How to be happy

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 12.43.04 PM[Click on image above to watch VIDEO: Why is Happiness Important – Gillian Mandich at The Social]

How can you be happy? It’s the million-dollar question that we all want the answer to. Although you can experience happiness in many different ways, it always includes two main components: the feeling of how satisfied you are with your life and how good you feel on a day-to-day basis.

While some of us may have been born with bigger smiles than others, the truth is that we all have control over much of our happiness. In fact, almost half of our happiness depends on our thoughts, actions, and behaviours (the other half is about 10 per cent life circumstances and the rest is determined by our genes). In addition to making you feel good, studies have found that happiness actually improves other aspects of your life, enhances health, and has a positive effect on the people around you.


Science has proven that happiness can be learned through practice and skill development, and the greatest successes come from consistency. Small changes over time will have a big impact on your happiness. Simple, key practices that you can start today to make you happier include:

  • Practice gratitude: Gratitude can significantly increase your happiness as well as protect you from stress, negativity, anxiety, and depression. A regular gratitude practice (spending time each day thinking about/writing down things you are grateful for) is one of the easiest ways to counter the brain’s negativity bias (the tendency to cling to negative thoughts and things in our environment). By intentionally focusing on things you are grateful for, positivity, optimism, and life satisfaction grow.
  • Exercise: Physical activity may be the most effective instant happiness booster. Happiness and exercise are both independently associated with the release of endorphins (feel good hormones), stress reduction, and an increase immune function. Regular physical activity also increases happiness, self-esteem, and can reduce anxiety, stress, and depression.
  • Do nice things for others: When you do kind things for other people it increases happiness because it helps spur kindness and generosity. When you do something nice for someone, it activates the parts of your brain associated with trust, pleasure, and social connection.

Gillian Mandich

About GillianGillian Mandich is currently completing her doctoral studies at Western University in Health and Rehabilitation Science. She is a certified yoga and Yoga Tune Up® teacher, co-hosts the health/fitness podcast and TV show “The Holistic Health Diary”; contributes to numerous print and online media including Chatelaine, Oxygen, Sweat Equity, Mind Body Green, Inside Fitness, and STRONG; is a Desire Map Book Club leader, and is the president of the Western Chapter of the Canadian Obesity Network.

Connect with Gillian

WebsiteGillian Mandich

Social MediaTwitter: @gillianmandichInstagram: @gillianmandich Podcast: The Holistic Health Dairy

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4. Be Proactive About Your Relationships

This applies to all relationships, but especially with your significant other. Plenty of evidence to suggest that many relationships (especially marriages) decline over time.

So what can you do?

I found some interesting research from Northwester University that recommends a “21 minute” evaluation (I’ll forgive them since it’s an academic study) to use on a relationship.

While the study focused on marriages, one of the biggest takeaways for me can be applied more universally:

How would a neutral third party view your relationship recently?

Oftentimes a relationship can go sour if you let it go on autopilot, and there are few things worse for happiness than losing a close companion.

Here are a few other findings from the literature:

  • Regularly check-in with good friends (around 2 weeks for very close friends).
  • Celebrate the good things in their life; let them know through active and constructive listening (ie, not just saying “that’s great to hear!”).
  • Don’t be a conversational narcissist. Studies show people love hearing themselves talk and talking about themselves, so let them.

Taking care of yourself is apart of taking care of others. In this way, your mutual dedication to improving yourself benefits both of you.

As Jim Rohn would say:

The greatest gift you can give somebody is your own personal development. I used to say, ‘If you will take care of me, I will take care of you.’ Now I say, ‘I will take care of me for you, if you will take care of you for me.’

7. Plan Fun, and Spend Money on Experiences

While spontaneous fun is always a good thing, a variety of interesting research has shown that it’s the planning of future activities that often adds to the fun.

While the study above specifically looked at vacations (which may not occur often), additional research covered in Stumbling on Happiness shows that specifically planning a nice dinner can have the same effect. In fact, Gilbert (the author) notes how most participants would actively schedule their free dinner (which they won in the study) a week in advance, instead of the next night:

Why the self-imposed delay? Because by waiting a week, these people not only got to spend several hours slurping oysters and sipping Château Cheval Blanc ’47, but they also got to look forward to all that slurping and sipping for a full seven days beforehand.

Not only that, but these “experiential purchases” tend to make us happier, at least according to the research. In fact, a variety of research shows that most people are far more happy when buying experiences vs. buying material goods.

You’ve likely heard this before, but why is this the case? According to the literature I’ve read, experiences trump material purchases (in general) for the 5 following reasons:

  1. Experiences improve over time: a great experience tends to age like a fine wine. While researchers have noted that physical items can get old quickly (“Ugh, my phone is 2 months out of date!”), experiences can be relieved and shared for years.
  2. People revisit experiences more often: going hand-in-hand with the above point, research shows that experiences tend to get recalled more often. You probably don’t reminisce about that first surfboard you bought, but it’s likely that you fondly remember your first surfing lesson.
  3. Experiences are more unique: say what you want, but people love comparing themselves, and they prefer to stand out if they’re able. Since purchases are often so common, researchers note that we are more likely to compare what we buy with others (which can result in buyer’s remorse). But experiences always have a bit of a unique twist to them, so we are far less likely to make comparisons, and simply enjoy them as they are, relishing in their unique nature.
  4. We adapt slowly to experiences: consumer research shows that another reason why experiences seem so awesome to us is that it takes our brain longer to get used to them. Have you ever felt really energized coming back from a great show/dinner/vacation? It’s less likely that a purchased item kept you excited for that long, and it’s because we are better able to adjust to material purchases.
  5. Experiences are social: human beings are social animals, that’s a fact. Did you know that true solitary confinement is often classified as “cruel and usual” punishment due to the detrimental effects it can have on the mind? Experiences get us out of our house (an epidemic in some countries) and sometimes out of our comfort zone, which is a fantastic way to kill habituation.

I am alone

How to Be Happy Alone

Seems like there are just a few people who haven’t met loneliness. There are periods when we feel lost, lonely, helpless, and hopeless. These periods of life usually come after some stressful situations: separation with a partner, death of a close person, relocation. Then we forget everything we knew.

There are other reasons for a lonely life such as shyness, insecurity, a sense of unacceptability. For most people, the life of a single person looks dark and makes them more vulnerable. But there are also those who enjoy a single life and live their life to the fullest. What is the fact is that the solitary is an increasingly common phenomenon – people with the status of “solo” are more and more.

Most of the difficulties, troubles and the problems of life alone are known or can be assumed.

But let’s be encouraged to look at the benefits of this kind of life, such as independence and freedom. We can organize our time independently and we have the possibility of making decisions on our own. We organize social life as it suits us, we dress as we like, eat what we love.

Further Reading: 10 Things To Give Up If You Want To Be Happy

How to deal with the life of a solo player

How to Be Happy Alone

Although there are a number of advantages of living a life alone, we often cannot accept the benefits of such a life. We simply lose ourselves and don’t know what to do with ourselves.

What is the most important is to accept the situation the way it is now and not to regret or invoke a past, whatever it was. Let’s take a look at ourselves and say to ourselves, “All right, you are alone and what now, what could you do to fulfill your life, to learn to enjoy what you currently have?”

Simple things that provide joy in solitude:

  • The place where you live should be the most beautiful place in the world for you. Arrange it so that you feel relaxed and comfortable in it, just the way you love it.
  • Look in the mirror and see if you have something to change about yourself: hairstyles, hair color, regulate the weight. Whatever you like. Also, give yourself time and go along with activities to achieve a change that will mean to you.
  • Start to acquire new habits through the things you love: nature, recreation, museums, books, movies, cooking. In accordance with your obligations create new routines: one to two times a week of cinema, walking, library, gym, etc.
  • Get for yourself one, two, three hobbies, have some new interests and start learning.
  • Connect with people who are dealing with similar interests. You will be surprised to have good people in this world with whom you can spend some time in nice and constructive conversations. Maybe the friendship is a skill taught from childhood, but it is never too late. In groups with similar interests, you will find someone with whom you can get in closer contact.
  • If you have friends or relatives, don’t wait for them to call you. Call them back and remind them that you exist. Get in touch, organize some meeting and get out.
  • Allow yourself a nice trip. Depending on the financial possibilities: from hiking trails, tours of places in your country to distant destinations. Every departure from everyday life fills with new energy, new knowledge, and new enthusiasm. Overcome shyness and go. You will enjoy yourself.
  • If you are addicted to TV and the Internet, limit your time.
  • Get a pet. Just be aware that you assume the responsibilities and obligations for the other living being for many years. But that will make you happy.
  • Think about what you wanted to do and you never did. And then, do it now.
  • Make a list of your goals and also plans to achieve these goals.
  • Hang out with your thoughts. Be aware of them. How do your thoughts flow? If they are negative, start changing them. Consciously and systematically change your negative thoughts. Stop any negative thoughts coming up; don’t give it your attention. Because, our thoughts can be our best friends, but also the worst enemies.
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Further Reading: 8 Things You Can Do to Be Happy; In Hard Situations

How to be an emotional support to yourself

How to Be Happy Alone

In conclusion, it is most important to be a self-support. At the end of each day tell yourself what you’ve been doing. And when you see what you did on that day, tell yourself how proud and happy you are. Smile to yourself and become conscious of what you are capable of. Also, say to yourself that there is no need for fear and sorrow because you have fulfilled your day. You’ve fulfilled yourself too.

The How of Happiness

In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky shares the results of years of research into what makes people happy. She's concerned with “chronic happiness” (as opposed to temporary happiness), with people who maintain an elevated sense of well-being over time. Based on her work, Lyubomirsky believes:

  • About half of human happiness is biological. Each of us seems to have a happiness “set point” which accounts for roughly 50% of our level of contentment. Because this set point is genetic, it's tough to change.
  • Another 10% of happiness is circumstantial — based on external factors. These include traits like age, race, nationality, and gender, as well as things like marital status, occupational status, job security, and income. Your financial situation is part of this 10% — but only a part — which means it accounts for a tiny fraction of your total happiness.
  • The final 40% of happiness comes from intentional activity — the things you choose to do. A huge chunk of contentment is based on your actions and attitude. You can increase your level of well-being through exercise, gratitude, and meaningful work.

Because circumstances play such a small role in your well-being — and because many of your circumstances are unchangeable — it makes more sense to boost your bliss through intentional activity, by controlling the things you can control while ignoring the things you can't.

You can't wait for someone or something to make you happy. Happiness isn't something that just happens; happiness is a byproduct of the the things you think and say and do.

Just as you ought to become a money boss to take charge of your financial life, you ought to become a happiness boss to take charge of your emotional life. Believe it or not, you can control your emotional responses. It just takes a bit of knowledge and practice.

The Elements of Enjoyment

Walking throught the Peruvian AndesI've found flow while hiking in the Andes. I've experienced it while writing. I've achieved it while making boxes in a factory, while preparing a speech, and while mowing the lawn (for real!). Though each of these activities was very different, they shared some commonalities that helped me get “in the zone”. This made me wonder: Can happiness be somehow be cultivated? Turns out, it can.

During Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's research into optimal experience, he discovered it's possible for a person to gain control over the quality of their daily experience, to build enjoyment into even routine and mundane activities. His studies of diverse populations around the world have shown that our best moments contain at least one — and often all — of the following characteristics (some of which overlap):

  • A challenging activity that requires skill. Flow occurs at “the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenge is just balanced with the person's capacity to act.” To experience flow, you have to be doing something difficult — but not too difficult.
  • The merging of action and awareness. Because challenging tasks require full attention, “people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic.”
  • Clear goals and feedback. The vast majority of peak experiences occur during goal-directed actions bounded by rules, such as playing chess, programming a computer, or climbing a mountain. (Or, in my case, mowing the lawn.)
  • Concentration on the task at hand. To achieve optimal experience, you can't be distracted. You have to be absorbed in what you're doing. As you focus, order comes to your consciousness, which leads to contentment and joy. Fear and worry fade. You are fully present in the “now”. (This idea is the premise behind Eckhart Tolle's massively popular The Power of Now.)
  • A sense of control. During the flow experience, you feel in control — or that you could be in control. More precisely, you aren't worried that you might lose control, a state so typical of much of modern life. To achieve flow, you must believe that you're able to influence the outcome of whatever it is you're doing.
  • The loss of consciousness. During a peak experience, you lose sense of who you are. You become one with your environment, a part of a greater whole. You're no longer aware of yourself as an individual.
  • The transformation of time. When you're in the zone, the passage of time is altered. In some ways, it slows — minutes seem like hours. In other ways, it quickens — hours seem like minutes. You lose track of the clock. This “freedom from the tyranny of time [adds] to the exhilaration we feel during a state of complete involvement.”

That first point merits a closer look. To achieve flow, you have to find a balance between your abilities and the challenge of the task at hand. If what you're doing is too difficult for your current skill level, you'll become anxious. If the task is easy and you're good at it, it'll be a relaxing pastime. Here's a graphical representation of the flow model:

Flow Model

According to Csíkszentmihályi, “The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself.” You might need to complete the task you're working on for other reasons, but you'd do it even if it weren't required. You're doing it not for some future benefit, but because the task itself is so rewarding.

But here's the thing: Flow doesn't just happen. These optimal experiences can be encouraged and fostered. You can become happier by changing where you focus your attention.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

The objects and events around us exist in an objective world. They are what they are. Yet each of us experiences these objects and events in a different way. What happens outside must pass through the filter of your subjective mind before it enters your consciousness. You control what enters your consciousness (and, thus, what enters your awareness and memory).

You and I go to the movies. We watch the same film in the same theater at the same time. You enjoy it. You're wrapped up in the story and moved by the performances. I leave the theater unhappy. “The kid in front of us coughed the whole time,” I complain as we walk to the car. “The seats were uncomfortable and the volume too loud. Plus, I don't like Nicholas Cage.”

We shared the same experience — and yet we didn't.

“Consciousness corresponds to a subjectively experienced reality,” Csíkszentmihályi writes in Flow. “A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what actually happens ‘outside', just by changing the contents of his consciousness.” We choose what we experience, and we choose how we interpret those experiences.

This idea can be challenging to people who possess an external locus of control, those who believe that their decisions and life are controlled by chance or fate or greater environmental factors.

Csíkszentmihályi says that in order to achieve flow and happiness, we must actively create the conditions that lead to it. That means we must learn to direct our focus:

[Happiness] is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control their inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any one of us can come to being happy.

The shape and content of your life depends on how you use your attention. People who master what happens in their heads tend to be happier than those who don't — or won't.

“While we are thinking about a problem we cannot truly experience either happiness or sadness,” writes Csíkszentmihályi. “Therefore, the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and quality of life.”

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The bottom line? Garbage in, garbage out. If you allow yourself to think negative thoughts, your experience will be negative. If you want a positive experience, you have to accentuate the positive in all that you see and do.

We can make flow moments more common and become happier people by structuring our focus and attention to bring long-term improvements to the quality of our daily life. There are two primary ways to do this:

  • Change external conditions.
  • Change how you experience external conditions.

Each strategy is sound. But one is generally easier than the other. Which path you choose depends upon the situation.

Changing Yourself

How I Found Freedom in an Unfree WorldNow imagine you're reading in the park. It's cold. The sun is out, but the air is chilly. You could head indoors, but you're enjoying the lovely day. The solution is to change how you're experiencing the world around you. Put on your jacket and some gloves. You haven't altered your environment, but you've changed how you're experiencing it.

Or maybe you're backpacking through Europe, staying in hostels and cheap hotels. Sometimes it's tough to sleep because the walls are thin and there's nothing covering the windows. Light and noise threaten to keep you awake all night. Again, the best solution is to change the way you experience the external conditions. If you wear an eye mask and earplugs, you can rest comfortably despite the chaos around you.

Most people recognize that they have limited power over their physical world, but many cling to the belief that they can change the behavior of the people around them. In reality, changing others can be nearly as difficult. Writing in How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World — a book we'll discuss at length in part three of this series — Harry Browne calls the idea that you can (or should) control what others do the Identity Trap.

He writes:

[You can't] assume that someone will do what you've decided is right. You've decided it from your unique knowledge and interpretations; he acts from his knowledge and his interpretations.

You're in the Identity Trap when you assume an individual will react to something as you would react or as you've seen someone else react.

If you're unhappy with somebody, there are two options. You can attempt to change the other person, or you can change how you interact with that person. You're almost always better off changing yourself — altering your expectations, accepting new premises — than you are attempting to change the other person.

Here's Harry Browne again:

You could make everyone else be, act, and think in ways of your choosing if you were God. But you aren't. So it's far more useful to recognize and accept each person as he is — and then deal with him accordingly.

You can't control the natures of other people, but you can control how you'll deal with them. And you can also control the extent and manner in which you'll be involved with them.

The paradox is that you have tremendous control over your life, but you give up that control when you try to control others. For the only way you can control others is to recognize their natures and do what is necessary to evoke the desired reactions from those natures. Thus your actions are controlled by the requirements involved when you attempt to control someone else.

People suffer a great deal of unhappiness because they assume that everyone wants the same things — or that they should want the same things. But each person is different, with her own knowledge, experience, preferences, and attitudes.

You can improve your quality of life by either changing your environment or by changing how you interact with your environment. Both strategies have their place, but one is generally much easier and more effective than the other. In most cases, it's difficult or impossible to change the world around you. Attempting to do so simply leads to frustration and unhappiness.

But it's almost always possible to change how you perceive the world around you. In fact, it's this ability that contributes most to day-to-day contentment.

Permission and Control

As children, we're conditioned to ask permission whenever we want to do something. You need permission from your parents to leave the dinner table or to go outside and play. You need permission from your teacher to use the bathroom.

Even as adults, we feel compelled to request permission. You need permission from your boss to leave work early. You need permission from your spouse to grab drinks with your friends instead of weeding the garden. You need permission from the city to build a shed in the backyard.

As a result, most of us have developed an external locus of control. That is, we subconsciously believe we need permission to do anything.

In personality psychology, the term “locus of control” describes how people view the world around them, and where they place responsibility for the things that happen in their lives. Though this might sound complicated, the concept is actually rather simple.

  • If you have an internal locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by your own choices and actions. You believe that you are responsible for who you are and what you are.
  • If you have an external locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by forces beyond your control, by your environment or luck or fate. You believe that others are responsible for who you are and what you are.

Most people respond to the system of rewards and punishments that has evolved in the culture that surrounds them. If your culture prizes material gain, wealth becomes important to you. If it emphasizes familial relationships, family becomes important to you.

But when you live like this — when you make decisions based on your social environment — the only happiness you can obtain is fleeting. As a result, many people suffer some degree of angst, of anxiety or dread. “Is that all there is?” we wonder, when we pause to reflect upon our lives. “Isn't there something more?”

There is something more.

Lasting happiness can be achieved, but not by being a puppet whose strings are pulled by situation and society. To achieve long-term happiness (and meaning), you have to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of your external circumstances. You have to create a system of internal rewards that are under your own power.

If you're unhappy, nobody else can make things better for you. You must make things better for yourself. Focus on the things you can control, and use that control to fix the other things that are broken. In this way, you'll gradually gain confidence and greater control of your future well-being.

You live in a world of your own design. You have the power to choose. You create your own certainty. Life as you want to live, and do so without regret. Give yourself permission to do so.

Caveat: It's okay to seek happiness by changing jobs or moving to San Diego. It's not okay to steal your neighbor's television or to drive on the wrong side of the road. Remember the Golden Rule. Enjoy your life without diminishing the ability of others to enjoy theirs.

The Search for Meaning

Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps during World War II. The extreme suffering and harsh conditions caused many inmates to lose their will, to welcome death.

To be sure, prisoners often had no control over whether or not they died. But Frankl observed, “A man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”

When treated like an animal, Frankl said, a person can choose to be an animal — or she can choose to be “brave, dignified, and unselfish”. According to Frankl, “the way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails…add a deeper meaning to his life.”

In the classic Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl states his thesis thus:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

Frankl's experience served as a crucible for his theory of personality development, which he called logotherapy. Before him, Alfred Adler had argued that people possessed a Nietzschean “will to power” (more here), and Sigmund Freud had argued that we're all motivated by a “will to pleasure” (more here). Frankl, on the other hand, believed that humans are born with a “will to meaning”, a fundamental need to discover their purpose in this world.

The three basic tenets of logotherapy are:

  • The search for meaning is the primary motivation in each of our lives. This meaning is unique and specific to each individual. (Frankl's philosophy is one reason I ask Get Rich Slowly readers to do is create a personal mission statement.)
  • Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones. What matters most isn't the meaning of life in general, but the meaning of each person's life in each moment.
  • Humans are self-determining. That is, we don't just exist, but choose what our existence will be. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do and what we experience — or at least in how we respond to each situation.

Frankl's argument that you're always free to choose your attitude is echoed in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's statement that “how we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depends on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experience”. It also echoes Johnstone's Impro: “People with dull lives often think their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone choose more or less the kind of events that happen to them.”

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Suffering ceases to be suffering...Accepting responsibility for your own fate and attitudes can be uncomfortable and intimidating. There's a kind of solace when you can attribute your situation to the winds of fate, the whims of the gods, or the inner workings of the universe.

But recognizing that you're a free agent can be liberating too. When you take matters into your own hands, you shed your fears, create your own certainty, and discover that you're freer than you ever imagined possible.

If you struggle to know what you're life is about, you're not alone. I get email all the time from folks who are stumped about what it is they want to accomplish. They know they don't like how things are going, but they're not clear on just what they should do to make things better.

To finish this discussion of meaning and happiness, I'm going to share three exercises designed to help you find direction. (If you've read my stuff at Get Rich Slowly before, you'll probably recognize one of these. That's okay. If you still need help finding your purpose, you should work through it once more.)

First up, let's talk about how to prioritize how you currently spend your time.

Who Are You? — and What Do You Want?

In order to get things done, to be productive, to achieve greater meaning and happiness in your life, you need to make sure you're spending more time on the big rocks and less time on the “sand” of everyday life (such as errands and email). But how can you determine which things are important?

George Kinder is a Certified Financial Planner. Unlike many CFPs, Kinder isn't just about the nuts and bolts of money. He moves beyond the numbers in an attempt to address the goals and values of his clients. “Without life planning,” he says, “financial planning is like using a blunt instrument on the organism we call the human being.”

Near the beginning of his work with each client, Kinder challenges her to answer three questions. These questions are designed to lead the client deeper and deeper into her desires until they reveal her goals and values, the things that bring her meaning and purpose. Kinder shared these questions in his book, The Seven Stages of Money Maturity.

Your next task is to set aside half an hour to answer Kinder's questions as honestly as possible:

  1. Imagine you're financially secure. You have enough money to take care of your needs, both now and in the future. How would you live your life? Would you change anything? Let yourself go and describe your dreams. What would you do if money were no object?
  2. Now imagine that you visit your doctor. She reveals you only have five to ten years left to live. You'll never feel sick, but you'll have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining? Will you change your life? How will you change it? (Note that this question does not assume unlimited wealth.)
  3. Finally, imagine your doctor shocks you with the news that you only have 24 hours to live. Nothing can be done. At this time tomorrow, you'll be dead. What feelings arise as you confront your mortality? What did you miss? Who did you not get to be? What did you not get to do?

Answering the first question is easy (and fun). There are many things we'd do if money were no object. But as the questions progress, there's a sort of funnel. They become more difficult to answer, and there are fewer possible responses. Life planning is all about answering that final question.

Note: If you'd prefer, you can download a free PDF with a similar exercise that I used in the Money Boss crash course: Your Personal Mission Statement. Someday, I'll update that for Get Rich Slowly.

According to Kinder, the third question usually generates responses that follow five general themes:

  • Family and relationships. Ninety percent of responses to the final question contain this topic.
  • Authenticity or spirituality. Many responses involve leading a more meaningful life.
  • Creativity. Surprisingly, a large number of respondents express a desire to do something creative: to write a science-fiction novel or to play guitar like Eric Clapton.
  • Giving back. Further down the list are themes about giving back to the community, about leaving a meaningful positive impact.
  • A “sense of place”. A fifth common theme (though nowhere near as prominent as the top three) is a desire to have some connection with place: a desire to be in nature, to live someplace different, or to help the environment.

Kinder says that some people — the facts and figures people — look at the life-planning process and ask, “What does this have to do with money?” It has everything to do with money. When you understand what you want to do with your life, you can make financial choices that reflect your values.

All of these questions — and the entire life-planning process — are meant to cause the participant to ask herself, “Who am I as a person, stripped from what I do as a job every day? Is it possible to derive meaning and satisfaction with this stripped away?” Inevitably, the answer is yes.

The Path to Purpose

We covered a lot of material in this article. Let's review what we've learned.

Happiness and meaningYou can improve the quality of your daily life by learning to focus your attention and choosing to filter your experiences through a lens of positivity. But while it might be simple to find happiness in a single day, it can be much more difficult to link a series of days into a meaningful whole. Still, just as we must be active agents in creating our own happiness, we must also take an active role to create meaning in our lives.

“Creating meaning involves bringing order to the contents of the mind by integrating one's actions into a unified flow experience,” writes Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. To give meaning to life, to achieve this “unified flow experience”, you need a purpose — an overall goal around which your lesser goals are clustered.

The path to purpose is different for each of us. Exercises like those I've shared here — the big rocks, the three questions, and the lifeline — can help you identify your personal purpose, but often this process requires many years of experience and soul-searching. Don't feel bad if you haven't found your purpose.

And be aware that it takes more than cultivating purpose to make meaning out of life. To make meaning, you must also forge resolve. You must take your goals seriously. If you're not willing to accept the consequences of the goals you set, or to put in the effort required to achieve them, those goals become meaningless.

Curiously, it can often be easier to find meaning and purpose by limiting your options. The more choices we have, the more difficult it is to maintain our resolve.

“Commitment to a goal and to the rules it entails is much easier when the choices are few and clear,” notes Csíkszentmihályi. “When we can imagine only few opportunities and few possibilities, it is relatively easy to achieve harmony. Desires are simple, choices are clear. There is little room for conflict and no need to compromise.”

Because life is complex (and becoming more so every day), it's vital to keep your psychic energy focused on the things that matter most. Exercising personal restraint and preferring simplicity can help you stay glued to your purpose, on your goals both big and small. Restraint and simplicity reduce the possibility of distraction.

But restraint and simplicity aren't enough. When life gets busy and you feel overwhelmed, you must do more than just simplify your environment. At these times, action and intensity become your allies. “Harmony is restored to conscious indirectly — not by facing up to contradictions and trying to resolve conflicting goals and desires, but by pursuing chosen goals with such intensity that all competition is preempted,” writes Csíkszentmihályi. “Action helps create inner order.”

Action cures fear; apparently, it also imparts purpose.

The final piece to the making of meaning is self-knowledge, the process by which you sort through conflicting choices. Based on your personal history, preferences, and passions, you must filter the available options to select the goals that truly reflect who you are and what you mean to the world.

Example: At any given moment, I have many options available to me. Do I want to write another book? Do I want to speak at a conference in India? Do I want to continue to write about money? Do I want to study Spanish? Do I want to travel more? Less? And so on. Most of these options are good (by which I mean they're positive, both for me and for the world). Who I am and what my life means is a product of the opportunities I choose to pursue.

Ultimately, it's up to each of us to discover our life's purpose though a combination of simplification, action, and self-reflection, by being true to who we are and what we believe, and be setting goals we find worthy of pursuing for their own sake.

In 2006, J.D. founded Get Rich Slowly to document his quest to get out of debt. Over time, he learned how to save and how to invest. Today, he's managed to reach early retirement! He wants to help you master your money — and your life. No scams. No gimmicks. Just smart money advice to help you reach your goals.

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