Your happiness is not your own

So I took the advice of this book last week and made a To-Stop-Doing list.

The idea is to notice what activities are sucking your energy, wasting your time, and making you feel horrible– the opposite of a to-do list. Anyway, social media activities, in their various forms, made the top 5. Interesting right?

Blogging I felt was awesome, and lifted my spirits almost every time I did it. Reddit tended to waste more than 2 hours of my day if I let it, and checking Twitter while waiting for a subway generally didn’t do my mood any good, either. Pretty remarkable.

I did a talk at Jeff Pulver‘s 140 Conference the other week that discussed this– how fundamentally human social activities such as play and work get our spirits up by their very nature, but social networks themselves don’t really leave us with any lasting happiness. I relate this to a general thesis that makes a lot of sense to me. Here it is:

If we trust for the same reasons we always have, and we are made healthy by the same food we have always been, then we should also be made happy by the same stuff we always have. The puzzle then becomes to assess what those things are, and do more of them instead of the stuff people are telling us.

On a similar note, I was in a funk all last week until I started exercising. Miraculously, when that began, I suddenly felt better. Know what else works? Going to bed early. Amazing huh.

My point is that this happiness that we want so badly, the basic purpose of our existence is often unrelated to grand things like career, money, etc. and often far more related to basic human needs such as sleep, food, and exercise. In fact some of the best advice I ever got was just that: If you’re ever in a bad mood, try doing one of those things before lashing out at someone. More often than not, the mood passes.

So I’ve been reading the Happiness Project with this in mind– the idea that basic things that make other people happy will probably also do the same for me, and that the fundamental building blocks of a good life are often the things we see in commercials for mutual funds– you know, walks on the beach, sunsets, that kind of thing.

We visited my friend Dan (also my tattoo artist) a few weeks ago in Belgium and I noticed how much waking up to his gorgeous backyard, with trees, a well, etc and how much it impacted my mood to have that kind of space as a backdrop instead of concrete. We don’t want to believe in how easy it is, and we’d like things to be different, but they aren’t. Very fundamental things work– complicated plans do not.

The photo above is one I took yesterday of some graffiti I saw on Notre-Dame here in Montreal. It says, in French, “Perdre sa vie à la gagner,” which roughly translates as “Wasting your life trying to make a living.”

It’s a good thing to think about. What do you actually need? What do you want? And finally, what are the (often free) alternatives that no one is telling you about?



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17 responses to “Your happiness is not your own”

  1. John McLachlan Avatar

    Oh, this post, Julien, is a 10/10. Thank you for writing it.

    Yesterday I heard and interview with 114 year old man in Montana. He gets up every morning, exercises, has breakfast, puts on a suit and tie, does activities he’s interested in during the day, has lunch (and that’s the last meal of the day for him) and enjoys his life. Every day, he does this.

    His routine hits the things you mention, good sleep, good (but not too much) food, exercise and small daily activities. So damn simple but we sure make it complicated for ourselves.

    We’re such idiots most of the time. Thanks for shining a light.

  2. Diane Begin Avatar

    What do you actually need? What do you want? Those are difficult questions for most people. I agree with the previous comment that we’re idiots most of the time. I do know that my happiest moments have been when I’m truly in the monet, not worrying about my past or my future. I read recently the 5 top regrets of the dying For me, it was living my life according to what people expected, but wishing I had let myself be happier was also in the top 5. Most people don’t know how to let themselves.

  3. Jean Avatar

    Landscapes might be different but happiness is simple (and contained in the last few lines:

  4. Judy Helfand Avatar

    A long time ago, I read Harry Browne’s “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World.” There are many days that I wished I had followed each bit of his advice.

    Thanks for the discussion.


  5. Whitney Avatar

    I think the biggest thing about happiness is we tend to think of it as external to ourselves, rather than internal- we say “this makes me happy” or “This person makes me happy” rather than being in charge of making ourselves happy and recognizing it when we are. So for example, watching a movie with each of my kids cuddled up next to me on the couch last weekend, made me feel incredibly happy and like all was right with the world at that exact moment. But it’s not what someone else did or didn’t do to me, it’s how I felt about the situation and the world.

    Taking control of your own happiness, and seeing it as something within your power to control is an important mind-shift, rather than looking at it as something you might stumble across while walking through town. Dan Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness, describes this well.
    Feeling good, feeling competent, and feeling useful and in control of your world are all part of happiness, but so is the simple act of being in the moment, and not wishing you were somewhere else, or listing off the things you could be doing instead.
    Being present in your own life, rather than a neutral observer, is an important step as well.

  6. sara Avatar

    YEP. This is pretty much exactly the key to life. I’ve decided to:

    Stop watching so much tv.
    Spend way less time on Facebook and only add people there that are my closest, most valuable friends.
    Spend way less time in concrete-infested spaces and way more time in open-air spaces.
    Get rid of the stuff.
    In essence, simplify, simplify, simplify.

  7. CT Moore Avatar

    This is why I think social media is turning us into Pancake people (

    We need relationships to be happy, but the ones we have online are shallow and unfulfilling. They uni-dimensional and can’t fill that social void that’s been shaped by 3 million years of evolution.

    Take writing. I love writing so I decide to become a writer. To pay the bills, I get a job as a copy writer or a blogger. And guess what: I’m fucking miserable.

    Why? Because it’s not the act of writing itself that makes me happy. It’s being able to write about something that tickles my fancy — it’s the creative outlet.

    So once I’m a pen for hire, I think I’m getting my fix, but I’m miserable because I’m not getting that fix. It’s just another 9-5 and all I’m getting is a pay check.

  8. Tamsen McMahon Avatar

    I find the biggest barrier to people’s happiness is simply this: they don’t believe they’re happy already.

    The very act of looking for, or trying to find, happiness means you’re denying the happiness that is, right now. You’re rejecting the opportunity to see the good in what you’re doing, what you’re feeling, and where you are.

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was that I am my own “safe place.” While the original intent of that thought was as an antidote to panic and a growing agoraphobia, it applies much more broadly: we, and how we view the world, are our own sources of happiness and contentment.

    The issue is not a lack of opportunity for happiness–it’s a lack of belief that it’s possible, or a denial of our own responsibility for it.

  9. Courtney Dirks Avatar

    Isn’t it amazing how much going back to the basics can improve your quality of life? Simple things can make such a big difference. For me, it’s vitamin D…I recently moved my desk (working from home) from a dark area of our place out to our well, naturally lit living room. While moving my work area to our living room is a bit of an eye sore, I feel like my morale has gotten so much better. It’s phenomenal what a little sunlight (& daily LONG walks) will do to boost your spirit.

  10. Eric Pratum Avatar

    My wife hates it when I querstion what contributes to mine/our happiness and what we simply do (or allow to happen) just because that’s the way it’s been before. She points out that analyzing things like that too often puts pressure on you to make every moment valuable…even if that was not your original goal.

    I have to agree with Tamsen. Accepting responsibility for happiness and not overly questioning it are key.

    On another note, 2 hours a day on Reddit? I used to do just about the same until I cut my subreddits back to pretty much only vertical-related topics. Now, I pretty much only go to Reddit if I see something come through its Twitter feeds.

  11. Carla Castro Avatar
    Carla Castro

    “Perdre sa vie à la gagner”. We waste life as we think we are actually gaining it, that’s the true meaning. Are we gaining something, or wasting everything?

    Facebook, Twiter, social network…extra hours at work?!? Is there life beyond? What is really there that makes us happy? Social network or the pig pool? We are social animals but how animals are we?

    We do relate to Nature beyond the obvious. Julien just mention a few, but you did point out good ones.

    Thank you, again!

  12. Mike Lucas Avatar

    I have to agree with you, and Courtney, my wife did a similar move with her office. Moved it from an upstairs room with a small window and not much of a view to our breakfastroom that has large windows and a view of our backyard with bird feeders, a squirl feeder, bird bath and lots of trees and plants. Atmosphere can contribute to your happiness or mood.
    Mike L

  13. Dave Delaney Avatar

    I. Will. Go. To. Sleep. EARLY. Tonight.

  14. Deborah Mourey Avatar

    Perdre sa vie à la gagner – Jamais! merci bien…

    you inspired me to write a blog post about this, will post next week, thank you. wonderful as always. deborah from Rochester

  15. Josh Hughes Avatar

    This post was really good, for reasons that I don’t need to enumerate. I’ve saved it and reread it several times. Thanks!

  16. meli Avatar

    you saying “happiness is not on your own”, i still don’t get your point, but happiness should be and must be on your own because i don’t think happiness will land on your hand, so it should be on your own, you have to go get it if you want it…

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