Getting happy?

I had this conversation last night with two friends at what I have long considered to be the world’s worst Taco Bell, before going to watch Australia (which I probably can’t praise enough, and which totally made up for the long wait at TB, and the outrageously insufficient amount of baja sauce on my gordita). The conversation was over this question. It probably won’t strike anyone as immediately profound, and might even seem banal or trite, but I think that perception is deceptively false, because I doubt one in a thousand people have actually tried to sit down and answer it for themselves.

The question is this: what conditions would need to be met, what would need to be the case in your life in order for your to be really, deeply, seriously happy? I don’t mean just that you would be smiley or laughy. I mean what would life need to be like for you to be deeply satisfied such that you don’t feel any of those bad feelings that we all think of as opposed to happiness (anxiety, worry, dread, fear, insecurity, painful want, etc.)? I think that we could all get pretty far into a list and, upon comparing them all, we’d find that most lists are pretty similar (an experiment I hope we can do here). But, if that’s the case, why do so many lives look so different? If the underlying drive for satisfaction is a fairly constant, singular thing in all of us, why do our actions, which must be guided at some level by that desire, branch out so much? Do all of these branches lead to the summit of happiness, just through different routes? Are some (or all?) of us confused about what really will make us happy, so that we’re going down dead ends? Or do some of us strive for something other than satisfaction (I’m not sure that could be the case though)? I think that writing out, and reflecting on a list like this might help a person see themselves more clearly in an important way. Perhaps we’re greedy and don’t even know it, wanting far more than we should ever expect from the world. Maybe we’re wasting a lot of our time doing things that don’t relate at all to what we want out of the world. Maybe we’ll see that we’re really bad people who want childish, foolish, or wicked things. Who knows?

Either way, if for nothing other than a fun thought exercise (though I imagine for a lot more), here is some of my list, (which I’m sure will grow in my mind immediately after I click ‘publish’). Feel free to post your own.

In order to be truly happy, I think I would require at least the following:

1. The company of good friends who know and love me, and are committed to my well being and good living, and to making me happy in the ways friends do.
2. One of the friends in 1 to be an attractive, affectionate, assertive woman who wants to be, and is my wife, and is faithful to me, shares at least some of my deep interests, and has other important interests of her own, and with whom I have regular moments of deep romance.
3. No serious absence of bodily pleasure such as good food, sleep, sex, etc.
4. An honest sense of satisfaction with and admiration of myself.
5. The amiration of those whom I admire.
6. Regular, challenging, non-trivial intellectual stimulation through conversation and reading.
7. The honest belief that I am characteristically making a positive contribution to humanity.
8. Triumph over my enemies.
9. The ability to engage in leisure without guilt (something I struggle with a lot).
10. The general happiness of those whom I love.
A. Financial stability such that my needs were provided for, I could afford reasonable luxuries when I wanted them, and could provide for those whom I love when their needs arose.
B. To live in a community where the needs of all were met, and reasonable luxuries were available to all.
12. Regular time in nature.
13. Regular interaction with my friends in leisure, work, and learning.
14. The sense of living in a generally safe society.
15. The sense that I live in a truly free society.
16. The reasonable, justified sense that I am not ignorant of some great thing that would undo my happiness.
17. The sense that my happiness is is not rightly the cause of another person’s undeserved unhappiness.

That’s all I’ve got so far. Anyone want to give it a go?


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  1. #1 by Alex Marshall on 1.19.09 - 8.13 pm

    Trying to tackle the questions you’ve asked a little bit:

    It seems that even if we have the same desires, our different experiences can push us to view and go after those desires differently. For example (and this may be a bad example, but hopefully it will illustrate something)- if we have two individuals who both desire some sort of occupation, their experiences may cause them to approach that very differently. If one has had bad experiences with bosses, they may want to avoid “working for someone” and instead try to be more self-employed or at least work in a less supervised way. Another person may really want good working relationships and lots of social interaction in a job. To a large extent, I think that is going to be based on past experiences they have had.

    So in terms of what makes us happy, we may all agree on a basic list of things, but we may approach those things very differently based on how experiences have shaped us and “taught” us. That probably results in a variety of different “branches” for pursuing happiness in terms of the things we do to try and accomplish our desires. I don’t think I would say they all succeed, though.

    I think my list would be pretty similar to yours, though maybe if we became more specific it might look a little different (for instance, trying to decide what qualified as leisure or as luxuries). I might add an occupation that allows me to do things I really care about and enjoy doing- satisfaction in my work, in other words.

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