How to Be Happy

Connelly Barnes, 2011-12-03


I went through depression in my youth and college. This interfered with my relationships and studies. As a result I determined to reverse engineer happiness and determine how to be happy.

I did this by learning the science of health and happiness and borrowing ideas from spiritual traditions. At first I found it hard to have willpower to investigate and apply these ideas, but over time I found they helped a great deal. I tested out different possible activities and benchmarked whether they actually improved my health and happiness. I continued to refine and apply what I had learned, and although it took years, I eventually converged to being happy.

Interstingly, happiness is a process and a direct result of mental, physical, dietary habits, as well as a general desire to self-improvement. Thus there is a great deal of control one has over one's own happiness. This is in contrast to the common view of the public that happiness is something that just happens, outside of one's control.

Unfortunately while I had fought off my own demons, a friend of mine, Bill Zeller in the same department, committed suicide. This made me realize that these problems with depression were far from uncommon. And that I wished to communicate to others -- especially introverted, geeky people who are likely to Google "how to be happy" on the Internet -- what I had learned in the hopes that it might help someone. This then is a retrospective on what I learned.

Personal Balance for Happiness

My understanding of happiness is that it is multidimensional in nature, and comes from balance, harmony, and the Golden Mean. Certain attitudes and behaviors correlate with happiness. But when any activity is taken to an extreme, it causes imbalance, neglect of other of ones' needs, and results in unhappiness. Imagine Indiana Jones and his comrades balancing on a stone slab -- there needs to be weight in all four corners to keep the slab from tipping, and avoid falling to the spikes below. Eventually with practice the balance becomes automatic, so it is like riding a bicycle, instead of avoiding spikes.

Because happiness is multidimensional, I break it down into different categories, of things that I know make me happy. Whenever I am unhappy, I go through the list to see which area I am neglecting. Inevitably I am unhappy because of some cause such as not eating well or having a negative mindset, which I can address. It is important to understand that happiness has concrete causes, thus, dedication to isolate and fix the root causes of one's unhappiness will allow one to achieve happiness.

I believe the "happiness list" is personal for everyone, but at a high level will have similar themes, because in psychology and physiology, certain practices in general are known to make people happier. I also believe that barring large chemical imbalances (which can in many cases be fixed with medications), happiness can be achieved by everyone. Happiness is primarily internal, interpersonal, and physiological. There are people in war-torn areas stricken with poverty who are happy, because they have people they value and joys they take with them, regardless of the circumstances, and billionaires with every "need" met who remain unhappy, unliked, and unpleasant. Some peoples' happiness may center on New Age beliefs, or rugged no-nonsense independence, or building businesses, or compassion and helping others, but everyone has some set of activities and values that will make them happy, if properly balanced.

A Twelve Step Process

Here is my list of 12 items for happiness. I encourage you to benchmark your own life against your own happiness and figure out what the list is for you. For me this is a lifestyle: a set of actions that should be done regularly, and mindsets to follow, rather than a list on paper. In fact I just used it as a process I would run through in my mind whenever I was unhappy, to find problems that needed fixing, and I only wrote it down after a few years.
  1. Gratitude. The mind constructs its own reality that is largely independent of its surroundings. Happiness is a choice and it is possible to construct both negative and positive realities. Since the choice is arbitrary, there is no reason to construct a negative reality unless you want that. A positive reality makes life so much richer, so it is preferable.

    To construct a positive reality, restrict your interpretations and internal talk to what is neutral or positive. Be thankful for the positives. Find something every day you are thankful for. Be around positive people. Recognize the unique talents you have. Acknowledge and accept compliments graciously. Smile. Prefer uplifting materials and information sources, and if you are exposed to negatives, look for the positives within them. Be aware that others have negative realities, and that's unfortunate for them, but you can let their negativity pass through you without changing you, since it isn't your reality. Avoid such sources of negativity.[1]

  2. Very long term goals. Including good career goals. In a short term culture many believe in just winging it and doing what everyone else does. We see this at the top levels of business and politics where many have no idea what they're doing and are just playing it by ear. We see a lot of people betting on the status quo, or figuring their careers out one small step at a time. I believe that these do not create positive value in the world, whether economic or personal. Chances are you will still be around in 30 or more years, and happiness comes from constructing a long, visionary value for your life and accomplishing many goals of importance to you. Happiness should not be delayed or postponed or made contingent on any outcome, because it is achievable in the present. However, long term goals provide a context and sense of purpose to guide one's life.[2]

  3. Exercise regularly. This should ideally include both aerobic and anaerobic components. It helps a lot to have a workout buddy to motivate you. If you don't feel good just walking around outside can get the blood going. Studies have shown aerobic exercise can be equally effective as antidepressant drugs, although the drugs often wane in effectiveness over time, whereas exercise does not.[3]

  4. Eat healthy. Eat sufficient quantities of proteins and vegetables within a balanced diet. Avoid too much fat or sugars, foods with corn syrup and maltodextrin, including soft drinks, highly processed foods, or any food with a list of more than a few ingredients. I was inspired by the Paleolithic diet and Michael Pollen's the Omnivore's Dilemma. Watch this video about healthy eating by Dr. Terry Wahls. Avoid losing or gaining too much body weight and muscle, by eating nutritious foods like legumes, greens, berries, nuts, and complex carbs in moderation, instead of empty calories. Avoid over- or under- eating or skipping any meals. When feeling bad, check if your energy is running down and grab a snack if so, ideally a long lasting energy source containing protein balanced with other food groups. If weight loss is desired do it gradually by maintaining a healthy diet and increasing aerobic exercise.[4]

  5. Go to bed on time. This I struggle with. I feel better when I wake up near sunrise. This is because sunlight is a hormonal regulator, and due to the Circadian rhythm. Night shift workers have documented health problems such as heightened cancer risk and significantly shorter lifespan.[5]

  6. Socialize in moderation. People with little social support are more likely to experience depression, or further ejection from social circle due to perceived negativity, lack of reciprocation or social interest. What helped my socializing a lot was going to regular activities, such as rock climbing, Argentine tango, and practising being outgoing, asking people about themselves, working a room and talking to everyone. It is necessary to go outside your comfort zone to overcome fears. It also helped me to always live with roommates. I believe active listening and genuinely being interested in others is helpful. I also found it's best to make friends in a "repeated context," a class or activity that occurs weekly or bi-weekly, since then if there is a connection it can be more easily resumed every week as you build up trust naturally with someone. On the other extreme, I've seen people who over-socialize, while gaining valuable social skills, are likely to neglect other life areas.[6]

  7. Date some. Or if in a relationship, be around your significant other some, but don't let them overwhelm you or be the center of your life. Love can add happiness, stability, and longevity to life. Married people live up to ten years longer on average than unmarried people. Like anything, relationships are harmful if taken to an extreme, because independent self-development is stunted, and if one's happiness depends on another person, emotional instability results.[7]

  8. Have strong connections with a few good people, rather than superficial ones.

  9. Be close to family and mend disputes. Recognize that everyone is flawed -- give and seek forgiveness if necessary.

  10. Care for and help others. Volunteer. Pet some animals. Help someone out with a problem.

  11. Impermanence. This is an idea borrowed from Buddhism. Many variants of Buddhism present Nirvana and the detachment from all material things as a main goal, for the prevention of suffering. In my view this is an extreme that is contrary to finding balance. However Buddhism has good advise on not clinging to material phenomena or things that change or pass. It is dangerous to cling to the past, or the future, or other people, or a car you will have, or a job you want. The reason is that if you make your happiness conditional on these things, it is inevitable that you will have suffering, because these will transform into other forms, or pass. Instead, be able to experience the moment, now and be happy in this moment. Having long term goals makes you feel a purpose, but you shouldn't delay your happiness for the future, live in the past, or make your happiness dependent on transient material phenomena such as other people or objects. Happiness is now and achievable to everyone. It is found within, not in objects or people.

  12. Agency. Take actions that directly affect your life, and improve your situation. Agency gives people purpose and happiness, feeling that they have made a change. Avoid exerting energy on anything that leaves you feeling powerless. For example, take up hobbies that involve building, constructing, composition, or creativity, where you make a change. Avoid exerting any energy on politics, organized religion, news, or other large systems where you are passive, have no effect, and your emotions are dependent on something beyond you (and especially if it is not a source of positive energy).

Closing Remarks

Health-happiness are mutually interdependent like the yin-yang of ancient Chinese philosophy. Health and happiness are a simultaneous process not an outcome. To have both health and happiness it is necessary to put in place the correct habits that form a well-balanced life. There are no shortcuts -- good foundations are essential.

I hope this helps someone achieve full happiness. Let me know if it works for you. If you construct your own list of happiness items, feel free to share it with me or post it up online. However really any theory of happiness needs to be benchmarked against what works in practice for you. So get out there and take action. Carpe diem!

- Connelly, connellybarnes at


[1]Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.
The ideas of the mind creating its own reality are from cognitive behavioral therapy, neuro-linguistic programming, and relativistic philosophers.
Innumerable visionaries with long-term dreams, such as Steve Jobs, Peter Thiel's talk about long-term vision and depth as helping one's career, my father's criticism of careless "random walk" action in corporations, contrarian investing vs mean reversion in finance. Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi --- anyone who caused any lasting social change stood true to their contrary vision.
You, The Owner's Manual.
Is Exercise the Best Drug for Depression?, Time Magazine.
Antidepressants: Can they stop working?, Mayo Clinic.
[4]Paleolithic diet
The Omnivore's Dilemma
[5]Lifespan of Graveyard Workers
[6]How to Find the Confidence to Socialize After Depression
[7]The Case for Marriage