Overcoming fear is one part of living life without regret. You do that by being open to new people and new experiences, and by acting even when you’re afraid. Another aspect of a rewarding life is learning to find happiness in your daily existence — and building upon that happiness to construct a meaningful life.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, “All knowledge and every pursuit aims at…the highest of all good achievable by action.” What is that good? “Both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well with being happy.”

Happiness, he said in the Nicomachean Ethics, is “the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

To some extent, a good life requires good fortune. Happenstance can undermine the well-being of even the most virtuous person. But Aristotle held that ultimately happiness isn’t a product of chance. You can allow misfortune to crush you, or you can choose to bear the blows of fate with “nobility and greatness of soul”. Although fate may play a role in your affairs, Aristotle believed that in the end, happiness depends upon yourself.

Modern psychologists agree.

In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky shares the results of years of research into what makes people happy. Studies with twins indicate that about half of human happiness comes from a genetic setpoint. We’re each hardwired for a certain baseline level of contentment.

Other studies have shown that roughly ten percent of happiness is determined by our circumstances. Some of these conditions — such as your age or eye color — cannot be changed. But some of these external factors — such as your job, income, or marital status — can be changed.

But the surprising part of Lyubomirsky’s research is that the remaining forty percent of happiness comes from our intentional activity, from our attitudes and actions. It’s a by-product of the things we think and do.

Because circumstances play such a small role in your well-being — and because many of your circumstances are unchangeable — it makes more sense to boost your bliss through intentional activity, by controlling the things you can and ignoring the things you can’t.

I’ve been reading and writing about money for nearly a decade. I’ve been reading and writing about happiness for nearly as long. The subjects are deeply intertwined. Based on my research and experience, I’ve developed not only a philosophy of well-being, but a short summary of the research into how to be happy. This hundred-word piece is a sort of personal roadmap; whenever I sense I’m drifting off course, I re-read it, and I find my way again.

My friend Lisa is a graphic designer. Recently, for kicks, she and I collaborated to create a print based on my summary of how to be happy. It looks like this:

How to be happy

That’s dozens of books about meaning and happiness compressed into one hundred words. Notice that none of this advice involves waiting for someone or something to make you happy. All of it requires intentional activity on your part to increase your well-being. Happiness isn’t something that just happens; happiness is a byproduct of the the things you think and say and do.

We’ll talk a lot more about happiness in the months to come. Stay tuned!

20 Replies to “How to Be Happy”

  1. Gina says:

    JD you are amazing. Thanks for doing what you do. I just recently started reading this blog and as always –your timing in perfect. You’ve helped me turn my financial outlook around via GRS. Its not the same since you left even though I read your guests posts there from time to time. This article is exactly what I needed to read and once again I’m addicted to your blog. It helps me feel like a better more well rounded person. You have a gift of making the complex simple and inspiring me to take action. I hope to stay on track and meet you and MMM.

    • jdroth says:

      Would love to meet you, Gina. Do you have any plans to attend Camp Mustache in May?

      • Gina Cruz says:

        Hey !! So ecstatic you responded. No will not , but its on my bucket list. It filled up quickly this year and I will also be away to France that month for the first time. PS I would buy a print too.

  2. KSK says:

    Thank you for this post. I really needed to hear these words today, as I make some decisions about some major changes in my life.

  3. Christine says:

    THIS! I love your 100 words on happiness. I couldn’t agree more with what you boiled down all the thoughts out there on happiness to. Any thoughts of selling your print? Cause, I would love to buy one. Please keep it coming. I love getting your posts in my inbox.

    • jdroth says:

      Lisa and I talked about selling the print, but we’re not sure how to make that happen. I have a framed version hanging here at home, and I have a few extras that she made. But we haven’t done any sort of mass production. Maybe someday? If you email me (jd @ this domain), I might send you a copy just for free. 🙂

  4. Carol C says:

    Totally love your “100 Words”. It contains much wisdom and is lovely to look at. Many thanks to you and Lisa for creating it.

  5. Olga King says:

    Couldn’t be more timely.

  6. Chris Hamm says:

    Sir, your 100 words are beautiful and for the ages.

  7. ‘happiness depends upon yourself’.. Can’t agree more to this. Yes, at the end everything comes to this. It rests upon your mind, expectations, achievements, and meaning of happiness to you. Happiness is a relative concept. I have seen couples live life happily with just being able to meet their two ends. In fact, I have also seen many rich people complaining about everything around them and searching for the all elusive ‘happiness’. Someone told me some years back in terms of an equation: Happiness increases with greater Achievement than Expectation. However, when I asked that person: Does that mean we will become happier with less or suppressed Expectation?, the person didn’t mind to reply. So, at the end of the day: Happiness is all in your mind and not in terms of achievements.

  8. jdroth says:

    Hey, all. Thanks for the kind words. Another reader dropped a line by email to share something he wrote along the same lines (also based on Aristotle). J.D. Stein’s version of how to be happy can be found at his site, Silence Like Thunder. It’s good supplementary reading.

  9. Nancy says:

    I’d buy a print, too, J.D.!

  10. chewy says:

    I love this post! I have heard some of these things before, but the 100 words is nicely succinct and seems to capture all of the major points. I think I’ll print this out and tape it up next to my list of 10 forms of happiness!

  11. Leslie Frey says:

    J.D. why do you think money and happiness are so deeply entwined? I’m truly wrestling with this question right now. I want my happiness to be independent from money. I want my limitlessness to have nothing to do money. I want to have faith that all my needs will be provided for by the same great power that brings rain to grass.

    And yet, I know there is drought.

    Without being too woo-woo, I know that my happiness, my spirituality, and my finances are truly entwined. Perhaps because I’m the granddaughter of missionaries and ministers, this is unique to me. But I seriously doubt it.

    You say you’ve been writing about money and happiness and that they are deeply entwined. I agree. I’d love to hear your thoughts on WHY this may be so for many of us.

    I’m excited to continue this exploration with you.

    I also enjoy “100 Words,” especially “Share without reservation.” I can’t share what I don’t have, which is why I’m having to teach myself how to receive.

  12. Marie says:

    Those 100 words are truly awesome! For me, one way to be happy is to let go of your anger and fears, love yourself and always thought of a good idea.

  13. chacha1 says:

    This is a great distillation. For me personally, the key to becoming happier was Acceptance.

    Accepting who I really am and what I really want, and accepting that I have a right to express that – this was quite a leap for a female brought up in the 1970s South. For me at least, being happy requires being true to myself.

    But, first and foremost, Accepting that people were not mine to change – but circumstances were.

  14. TC says:

    If you want to be happy you need to be at peace with yourself. Most of the time, it is ourselves we are angry and disappointed. We have to get over ourselves and be happy about who we are. Nice to see a piece about happiness on a blog you came to learn about money, thanks.

  15. Jenzer says:

    A friend of mine sells her art prints through Society6. Maybe that would be one way for you and Lisa to make “100 Words” available as a print?

  16. Jody Phillips says:

    May I post your list of 100 words on my facebook page? I will give you credit, of course. THIS MUST BE SHARED 🙂

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