10 Keys to Happiness

“Those who wish to sing always find a song.”
~ Swedish Proverb

The quest for joy is universal. The founding fathers of our country included the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right. Countless saints, prophets, philosophers, historians, politicians, and even scientists have commented on and searched for joy and happiness. Joy is an emotion of the spirit. We feel it deep within our souls. It comes through healthy living. It comes as a result of living with a sense of trusting life. Joy is not a casual or shallow feeling.

When a person comes into therapy I ask why they are there. No matter the age of the client, the answer is some variation of “I just want to be happy.” What is happiness? Why is it so elusive? Why do so many seem to be ever-seeking it while it remains just beyond their grasp? We crave happiness. We universally yearn for it.

Happiness is an attitude towards life.

Happiness is an attitude towards life.

Most people equate fun and a life free of pain with happiness. When people tell me they want to be happy, I ask what this really means to them. The general picture my clients paint of happiness is life free of pain or stress topped with a heavy dose of pleasurable experiences.

True happiness has very little in common with fun or pleasure or living free of pain. Yet, we cling to the illusion. Pleasure is fleeting. We can be participating in a fun activity and not feel happy at all. (See Healthy Living: “Don’t Be Afraid of the Hard Stuff”) Happiness comes as a general sense of well-being that the Buddha called “the gladness connected with the wholesome.” In Buddhist practice “wholesome” includes the feelings of health and wholeness which contribute to the well-being of everyone and everything around us. (Baraz, 2010)

– JOY             

            – HAPPINESS

                             – WELL-BEING

No matter how you say it, it is a real feeling and available to everyone. Positive Psychology (see Happiness: “The Science of Happiness”) and traditional wisdom help us know where to find it. Research tells us both where to find it and how it elludes us. The following are 10 keys to finding happiness. Each key has articles and workbook exercises in the Empowered Life Solutions Curriculum, but they are briefly outlined here to give an overview.


1.  Happiness is Found in the Here and Now.

Happiness is in the present moment right before us–not in endless worry about the past or the future. Waiting to live stifles happiness. Life is happening right now. Living in the present moment of chosen happiness is like recapturing the enthusiasm of childhood. Children live in the here and now. That is why a child can fight, cry, or even throw a tantrum and then quickly return to laughing and playing as if nothing ever happened. They have the experience, they feel the feeling, and then they move forward.

Empowered Life Solutions resources for Happiness is Found in the Here and Now:

2.  Live with Intention toward Well-Being.

Abe Lincoln said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” That which we set our attention to comes into our lives. Consider the metaphor of a half-empty or half-full glass. If you think about what is missing in your life or what is wrong in your life, your glass is half-empty and that is what you see and feel. If you focus on what you are grateful for and what is going well in your life,

Happy is a choice!

Being happy is a choice!

your glass is half-full and you feel better. Edison did not invent the light bulb by pondering the darkness but by focusing on the light.

Just knowing the symptoms of and coping skills for depression does not teach you how to embrace happiness. Researchers Foster and Hicks (2004) found that intention is the force behind all happiness. They explain that, “unlike most forces in life that are out of our control, our intention is fully in our control. In other words, we can’t always choose our circumstances, but we can always choose our attitude and reactions to things around us.”

Often we move from one activity to another, unaware of what we are drawing to ourselves. If you focus on the problems in your life, how sick you feel, or how out of control the world is, you will feel a negative energy through your whole body. You may not even be aware of the source of this discontent.

On the other hand, people who live with a sense of well-being set their intention on happiness. An example of this is author Stephanie Nielson. She was burned over 80 percent of her body in an airplane accident. As she tells of her experiences in her memoir, she is really explaining her intention towards happiness. She recounts, “I have learned that doses of quiet joy can be brief, but their effects are long lasting and often carry me through.” (Nielson, 2012)

The great thing about intention is that it can be learned. (See Depression:  “Learned Optimism”) You can retrain your brain to function more positively with the understanding that you draw into your life those things you focus on. You can’t see the glass half empty and expect to live in a state of joy and well-being.

Empowered Life Solutions resources for Living with Intention toward Well-Being:

3.  The Art of Being/Mindfulness.

Mindfulness is often described as “non-judgemental awareness” and usually refers to consciously being aware of what is happening in the moment without offering judgement or resistance. We are generally focused on our internal dialogue (called mind chatter) and the story we tell ourselves about what is happening.

I accompanied my mother to all of her doctor appointments, procedures, and chemotherapy during her battle with stage four lung cancer. From this experience, I concluded that you can learn more about living in an oncology office than anywhere else. From the time of her diagnosis, she lived in a state of complete mindfulness. She experienced a surreal peace and deeply held sense of well-being that not only sustained her but filled her last months with joy and peace.  Cancer brought her fully present and allowed her to let go of a lifetime of worry. It was as if cancer gave her the freedom to just be.

Consciously be aware of the beauty of this moment.

Consciously be aware of the beauty of this moment.

Betty Smith in her classic novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn said it this way: “Look at everything as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time. Then your time on earth will be filled with glory.” (1943) Happiness comes from living in a state of mindfulness.

Empowered Life Solutions resources for The Art of Being/Mindfulness:

4.  Find your Happiness through Kindness, Compassion, Love, and Service.

A Hindu proverb says, “Help your brother’s boat across, and your own will reach the shore.” From a very young age we are taught to act with compassion and kindness because it is the right thing to do. Positive psychology gives us scientific research to what our parents knew all along: kindness, compassion, and service make us happy. It turns out that acts of kindness are good for the recipient but may be even more helpful for the giver.

Kindness, even when we have nothing to gain from it, makes us happy.

Kindness, even when we have nothing to gain from it, makes us happy.

When we think and do for others, we feel good. It may be unexpected, but being kind and compassionate, even when it’s unpleasant and inconvenient, or when one expects or receives nothing in return, also brings feelings of well-being. (Lyubomirsky, 2008) Albert Einstein expressed it this way: “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”

My first child was born with a myriad of health problems. There were times when the doctors said they had done all they could and that he might not make it through the night. Those were gut-wrenching times. Even when he was not in a state of crisis, life was centered on his health and how to best meet his needs. Endless sleepless nights, doctors’ appointments, and hospital stays dominated his early years. Although there was no expectation of anything in return from him, my son was offered the love of a mother’s heart. As I look at the 35 years I have now shared with my son, there is a wealth of joy and satisfaction from offering that unconditional love and service even though there were many times of pain and uncertainty. (See Happiness: “Life Sustaining Hope”)

Service and love is ultimately what sustains us and offers us joy in living.  As Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

True kindness, unselfishly given, brings a deep happiness or sense of well-being. True kindness and compassion include the love and patience we offer ourselves as we stumble through life in a very human way. Happy people don’t expect a reward, they just give with generosity. Think of the simple act of smiling at a store clerk instead of talking on your phone or complaining. Simply smiling during this brief interaction feels better.

Empowered Life Solutions resources for Find your Happiness through Kindness, Compassion, Love, and Service:

5.  Living with an Attitude of Gratitude.

At the age of five, Andrew Bienkowski and his family were exiled from Poland to Siberia. His grandfather could see that there was not enough food to sustain the whole family. He made the ultimate sacrifice of not eating to provide enough food so young Andrew could live. Andrew writes of his life experiences in his book One Life to Give: A Path to Finding Yourself by Helping Others. He writes, “Thankfully, most of us will never be called upon to make as great a sacrifice as my grandfather made, but we can make smaller, daily sacrifices. We can learn to put others first in ways that create joy and enhance our lives.” From this harsh beginning, he learned to look for the miracle in every day.

Although we understand gratitude is important in theory, we rarely cultivate gratitude on our daily to-do list. We focus on what we

Cultivate gratitude on your daily "to-do" list.

Cultivate gratitude on your daily “to-do” list.

want to accomplish, what our life is lacking, or how our situation needs to be different. Bienkowski suggests that, “if you are in a position to take things for granted, you are already blessed beyond your needs.”  When we focus on needing more or something else to be happy, we miss the abundant life that is right before us. I believed I was living with a general feeling of gratitude. However, after I read Bienkowski’s story, it was clear that gratitude was not a priority in my life and that I had clearly missed the link between gratitude and joy.

Thus, several years ago I focused on seeing my world through the eyes of gratitude. Noticing all I have brought a deep sense of wonder at the miracles in my daily life. That year for Christmas, I gave each of my children a gratitude journal with a challenge born of my new perspective (the same exercise can be found through Empowered Life Solutions Premium Content Workbook Happiness: “Gratitude”). Bienkowski concludes, “Ironically, one of the best ways to cultivate a desire to help others is to practice being purposefully grateful ourselves. Spending even a little time each day focusing on the things we have to be grateful for improves all aspects of our lives.” It’s that simple.

“Be grateful for your life, every detail of it, and your face will come to shine like a sun, and everyone who sees it will be made glad and peaceful. Persist in gratitude, and you will slowly become one with the Sun of love, and Love will shine through you its all-healing joy”  (Harvey, 2010)

Empowered Life Solutions resources for Living with an Attitude of Gratitude:

6.  Happiness is Found in Integrity.

Integrity is defined as acting congruently with the authentic or divine within you. More simply, integrity is doing the right thing for the right reason. When you live with integrity, you allow your values and the goodness within you to guide you rather than making your choices based on or justified by the actions of others or your situation. Living with this level of congruence brings happiness and stability.

Mahatma Gandhi suggested living with integrity when he said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. . . we need not wait to see what others do.”

Every choice we make has a consequence. This is the essence of what the Buddha referred to as natural law. “For one who leads a virtuous life, it is a natural law that remorse will not arise…For one free of remorse, it is a natural law that gladness will arise….For one who is glad at heart, it is a natural law that joy will arise.” (As found in “Awakening Joy” by Baraz and Alexander). The apostle Paul in teaching of Christ said “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (KJV Galatians 6:7). When you live with integrity, you reap happiness.

Empowered Life Solutions resources for Happiness is Found in Integrity:

7.  Living with Accountability.

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us” (Oliver Wendell Holmes as found in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey). One of the biggest problems in society today is that people do not want to take responsibility for their lives. They want to blame the past or their circumstances for the lack of happiness in their lives. They wait for something to be different so they can be happy. They see themselves as victims with little control over what happens.

Blaming others or your situation usually follows these thoughts and can become a lifelong pattern. This is placing your happiness or despair within someone else’s control. Your lack of happiness and well-being becomes someone else’s fault. It is your parents’ fault. It is your boss, teacher, co-worker, landlord, etc. who is the problem. This attitude means that happiness is outside of you. Stephen R. Covey suggests living “inside-out” as the alternative. What he means is that happiness is found deep within you and not from your situation or other people.

One of the secrets to happiness is learning to take accountability for your own choices. Look yourself squarely in the mirror and say, “I am responsible for the choices I make.” There is a great sense of freedom–even a letting go–with the movement from victim to accountability. It is one of the biggest perspective shifts one can make.

This is not to say that we don’t have experiences where others harm us, let us down, or down right swindle us; but accountability means taking back the responsibility for our own choices regardless of our circumstances. You learn to say from deep within you, “I am responsible for my own life. No one can take charge of it but me.” Samuel Johnson observed:

“The fountain of content must spring up in the mind, and he who hath so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief he proposes to remove.”

Empowered Life Solutions resources for Living with Accountability:

8.  Finding Joy Even in Difficult Times.

Happiness is a matter of habit. If happiness is equated with pleasure, we may think pain is equated with unhappiness. Upon close reflection, we discover that joy is not a stranger to pain. In order to feel deeply enough to become acquainted with joy, our hearts

Our pain and joy are connected.

Our pain and joy are connected.

must have felt sorrow. A heart may not be big enough to know real joy until it has been stretched and pulled by trials and hard things.

When we have hard experiences the natural inclination is to numb out the feeling.  But you can’t selectively numb feelings.  When you numb sorrow, anger, fear, and pain you also numb out joy, happiness, and well-being.

One of my teachers in mindful living would greet each student with this salutation: “May you find the source of your pain and thereby happiness.”

Our capacity to feel happiness actually increases as we allow ourselves to feel the full range of emotions–including the painful ones. It may seem very odd to include the subject of pain in this discussion. But to understand and experience true joy one must understand the intertwining of the full range of emotions in the human experience.

Empowered Life Solutions resources for Finding Joy Even in Difficult Times:

9.  Living with Meaning and Purpose.

Our lives can be compared to a boat on a great ocean. On calm days we enjoy the warmth of the sun and the vast blue sky; but on stormy days, we can live life tossed to and fro by the waves that crash upon us. Yet even on stormy days the water is calm below the surface. With an anchor connected to deep and calm waters, we are held steady whether the surface is calm or stormy. I call this concept living with faith in the process of life rather than being controlled by the fearful self-talk that keeps us tied to the volatile surface water. Being connected to the stillness of the deep waters is living life with meaning and purpose.

When our experiences have meaning and depth we feel a greater sense of well-being. Living life with meaning and purpose is about attitude towards our life experiences. Dennis Merritt Jones in his book The Art of Being suggests, “Every human being’s purpose is identical: it is to ‘be the spirit of God manifesting in the human condition.’”

As you become connected to a life with meaning and purpose you feel a sense of calm come to day-to-day living that changes your life perspective. Jones concludes that simply living every day with a sense of the sacred within you is to live a life of purpose. No matter your life circumstance, when you see meaning and purpose in your experiences you feel an increasing sense of joy and contentment from within.

Empowered Life Solutions resources for Living with Meaning and Purpose:

10.  Living Congruently with Your Authentic Self.

Carl Jung describes the self as the totality of man, the sum total of his conscious and unconscious contents, the God-image or the God within. (Storr,1983) Sarah Ban Breathnach in her book Simple Abundance describes the authentic self as the “the soul made visible.” Most self-help books, philosophers, mystics, and spiritual leaders point to the deepest part of each human–the part that goes beyond the fearful ego that worries you are not good enough.

Live congruent to your deepest self.

Live congruent to your deepest self.

Discovering and living congruently with the authentic self suggests your divinity regardless of what you have done or failed to do. Living congruently with your authentic self comes from understanding that your worth as a human is not conditional. Wayne Dyer suggests that you can live each of your days, regardless of what you may be doing, with a sense of bliss that comes from living congruent to the truth that your inner soul knows you are eternal. (Dyer, 2001)

A client once asked how he could tell if his self-talk was depression speaking or was really true. Through the discussion we came up with this simple rule of thumb: If it feels bad (as if you are inherently flawed and incomplete), it is usually depression or anxiety speaking. If it feels good, you are living more congruently with truth. So simple. Live congruently with your authentic self and you feel happy.

Empowered Life Solutions resources for Happiness Comes Through Living Congruently with Your Authentic Self

Join Empowered Life Solutions Today!

Cindy Lee, LCSW, RPT-S; Clinical Director at Empowered Life Solutions

“Every life has a purpose our mission is to help you find yours.”

Related Reading:

One Life to Give: A Path to Finding Yourself by Helping Others by Andrew Bienkowski

Your Sacred Self: Making the Decision to be Free by Wayne W. Dyer

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky


Baraz, James, & Alexander, Soshana. (2010). Awakening Joy: 10 Steps to Happiness.

Bienkowski, Andrew. (2010). One Life to Give: A Path to Finding Yourself by Helping Others.

Breathnach, Sarah Ban. (1994). Simple Abundance : A Daybook of Comfort and Joy.

Churchill, Winston. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved March 3, 2014, from BrainyQuote.com Web site: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/winstonchu131192.html

Covey, Stephen R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.

Dyer, Wayne W. (2001). Your Sacred Self: Making the Decision to Be Free

Einstein, Albert. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from BrainyQuote.com Web site: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins145936.html

Foster, Rick, & Hicks, Greg. (2004). How we Choose to Be Happy: The 9 Choices of Extremely Happy People–Their Secrets, Their Stories.

Ghandi, Mahatma. VOL 13, Ch 153, General Knowledge About Health; Page 241, Printed in the Indian Opinion on 9/8/1913 From The Collected Works of M.K.Gandhi; published by The Publications Division, New Delhi, India.

Johnson, Samuel. (1750). Rambler (No. 6).

Jones, Dennis Merritt. (2008). The Art of Being: 101 Ways to Practice Purpose in Your Life.

Lincoln, Abraham. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from BrainyQuote.com Web site: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/abrahamlin100845.html

Lyubomirsky, Sonja. (2007). The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

Nielson, Stephanie. (2012). Heaven Is Here: An Incredible Story of Hope, Triumph, and Everyday Joy.

Smith, Betty. (1943). A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Storr, Anthony, “The Essential Jung”, MJF Books 1983 by Princeton University Press

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