Happiness Without the Hype: What it Really Means and How to Find It

Tejvan’s article earlier this week on happiness really got me thinking:

  • What does it mean to be happy?
  • Am I happy?
  • Is happiness really everything we expect?

The word “happiness” is used so frequently, in so many different contexts, for so many different reasons, that it’s lost all definite meaning.

Everyone wants to be happy, and this desire has been exploited to promote everything from products to politics to religious beliefs. This is sort of sad, and more than a bit confusing. It’s no wonder most people have trouble deciding if they are happy or not.

What Happiness Means

A common belief is that happiness means different things to different people. I don’t buy this. While the things that lead to happiness are different for everyone, the state of happiness is universal — so universal that the limitations of language (how can words describe a feeling?) make trying to define it an exercise in futility.

Nevertheless, I’m foolish enough to try.

Happiness is joy that emanates from the soul. Unlike pleasure, which is based on sensation, happiness comes from the mind. It is largely independent of the outside world. It is not an intense passion, but a tranquil state that defies time.

Happiness is a state of mind. It’s not something that can be taught or given from one person to another. It is achieved with profound understanding and a monk-like control over the thoughts and emotions that torment us.

Are you with me?

What Makes People Happy

When people think about their lives and what they want to change, it’s natural think in terms of what we have and what we don’t have. In reality, our happiness is largely determined by what we expect. To paraphrase John Adams:

The vast majority of our pleasure and pain is caused, not by the reality of our lives, but by our hopes and fears for the future.

Do you recognize this truth? When we face uncomfortable conditions they are generally bearable. When our suffering is concrete we can manage it and take action to alleviate it. But when our pain is caused by fear of the future, it feeds on itself. We imagine the worst possible scenarios and are powerless to change them.

The opposite is true of hope. Even the most miserable conditions can be endured, even relished, if the mind expects a positive reversal.

Hope and Purpose

To become happy, we must cultivate hope — the belief that tomorrow will be better than today. Hope is partly fueled by optimism — faith in humanity as whole — but much of it (particularly the part we can control) is driven by faith in ourselves.

If you can’t expect improvement from yourself, how can you expect it from the world?

Hope is cultivated by living with purpose. When every day is spent working towards something you believe in, hope is the natural byproduct. Just as thinking like a cynic leads to negative expectations for the future, taking action to improve (the world, yourself, etc) creates hope.

How could it not? By living with purpose, you become the positive change you expect to see, and that makes all the difference.

Living with purpose isn’t easy, but it’s possible for everyone. I’m not naive enough to believe that for everyone there is some perfect job or that everyone who isn’t happy should quit their jobs today in search of purpose. The search for purpose will always involve compromise. But if the way you spend the majority of your time opposes your core values, you will always feel emptiness.

Creative Self-Expression

Living with purpose isn’t the only requirement for happiness. There are many wonderful, purposeful jobs out there that would make me perfectly miserable. The reason — they don’t encourage my creative self-expression.

To me, creative self expression means doing work that only you can do, the work you were made to do, the work that doesn’t feel like work. The way you can tell if you’ve found the right work is if you frequently reach the state of creative flow where it becomes effortless. You know because it just feels right.

Finding work that encourages creative self-expression is a difficult task, so don’t worry if you haven’t found it yet. My first job out of college was with a wonderful company, doing important and interesting work, but yet I was miserable. It just wasn’t the right fit. I always felt like I didn’t belong, like my talents weren’t being used. For other people it was perfect.

My only advice is to keep searching until you get there, and when you get there you will know it because you’re so freaking happy!

So those are my thoughts on happiness. Likely wrong, certainly confusing, and definitely subject to change. But they have lead me to a good place and I hope your own reflections will do the same for you.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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