3 happiness principles – a synthesis of 50+ books

A wiser friend asked me an intriguing question – based on everything you’ve read, what are some tips you’d suggest for someone to lead a happier life?

I asked him for some time as I wanted to make sure I gave it thought. Any psychology hobbyist understands that you don’t throw around happiness tips lightly. I then asked myself 1 question – if I had to synthesize everything I’ve learnt about happiness from my readings (60+ relevant books) and experiments over these years, what are 3 principles that I would share? I was keen about 3 principles because I don’t think our mind retains more than 3 principles. Additionally, I was keen on principles over tips because tips are akin to specific advice. I prefer frameworks that we can all apply to our individual context.

So, here goes –

1. Optimize your energy over everything else. It is energy we must care about and not time. Spend your time on things and people that give you good energy. The same applies to resources – spend your money either on experiences or in areas where you spend a lot of your time. Great experiences, e.g.  a legendary trek up Kilimanjaro, give us positive energy that last us a long while. Similarly, if you spend a lot of time on your desk, investing in a standing desk might provide a ton of energy on a daily basis.

A key part of this principles is focusing on “your” energy, i.e., taking care of yourself before you attempt to take care of the world. If you’re burning yourself out in your attempts to do good, your energy is not going to last long. Once our own needs are met, most of us naturally begin to focus our energies on giving back.

This principle has far reaching implications – for example, it is impossible to keep good energy if you don’t work in an environment that suits your personality. You can’t hang out with people who just take energy from you and give little back. You can’t work with co-workers who you don’t learn from. All your decisions soon become decisions that either give you better energy or don’t. The only way to do this well in the long run is to treat yourself as a research subject and keep tabs on what it takes for you to have good energy. The better your energy, the happier you’ll be.

There are very few blanket rules that apply to everyone. However, there are a couple of things that generally work – sleeping enough, eating well, exercising regularly and counting your blessings are as close as you get to blanket “good energy” rules. But, to each their own.

2. Use your willpower to build good habits like exercising, reading, keeping a journal/meditating, and building meaningful relationships with people you care about. If you fight yourself every time you try to do something that you think is good for you, it is a losing cause. The best use of willpower is to use it to build habits. Habits are the infrastructure of your life experience. There’s a reason every developing economy focuses heavily on infrastructure. The better the infrastructure, the more good stuff can thrive. If you’re consistently having power outages (e.g. sickness), for example, you can’t do much with your life.

So, the question then becomes, what infrastructure should you build? A more involved, and, in my opinion, better way to build this infrastructure is to really ask yourself that tough question – how will you measure your life? If you are a person who’ll measure yourself by the number of people you’ll mentor, then part of your infrastructure needs to be include creating consistent space for mentorship. If you aren’t sure of where to start, exercise, reading and meditation are a great place to start.

Once you’ve identified this, there are plenty of great resources on how to hack your brain to do this. There are no generic principles, though – if you feel it is helpful, I’m happy to suggest ideas that’ll help make it easier to break the resistance on these habits. But, before anyone dives into brain hacking, I’d suggest getting really clear on why you want to do something. A lack of clarity is a recipe for internal resistance.

Finally, the best resulting outcome of this is the sort of discipline that inspires integrity. Integrity is simply making and keeping commitments. As we use our willpower to build good habits, it brings with it a tremendous level of confidence in our own word. There are few better things in life than the ability to face ourselves in the mirror.

3. Choose learner questions over judger question. At every moment in our life, we ask ourselves questions. Every decision we make is a product of questions we ask ourselves. For example, we probably asked ourselves – what will make me look good today? And, the result of that is the clothes we wear. Over time, many of these questions become subconscious. And, without realizing it, we default to certain kinds of questions that may or may not have a net positive effect on our lives.

There are two kinds of questions – learning questions or judging questions. When you ask learning questions, you spend more time in learning mode and judging questions means time spent in judging mode. There are many psychology terms that illustrate the same idea – fixed vs. growth mindset, “be good” goals vs. “get better” goals. They all say the same thing. The best illustration I’ve seen is a concept called the choice map (thanks to Marilee Adams’ Inquiry Institute).

Choice Map

Here’s why it is incredibly powerful – people who ask learning questions focus on learning (duh) while those who spend time asking judging questions focus on performance. As a result, learning questions force us to focus on process vs. results. And, that, in turn, means we spend most of our time focusing on situations that are in our control. It also means we put in effort without attaching ourselves to the outcomes. Outcomes and results are the judger’s way of life. Interacting with the world with non-attachment is the one of the most tell tale signs of happiness. It enables us to give our heart, mind and soul into the projects we work on without worrying about short term pay offs. It is all about the long game. It is all about the process. In the long run, good results follow good processes.

So, that’s that – energy, habits and learning questions sum up the three principles that I’ve gleaned from all my readings and experiments.

If you’re wondering about common threads among the three (I was), the thread I spotted was that they require us to make our daily decisions based on consistent and constant self awareness. Self awareness drives the production of data that helps us make better decisions (that’s why meditation/journaling are key habits).

So, if there’s a ‘one last thing’ idea here, it is that all this data is useless if we don’t use it to make better decisions. The Latin root of decision translates into ‘to cut’ or ‘to kill’. So, learning to say no, and in the process, deciding what we effectively say ‘yes’ to may be the single most important skill that affects our happiness. The quality of our lives are directly proportional to the quality of our daily decisions.

And, as we live our days, so we live our lives.