What Makes You Happy May Not Be What You Think

Photo by Sander Weeteling on Unsplash

Serenity is not in things but in what we make of things. —Epictetus, Greek Stoic Philosopher (55-135 AD)

Some of us are truly happy over the long haul. However, most of us don’t know how to sustain authentic happiness. We may give ourselves some thrills in the short run but are unclear how to maintain meaningful joy. Others of us have simply given up on ever being lastingly satisfied with the quality of our lives. Like the German philosopher Hegel who said, “Happiness is for cows,” we may have become cynical and don’t aspire to be joy filled. Some of us just assume we’re happy because we lead the so-called “successful life.” Yes we may publicly report to others that life is good but privately we have our doubts. Often we don’t act as if we are happy or treat our loved ones very well. The saddest part of this scenario is that most of us don’t even know how to make ourselves happy. We live, like the gerbil in the wheel, chasing what we will never find.

We live, like the gerbil in the wheel, chasing what we will never find.Clearly a lasting sense of personal contentment is something that each of us can find only for ourselves. It would be presumptuous of me to claim to know what will make others happy. However, in being a psychotherapist for over 40 years I would probably have better luck in telling you what will likely make you unhappy. I would tell you that 50 percent of your joylessness is determined by genetics and the rest can be ascribed to having troubled relationships with your loved ones and a deficit in not knowing how to emotionally nurture yourself, especially when swept away by the allure of a materialistic culture. However, for the purpose of this article, lets focus on what might make us happy and how we may have some misguided ideas of what give us joy. You and I can be happy most of the time if we make wise choices in how we pursue life joy.

Let’s examine what research says about how we make us happy. You may be in for some surprises in what you learn. Let’s look at several areas of living: personal adversity, financial success, personal love relationships, and self-esteem.

Personal adversity

Most of us would equate leading the problem-free life with being happy. Actually just the opposite is true. How we handle adversity is what determines our mood. Sometimes the more adversity, the happier we are. Indeed, having crushing bad things happen to us certainly takes the shine off the apple. However, in the long run, if we play our cards right, the shine on the apple can return even brighter. How we deal with adversity is more important to being happy than avoiding adversity altogether. The Dalai Lama once said, “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.” Actually only good things happen to us. We take success for granted and we don’t fully learn what we are capable of as persons. We stay limited in our views of life and we become risk-avoidant and insecure. How we handle adversity, rather than living the problem-free life, is in the long run what gives us true confidence and contentment.


I remember when my husband, Ben, and I had our second child. We longed for a playmate for our rather precocious first child, Alex. Ben and I are academics and we expected our kids would be smart. We passed on getting amniocentesis. To our shock baby Lisa was born with Downs Syndrome. Ben just couldn’t bear the thought of having an unintelligent daughter. He insisted that we have her adopted out. I loved this baby and told him Lisa came from my body and is an important part of our family. Ben even threatened to divorce me but I held firm in ways I rarely have ever done with Ben. We went round and round forever on this issue. Finally, I invited Ben to give Lisa a chance and see what he might discover. Well, after many tears and lots of patience and hard work, it turned out that Lisa was exactly what our family needed. Lisa is an absolute darling and amazingly affectionate. Although she requires a lot of patience, she brings life and play to all of us. In fact our whole family became way more loving than it had ever been and learned to enjoy a simpler life. Ben and Alex simple do everything with Lisa. She is our miracle baby.

Financial success

Money is not the key to happiness. It is happiness neutral. Six months after winning the lottery people are no more happier than before they won the lottery. Up to a point, money does make us happy as our basic life needs-food, clothing, housing and health care-are met. After that point we actually don’t become any happier no matter how much money we attain. Being too wealthy is like owning a fancy car. It can be more trouble than it’s worth. You have to worry about it more than owning an old clunker. In fact, wealthy people often continually worry about their possessions and insuring their security puts added pressure on family life as parents spend too much time away from the family. In fact, if we develop a materialistic life style we actually become very unhappy and at risk for a variety of disorders. We never know who our real friends are and we equate our worth with external validation and status. People are actually happier with money when they take care of basics, live within their means, practice a frugality and give to charity. The famous Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy once said, “Wealth is the number of things we can do without.”

SEE ALSO  Taking Care of Yourself: Start With the Obvious


I remember the old days when our kids were young and Mike and lived in this cute and rather cramped house on the wrong side of town. The roof leaked, our neighbors were nice but loud and we had a garden in the back. I stayed home with the kids and got dinner every night on the table. We played games and took walks as a family nearly every night of the week by the river. Now both Mike and I work power jobs in the biotech industry. Our kids are all in traveling team sports. We live in the better part of town where we have spectacular landscaping but no one gardens. We rarely if ever have family meals together.

Personal love relationships

Most of us mistakenly believe that we have to be in a loving relationship with a partner in order to be happy. It’s true that being partnered is a way to have more intimacy and sex and offset the doldrums and isolation of life. However, being partnered is not all it is cracked up to be. Half of all marriages end up in divorce and even those that maintain aren’t as happy as they appear. Oddly enough even the most blissful couples get stuck in “hedonic habituation,” the many ways partners take each other for granted and fail to appreciate the specialness of their relationship. On average, research tells us that loving partners lose their initial sexual fireworks after the second year of marriage and many marriages have rather mundane sexual experiences. After all, when you’re doing the same old same with just one person day after day, it’s hard to find excitement and novelty. The fact that you are with your beloved actually makes it harder to be adventurous and thrilled because there is so much at stake if you fail. Being a happily married person and being happy are often at odds with each other.

When we do connect with others we are way more happierHowever long-term partners can put zest in their marriages. They may need to move beyond the stereotyped roles they started their romantic life with. They’ll likely benefit from introducing novelty and adventure in their romantic life and taking meaningful risks that push the envelope of what they’re accustomed to. They will also benefit from regularly witnessing new strengths in their partners and in themselves as they weather the storms of life. However married life is not a requirement to be happy. Being partner less can actually make it easier to be happy. Research tells us that single persons can have a full satisfying life by enjoying a range of close friends, all of whom add adventure and meaning to life and functions as a chosen alternative family.


Mark and I got some free tickets to a Bob Dylan concert. I mean we never go out and do wild things like that like we once did. After all we are in our fifties and have raised three kids. Often we come home from work after driving our kids to all their practices. We just put our feet up on the couch and crash. Sometimes we forget to eat. So this concert was a really big deal to us. Then the big day of the concert came along. You can guess what happened. Just as we are about to leave Mark looks and me and says, “Honey why don’t we just order out for pizza and snuggle up on the couch as we want the basketball playoffs.” I just looked at Mark and sighed, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I was thinking.” However that night when we  went to bed I shed a tear as I knew what we are missing.


People today are clueless when it comes to maintaining self-esteem. They often act like overgrown teenagers, worry what other people think of them and what other people have that they don’t have and they don’t reflect on themselves. Social media obsessions only make people unhappier. Comparisons with others and being envious typically leads to mood disorders partly because we are wasting precious time that could be better spent working on our own happiness and better knowing ourselves. Our mania about being famous will never make us happy since status is always short-lived and shallow. So many of us get caught up in the media trance in our quest to be famous. What could make us happier is the actual pursuit of our own mundane life goals and fellowship with others in trying to reach our own personal aims. It’s the journey towards the goals that makes us happy, not actually attaining them. For more guidance read The Myths of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. We actually get more happiness from picking up litter in our neighborhood and feeling we make a difference than being a media hero.

SEE ALSO  Rising Above After a Breakdown

Happiness with self is a journey. It involves knowing ourselves and developing a realistic view that balances our strengths with our weaknesses. It involves learning how to fail and how to share credit for our success. We got a lot father on focusing on ourselves with the support of others than focusing outside ourselves and what other people think of us. When we do connect with others we are way more happier when we have actual face-to-face get-togethers than imaginary on-line connections. Avoidance of eye contact increases mood disorders, depresses our immune systems, and lessens our self-confidence. When it comes to people contact remember make it real as “The eyes are the windows to the soul.”

Nevertheless, some of us may have an impossible time making such changes. If happiness has often eluded you, be easier on yourself. See your doldrums as a message from your soul that has yet to be decoded. Each of us can be happy once these messages are unraveled and integrated into our lives. Often, like working on our cars, we need another trusted person to help us understand and respond to the warning messages. Once this is done our psyches release to us be happy in our repaired lives.

Finally let me tell you a story. The Greek man, Epictetus, was enslaved by the Romans in the first century A.D. He once said, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” He decided to be happy with whatever little he had and practiced Stoicism. He lived to the ripe age of 80 and became perhaps the most important philosopher and psychologists of all time. Many of his thoughts 2000 years ago predated all modern psychology. True to his wisdom, research today shows that the happiest people on the face of the earth are Scandinavian people because they expect little more out of life than the basics and they are surprised if they become happy. In fact each of us is capable of knowing ourselves, making ourselves happy and developing wisdom that lasts for ages. All we need is the courage to honor what we know.

John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men.

This article was first published in the May/June 2013 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn a small commission via some of the links on this page – at no cost to you. 

Last Updated on December 14, 2022

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *