Happiness is a Puzzle, but not a Complicated One

By Steve Fisher  People everywhere are obsessed with happiness. How to achieve it, how they lost it, how to get it back etc. There are over 90,000 books on the topic on Amazon in English alone. A search for “blogs on happiness” on Google returns nearly 26 million results. Buddhism, a religion of nearly 500 million people, is essentially devoted to being happy and relieving suffering and helping others do the same. Whatever our culture, we all want it, perhaps more than we want anything else.

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All photos in this post are from my first trip to Vietnam, March and April 2014

Is it possible though that we are overcomplicating it? That excellent results can be achieved by adhering to a few basic principles. Most experts agree that our level of happiness is largely determined by a few basic factors.

One good summary of these is blogger Belle Beth Cooper’s Ten Scientifically Proven Ways to Make Yourself HappierAnd even this relatively spartan list can be pared further. If you strip away the more minor items (shorten your commute etc.) you could probably summarize the really important things that experts agree on in an even shorter list:

  1. Spend time with friends and family
  2. Help and be kind to others
  3. Exercise
  4. Get enough sleep
  5. Meditate and be mindful
  6. Practice gratitude – aka focus on what you have, not what you want

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For me personally, these are the behaviors that matter most. It’s interesting to note that these six basic principles focus on our social (1 and 2), physical (3 and 4) and emotional lives (5 and 6). Naturally, your own list may be a bit different.

To some degree I think we know much of this, without consulting any experts. If we observe and reflect on our daily lives and the emotional consequences of our behaviors, much of this is somewhat obvious. Are we happier when we spend time with friends and family? Of course. Are we happy when we buy the new iPhone? Well, yes, but only for a very short time, an extremely low return on investment given the cost. (Not surprisingly, the experts in this area NEVER cite bigger house, nicer car and other things as key factors in happiness.) Are we happier when we exercise regularly? Of course. How do we feel if we veg out in front of the television for too long? Or when we eat or drink too much? Not good, obviously. Even without the experts, this is something we already know on some level – in order to be happy, there are a few simple behaviors that are really important.

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Am I oversimplifying here? Of course, I am. But that’s the point – most of us don’t have time for even one of those 91,000 books. And if excellent results can be achieved by focusing on a few important things, why wouldn’t we start with those?

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While these principles may be simple, each will require some effort and changes in behaviors, if not already part of our daily lives. But whatever your own answer to “What makes you happy?” (and there is of course individual variation), I do think that each is realistic and doable.

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And even if you find that a number of the pieces are currently missing, there’s no need to tackle them all at once. Simply adding one new habit at a time provides huge benefits. For instance, taking my own list of six above, even if we are lacking in every single one, adding just two new behaviors each year (start exercising and meditating, say) would bring about a massive positive transformation in just three years! Even putting one or two of the pieces in place would yield huge emotional benefits, so there’s no need to wait at all. We can begin with the first piece of our own surprisingly simple happiness puzzle today.

What about you? What are the few basic things that make you happy or would make you happier? What daily habit could you cultivate to put one of the missing pieces into place?

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Additional thoughts – perhaps other major life goals like financial independence and fitness are not so complicated either

Focusing on a small number of important principles is highly effective in pursuing other life goals as well. Take personal finance, for instance. Like happiness, this is a topic we love to talk about. From the Vietnamese grandmother on my street who stashes all her cash under the family Buddhist alter to the business owner with a globally diversified investment portfolio, people everywhere care about their financial assets and how to manage them. But, as with happiness, is it possible that it’s a lot simpler than most people imagine? I think the expert consensus can be expressed in a few basic principles:

  1. Live below your means
  2. Avoid consumer debt
  3. Invest the surplus (for most people, a well-diversified index fund is the way to start)

I enjoy a good book or blog on personal finance as much as anyone. (A favorite is I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi, which in spite of the title is actually a surprisingly entertaining guide to financial independence for people of any level of income or financial goals). But no amount of reading or learning is going to make a difference – it’s actions that change lives. And when it comes to actions needed to achieve financial independence, I doubt that Sethi or other consensus experts would disagree with the three basic principles above.

Or take staying fit, another topic people love to think, worry and talk about all over the world. Here too there are tens of thousands of books, millions of blogs and an entire aisle of slimming aides in my local supermarket here in Saigon. For the vast majority of us though, a few basic principles are all we need:

  1. Eat healthier
  2. Not too much
  3. Be physically active

If excellent results can be achieved by steady adherence to a small number of basic principles, why overcomplicate things? Life is complicated enough and most of us don’t have enough time. Why not focus our behaviors around simple, proven principles?

I’m the furthest thing from an expert on financial planning or healthy living or happiness, and I’m an imperfect practitioner of all these principles. Of my own list of six basic behaviors for happiness, I’m originally bad at all but one (exercise). As I’ve worked on the others over the last few years though, I have noticed that even modest efforts and improvements yield big results. As I’ve steadily worked to cultivate habits like prioritizing social relationships, meditation and gratitude, and also through noticing what works in personal finance, I’ve come to believe that these and a lot of other major life objectives are a lot less complicated than is often imagined. That big gains are possible if we focus on the basics. They really do work!

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