to be done, and our lists and inboxes are never clear (or at least, not for long).
  • Email / messaging: Chances are, you spend a lot of time responding to people. There’s nothing wrong with that — most of us need to respond to some things. But the drive to constantly respond comes from fear, and no matter how much you respond, it rarely leads to happiness or long-term benefit beyond responding to the essentials.
  • Shopping: Next time you have the urge to impulse buy something online … pause and ask yourself what you’re hoping to get out of that purchase, beyond the item itself. Sometimes the purchase is an absolute necessity, but mostly we’re hoping that buying this thing will give us a certain feeling — without knowing what the feeling is that we’re hoping to get. If you figure it out, ask yourself after the thing arrives if it gave you that … and then if it did, notice how long that lasts. Buying something rarely leads to a long-term gain in happiness, and often not even a short-term gain.
  • Eating: Of course, we have to eat. And there’s something pleasurable and wonderful about good food. But often, we’re eating because of a craving or compulsion, because we think it will soothe or satisfy something. It rarely works. And it can come to the great cost of our health, if we’re overdoing it.
  • Drinking alcohol: The same goes for drinking alcohol — there’s nothing wrong with it, but when it becomes a “have to” rather than an occasional treat, we’re doing it with hopes of soothing something or satisfying something. And that doesn’t really work.

OK, if you’re on board with all of that — then you might be asking, “So, what does lead to happiness?”

There are two places to look: outwardly and inwardly.

Outward Happiness Activities

All of the activities listed above can actually give you happiness — eating a handful of blueberries, for example, gives me much more happiness than a large fast food meal. Doing some work, or watching a beautiful movie, or reading an inspirational social media post online … these can all lead to some happiness.

The most important thing is the way that the activity is done — with full appreciation, and without needing more and more and more. If you can approach anything this way, then the outward activity can lead to happiness.

That said, there are a few outward activities that I notice lead me to more happiness than most activities:

  • Being outdoors and in nature
  • Moving my body in a delightful way
  • Eating healthy food
  • Meditating
  • Taking care of myself
  • Connecting with others in an authentic way
  • Expressing myself through creating
  • Doing an act of service for others
  • Smiling, laughing, dancing, playing

This isn’t a complete list, but hopefully you can see that these are happiness-related activities. Some activites can lead to greater happiness — if we fully allow them to. If we do them like we do most things, rushing through them without much appreciation, then they won’t have a big effect.

Inward Happiness Activities

In the list above, of outward happiness activities, you might notice something — many of them are related to some inward experience. And that’s the most important thing — the real happiness comes from what’s happening inwardly.

Here are some inward activities you’ll notice from the list above:

  • Being delighted by movement, music, connecting with others
  • Caring for yourself or others
  • Having fun, playing, smiling
  • Being fully in the present moment
  • Being grateful, being appreciative
  • Loving
  • Feeling connected to others, yourself, or the world around you
  • Expressing your full self

Again, this isn’t a complete list. The idea is to show you the inward activities that are happening with any outward activity, that lead to greater happiness.

There are lots of other inward activities that don’t often lead to greater happiness: judgment, complaining, needing more and more, hating, seeing the faults, hiding yourself or shutting yourself off from the world. Not that these are bad things — they’re human, and we all do them, and they’re a part of the beautiful experience of living. But you might notice that when you’re doing them, they don’t fulfill you as much as other inward activities.

From that, you might consciously practice the inward activities that lead to greater fulfilment, meaning, love. How would you like to practice?

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