yellow painted wood wall with a woman with an umbrella posing

How to be happy

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

I spent a lot of time living in Tokyo 15 years ago on my bicycle, riding to this park or that garden with one or another book on Eastern philosophy or Asian history. Two concepts I learned about happiness have endured.

One is from a famous passage attributed to ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. He’s translated as writing: “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”

That framing shook me enough that I wrote it down on a scrap of paper and kept it in my wallet for years. Happiness is an old virtue. Aristotle called eudaimonia the highest human good. In recent years, we’ve returned to it in a serious way, with the UN World Happiness Report and positive psychology. Familiar as I am with all of this, I returned to that scrap of paper again earlier this year.

I sunk deeply into a second depressive funk as pandemic winter burnout caught up to me. I was too isolated for my own health. I was overwhelmed by the ills of the world, my country and my hometown.  It felt hopeless. I lost motivation. I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t focused. I really struggled for months. I wasn’t happy, and I couldn’t figure out how to break out of it.

I meditated, and read affirmations. I fell asleep to recordings of soothing sounds. I read philosophy and self-help books and wrote out my feelings. I drafted lists and named sources of my joy. I started a new project and reevaluated what was most important in my work and my life. I exercised and set a personal goal to lose a bit of weight. I saw more friends, family and weak ties. I talked openly about my struggles with personal and professional contacts. 

None of those helped on its own. All of it helped together. 

This summer, as I was emerging from the funk without yet realizing it, I joined a CEO group. I told the facilitator-coach that I didn’t feel like I was developing professionally or personally. After talking it out, he said: “Rather than being stuck, it sounds like you’re having as much individual growth as ever.”

I’m feeling more myself now. I am resolute in my goals. The coach was right: I wasn’t struggling fruitlessly. I was acclimating myself to a new environment. That’s growth. I lost my hold on happiness, which I had put a lot of time into, and so I had to remember how to get it back. What, then, is the advice I’d give myself in the future if I’ve lost my footing again? 

  • Trust yourself. If you feel anxious, consider it a reminder to evaluate. Don’t ignore it, dive in, even if it might mean months of discomfort. 
  • Talk about it. Be open and vulnerable. People are generous. Many friends helped me get to a better place. I spent a lot of time sharing with friends whatever philosophy or happiness research I had been reading.
  • Know you have everything you need. Whether that Lao Tzu quote or something else helps you, it’s crucial to understand that, for most of us, happiness is a personal journey and the safety net is understanding that we already have what we need to be happy. 
  • Write it out. Write what makes you scared. Write what makes you happy. Write your favorite things and your stresses. Write your goals and your fears. I can’t overstate how helpful a self-discovery device this is.
  • Set your internal goal. External motivators are fleeting. What gives you joy without recognition?

That last step is harder than it seems — at least it was for me. The second enduring happiness concept I was first introduced to in Japan 15 years ago was an ikigai, or sense of purpose. I read about it in 2006 in an academic setting. In recent years, it’s been championed by a class of intellectuals, self-help gurus and retirement advisors. It asks: If you had a free morning, what would you do? I had a rough understanding of this for myself but earlier this year, it felt more urgent to be specific. I wrote out a few drafts before one clicked: a single sentence on a notecard that excites me and happily fits with much of what I do with my time. That’s when I got back to being able to confront the chaos of the world. 

It took me 15 years to get there and I may lose it again. I’m glad for the journey that brought me here.

(Photo of happiness via Unsplash)