Being happy doesn’t mean you’re in a state of euphoria all the time.
Being happy also doesn’t mean you’re in a constant state of untouchable calm all the time.
According to researchers, you need both: a long-term sense of fulfillment, with short-term peaks of pleasure to spice it up.
In other words, a noble purpose in life—and a few parties.
A Noble Purpose: The Foundation for Happiness
Many people will say they “had a bad day at work” but also “love their job.”
If your vocation serves a noble purpose, some short-term setbacks or stress won’t derail your happiness for long.
For example, when I’m working with gym owners who are going through a hard time, I tend to carry a lot of their burdens personally. I lose sleep when they’re going through a rate increase. I comb their social media nonstop when they fire a coach. I wouldn’t describe these days as “happy” ones, because I care a lot about my clients.
But I also benefit from having a strong sense of purpose: I know, from vast experience, that they’re doing the right thing in the long term. And if I can get them through hard action, they’ll eventually become far happier. Their families will benefit. Their staffs will benefit. And their clients will benefit most of all. That’s why being a mentor makes me happy.
How do you know if your job or vocation fulfills a noble purpose? When you’d do it for free. I would do this job for free—hell, I have. You probably would do your job for free, too.
When owning a gym was my only job, I daydreamed many times: “If someone would just come along and pay me a salary, they could have the gym and I’d be happy.” I just wanted enough to survive and keep going. The job made me happy. Unfortunately, the necessities of ownership soon began to outweigh the happiness I received from coaching. Until I fixed the business, coaching made me unhappy.
The Pleasure Party: Still Necessary
Was Mother Theresa happy? I’m not sure. I never saw a picture of her smiling.
I’m sure she was satisfied, maybe content. She had a noble cause to serve: helping the poorest of the poor in India’s slums. She was good at it. Her work made a difference that she could see every day.
But was she happy?
Think of your happiness like a big, colorful circus tent. The fabric of your happiness is your noble purpose or just cause. But the poles propping it up are those short bursts of joy called pleasure.
A cancer researcher might have a great sense of purpose, but if she spends every weekend alone, she might still be unhappy. In fact, some of the smartest people in our culture are unhappy because their intellect is confined to math or science.
How to Become Happy: Taking Action
Naval Ravikant asked, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?” And that’s what started this journey.
Obviously, happiness doesn’t just happen. You have to create it. So I went looking for directives.
Naval led me to Daniel Kahneman and Paul Dolan first.
Paul Dolan wrote “Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think.” His greatest insight was that the pursuit of happiness can be measured along two parallel lines and achieved both actively and passively.
For example, active pleasure might mean sex. But you can’t have sex all the time. Passive pleasure might mean being carefree and lying on a beach. But you can’t do that all the time, either; if poverty doesn’t get you, diabetes will.
Filling in the gaps between bouts of pleasure is your overall sense of purpose. Active purpose might mean making a short-term sacrifice for long-term gain, like shopping for groceries. That’s not a pleasant chore, but it does help you gain a sense of purpose. Passive purpose might mean having a noble goal in life. That noble goal—or a vision of service—is often enough to carry you through severe unpleasantness. I’ll write about that in the next article in this series.
So if you’re a gym owner, try to find something fun in every class you teach. Tell a joke in every appointment. But don’t lose sight of your mission, either: Take time to write down your mission and how life will look when it’s fulfilled (we call this your “vision”). The clearer your mission, the happier you’ll be.
The next step is to make other people happy. You’ll become happier as a result. So help your clients find pleasure (tell a joke or hand out smiles and hugs). But also take care to remind them of their purpose. Remind them, every day, why they’re in your gym. It’s not just a good sales practice, not just a good retention tool; it will make you happy, too.
Finally, give yourself permission to experience pleasure. Eat the damn cake at the Christmas party. You don’t have to be an example of willpower or stoicism or discipline all the time.
I’m sharing this series over the holidays for this reason: because I spent too many holiday parties trying to “set an example” for others by eating only vegetables and turkey, working out at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning before my kids woke up, and just generally being hardcore.
What I was really doing was separating myself from everyone around me. I was separating myself from the experience (and happiness) that they were having. No, eating sugar won’t make you happy—we all know it. But self-sacrifice without a noble purpose won’t, either.
Consider the holidays your three-day happiness kickstart. Your mission: to be as happy as possible over the next 72 hours.
3, 2, 1 … go!
Other Media in This Series
How to Be Happy (for Entrepreneurs)
How to Be Happy: Step by Step, With Bonnie Skinner
How to Be Happy: The Just Cause Effect
How Much Suffering Is Enough?