Three Keys To A Happy Life Essay

During commencement season I ponder what would I tell a graduating class about happiness. Therefore welcome to my 2013 commencement address. And if you comment by May 31, you’ll be entered in a drawing for aSociety T-shirt.

When you’re in school, you believe happiness is right around the corner, that it’s a time when you don’t have to deal with classes, papers, exams, and shoe string budgets. Well today you’ve just achieved at least the first three of these happiness getters. If you’ve secured your post-degree job then you are on the way to the forth. Congratulations!

Enjoy the happiness this moment brings. After all, happiness is only a moment.

In the near future, you’ll be reminded that what we believe we need to be happy changes the moment we catch whatever happy carrot we were chasing. A lot of happiness is a result of the happy carrot chase, because that’s where we live our lives.  Your future happiness carrots with be the next degree, a job, more money, a car, a house, stuff for the house, your perfect prince or princess, a baby, dreams for your baby, bigger and better stuff, and eventually retirement. The list will constantly change. You’ll have moments of happiness. But they will be fleeting, because trophies alone do not create a mostly happy life.

I asked myself, “What do I wish I’d know sooner about living a mostly happy life?” Here are the top three things that would have helped me be happy a little more often if I’d understood them earlier.

Relationships are the Key To Happiness

The happiest people have relationships. And the key to any good relationship is to understand its role in your life.

I believe we have 3 circles of relationships:

Foundation Relationships

This is the relatively small group of people with whom you have each other’s backs. You’d bail each other out of jail (though I’ve never needed this favor), you sit with each other during a complain fest, then give your honest opinions and you bring chicken soup when someone is sick. You know each other’s secrets, hopes and wishes. You know their best qualities and the ones that need improvement – and they know yours. You celebrate each other’s successes, laugh at the same things, and smile when you think of each other.  Some are friends and some are family, and they are the people who keep you balanced.  They’re relationships of mutual feelings reinforced by actions. Value these relationships and don’t take them for granted. They make the unhappy bearable, and the happy happier.

Network Relationships

This is the circle of people that most of the people you know are in including some of your family members. The bases of these relationships usually involves some type of an exchange – information, connections, family peace during the holidays, results, fun, or even loyalty and admiration. You may or may not like these people. They may be in your social networks, you may exchange holiday greetings or party invitations, and you may spend significant time together at lunches, happy hours or on golf courses. But despite the social niceties of these relationships, they are ultimately based on quid-pro-quo. For example, if you ask your favorite author a question on Twitter and they answer it, yes they were being nice. But they also wanted you to feel connected to them. Why? You’ll be more likely to buy their next book. And yes, sometimes, these relationships develop into foundation relationships over time. But usually, a network relationship is like an open door, where, someone is in your life for a while and then then leaves, and can even reappear. They are causal relationships with minimal expectations.

Mentor Relationships

Eventually you’ll meet someone who helps you for no other reason than they understand that helping someone else for nothing in exchange is probably the most fulfilling type of happiness. These people are old souls that help us become wiser and better. They don’t need a quid-pro-quo because they don’t need much from others. A mentor only asks that we share the knowledge when it’s our turn to mentor others. And while these are prized relationships, they aren’t peer to peer but, more like student to teacher.

Each of these relationships has its own unique purpose. But sometimes we get our feelings hurt when we mis-categorize them. Or we damage a foundation relationship because we take it for granted. Regardless of a relationship’s role, they are all keys to our happiness and need to be appreciated for their own unique value.


Bad Things Will Happen

Bad things will happen to everyone – to chronically cranky, happiness-challenged, mostly happy, and even persistently perky people. Your disposition only determines how you react to the unhappy event.

Some unhappy events are beyond our control – things like tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, terrorism, crimes, illness, accidents,  death of loved ones, the actions of others or broken hearts.  And this only scratches the surface of what’s beyond our control. There’s usually not a lot we can do to prevent these things, so we are left to coexist with their consequences. However, these events are often a catalysts that bring out the best in us. We unite to help a community or someone in need. We learn empathy and compassion.

Some bad things happen because we’re in a learning curve. Everyone has made and will make choices that in hindsight had consequences we didn’t plan. These experiences teach us about humility, about getting up after we fall, the art of apology, the grace of forgiveness and compassion.

When bad things happen, regardless of why, our relationships are what help us heal, grow and ultimately become better people. That is, if that’s how we choose to react to the experience.


Happiness Needs Action

It’s no one else’s job to make you happy. And happiness doesn’t show up if you just sit around doing nothing.

Happiness happens when we’ve done a good job or finished something – even if we weren’t happy while doing it. Happiness happens when we feel love for a person or a pet. Happiness happens when we’re passionate about a hobby, cause or experience. Happiness happens when we play, laugh and see the miracles in life. Happiness happens when we give, when we reflect, and when we are empathic towards others.  Happiness happens when we look at our past and have nostalgic memories that make us smile.

To feel any of the above, you have to participate in life and not watch from the sidelines. You need to embrace new experiences and people. You need to appreciate traditions. You need to give and receive with grace. You need to laugh and have fun. And you also need to cry, feel sad, and even feel fear. In order for your soul to embrace happiness you’ll need to live fully and that includes feeling the anger, sadness and frustration that results from unhappy experiences.

You only get each second of each day once. That exact moment will never come back. It’s up to you to use your time wisely.  After all time is one of the great equalizers. Everyone regardless of money, brains, or status has the exact same twenty-four hours a day. When you’re young it’s impossible to understand how quickly the next 20, 40 or 60 years will pass.  You’re twenty something now, and in a blink you’ll be fifty something thinking you can’t believe how fast it went.

So ask yourself a simple question each day, “Did I create memories today that I’ll want to recall in the future?”

It’s actually pretty easy to be happy most of the time. Value your relationships and respect them for what they are, because they are one of the keys to happiness. When bad things happen, after the shock has passed, try to learn and become a better person as a result. Happiness requires participation – even if it’s as simple as recognizing all of the wonders that life holds or as active as having a bucket list so big that if you do something on it every day you realize that you’ll never have enough days to everything on it.

If you want to live a mostly happy life, you can.

Written by Pamela Gail

Pamela Gail Johnson founded the Secret Society of Happy People in 1998. A few of the things that make her smile are the monthly book club she hosts, trying new wines with friends, yoga, and cooking for friends and her dog Tater--who always makes her happy.

She's the Chief Happiness Officer for Happier @ Work, speaker, trainer, author of the Secret Society of Happy Peoples Thirty-One Types of Happiness Guide, and writes the Society Blog. The Secret Society of Happy People celebrates happiness including hosting the annual Happiness Happens Month and Hunt for Happiness Week. Pamela was named a semi-finalist in the search for the next Global Thought Leader in 2013.

Filed Under: Happy Advice, May 2013, What is HappinessTagged With: Happy, Pamela Gail Johnson, Secret Society of Happy People

The 3 Keys to Living a Happy Life in 3 Minutes (What the Research Says)

Life can be extraordinarily beautiful. Life can also be excruciatingly painful, sinister and at times seemingly unbearable, to even the grittiest among us.

The things we know and appreciate one day, could be gone the next. We move through our lives and the only real constant is change. Not only are we continually changing as individuals, but so is everything around us. Friends estrange themselves, children grow up, parents die, and in a world full of uncertainty, one minute we feel safe, and in no time, the world as we see it, can change instantaneously, and forever. It’s almost always out of our control.

So, I guess the question to ask is, how do we, best prepare ourselves to be able to use the experiences that challenge us (and those that don’t) in a way that is healthy, and at the end of the day makes us happy — not a moment of elation of excitement based on a particular experience, but rather a resonant, stream of happiness in our lives, so that when we are dealt the heavy blows that are unavoidable to us as humans, we can manage them more effectively — that doesn’t mean we plaster a smile across our faces and try to psyche ourselves up, in order to pretend like nothing is wrong in the world. It means we practice the conditions for happiness, and that can shape us in powerful ways.


  1. Meaning and Contribution Beyond Ourselves: We’ve all had a dead end job that was mind-numbingly unbearable — I had one that literally convinced me to quit my 9–5 existence only a year after graduating. To contribute means that we are a part of something. Being a part of something makes us feel significant, valued and like our time on this earth is being well spent. To many of us are walking around like zombies lacking a deep sense of meaning in their lives — this doesn’t mean you walk into the office, give the boss the middle finger, grab your belongings and dab your way out of the office, as you figure out your next big bold move. How can you contribute and connect more to the work you’re currently doing? How can you be a more present parent or spouse? How can you spend your free time more effectively and meaningful
  2. Strong, Nurtured Relationships: I know a lot of people have seen the research from Harvard and or Dr. Robert Waldinger’s TED talk on the research study they conducted over the course of much of the 20th century, starting in 1938. They took two groups of young men from Boston — half were Harvard students and the other half were found in the city, mostly uneducated. The researchers met with these men every year, took tests and engaged in conversation with them, and over the course of the 75 year study — the #1 thing that all of the happiest individuals had in common were healthy, loving and nurtured relationships. The problem is that now we live in a world where we can move on to the next thing and the next person and on to the next town and kind of keep up via social media, or not even (i.e. ghosting somebody), versus actually nurturing and growing deep connected relationships. The study discusses the way in which these happy old couples worked through their problems, knowing that things weren’t always going to be easy, but through their partners and loved ones, they had a safe place in the world. The alternative is sad, as we see people becoming dispensable if the other person’s needs aren’t being met right now and right this second. On to the next, or worse, infidelity and dishonesty. It’s not about filling one’s own needs that makes a relationship meaningful, it’s about contributing to the happiness of another person — that’s what makes us most happy, but we have to enter into it from a place of love and service.
  3. Gratitude, Appreciation and Acceptance for What Enters One’s Life: It’s easy to practice gratitude when things are going great in life — all is well, beautiful family, just got a new job, bought the house, etc. — but that is so conditional. Instead, the key, as the research says, is to appreciate the things life gives us, because of the very nature of the idea of a gift. When you think about it, every single thing we have or experience on this earth is a gift — we don’t deserve any of it and it can be striped away from us at any time. The easiest way for me to conceptualize this idea is like this:
You come home from work. Your spouse is making dinner. It’s not your favorite meal… Are you disappointed that they didn’t make your favorite steak or fish dish? Or do you say, “you know what, I’m not a huge meatloaf fan, but I really appreciate it, I’m still really happy, because you took time to make it for me. What a gift and blessing to have someone in my life that cares enough about me to spend time out of their day to make dinner for me.

So, it’s not that we shouldn’t want nice things and that we shouldn’t expect our spouses to pay attention to the things that are important to us, but once again, the research shows that with the world we live in and the insane number of choices surrounding even the most basic decisions in life (like ordering a coffee at Starbucks) — those choices can actually keep us from enjoying those things the way we should be able to — because now, there is an opportunity cost associated with it. Oh, no, I got the red car, I knew I should have gotten the blue one… Or, when your friend out orders you in the ice cream shop… right? What if your friend wasn’t there and you didn’t get to try theirs, would yours still have been good?


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