One of the privileges we have living in the 21st century is spending large percentages of our time searching for happiness. We try to choose enjoyable jobs to make us happy, we eat delicious foods to feel happy, we play and watch sports to be happy–generally we do stuff to be happy.

If you eat a whole package of Oreos in one evening, it’s probably because you believe, at that time, that doing so will make you happy. And maybe it does make you happy. In fact, most of the goals we set, or the good habits we try to create, are intended to help us be happier.

And yet, even with this ultimate goal of finding our “happy places,” we make hundreds (probably thousands) of decisions that undermine our happiness. I’m guessing that most inmates find themselves in prison because at some point they believed they would find happiness by doing things that are illegal. It’s not always easy to know what will make us happy. Plus, so much of what happens to us, such as sickness, death, and injustice, is out of our control.

Today I’d like to reflect on three basic principles of happiness. Do you know how to be happy? Should you be happy? How can you be happy? Let’s try to answer these questions. I’m not an expert on happiness so I’ll try not to dive in too deep, but I trust that you’ll use this as a starting point to find further insights on the subject. There are many different facets of happiness, including optimism, contentment, joy, and pleasure, so I use the word “happiness” to refer broadly to these many characteristics.

1. You Should Be Happy — It’s a Competitive Advantage 

Occasionally we give happy people the stereotype of being uncool, weak, or naive. There are certain periods of our lives and specific social situations when we might think being happy is an undesirable attribute. But research shows that happy people find more success in life.

Eric Barker of Barking Up the Wrong Tree wrote about this recently, leveraging research from happiness expert Shawn Achor. Here’s a quick summary from Achor:

If we can get somebody to raise their levels of optimism or deepen their social connection or raise happiness, turns out every single business and educational outcome we know how to test for improves dramatically.

For a real life example, look no further than a case study referenced by Achor, which was published in the 80s by MetLife. MetLife recruited famed happiness psychologist Martin Seligman to develop an aptitude test, which gauged the levels of optimism in new salespeople. The same salespeople completed the company’s regular screening exam. The results spoke for themselves: The group of highly optimistic people who had performed very poorly on the normal company screening exam “outsold the pessimists in the regular group by 21% in the first year and 57% in the second.”

2. Happiness Can’t Be Taken Away from Us

It’s easy for someone like me to say that you can choose to be happy. After all, I live in a first world country, I have almost no health problems (root canal last month…), I love my family, etc. So rather than rely on my word, let’s take it from someone who had all of these things–living conditions, health, family–taken away from him: Viktor Frankl.

As a Jewish man from Austria, Frankl endured the atrocities of the concentration camps during the Holocaust. He also had the distinction of being a practicing psychiatrist, which afforded him rare insights into the psychology of happiness and contentment for people living in oppressed conditions. Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is a truly impressive commentary on kindness and happiness. In it, Frankl writes the following:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

This sobering quote should be enough to help anyone re-calibrate his or her priorities. The most common misunderstanding of happiness is that it correlates to specific “things” in our lives, like money and status, when it’s really a function of mindset and behavior. We’re fortunate that most of us will never endure the torture that Viktor Frankl endured, but when we do face difficult circumstances we should remember Frankl’s optimal example.

3. You Can Make Yourself Happier in Just a Few Seconds

While I’ve mostly discussed the psychological aspects of happiness, I don’t want to leave out the physical. Smiling is the universal expression for happiness, but we don’t just smile when we’re happy–we can be happy because we’re smiling. A fascinating research study proved this point in 2012. So why was it so fascinating? Well, imagine trying to do a research study about smiling without telling participants to smile–that’s exactly what the researchers had to do.

By asking participants to hold chopsticks in their mouths in certain positions, the researchers were able to move the “smile” muscles without cueing participants into the purpose of the study. Researchers later asked participants to play stress-inducing games, so they could measure the impact of smiling on the level of stress that participants experienced. Their findings? The smiling group was less stressed!

A simple smile can help you feel better, and it’s a quick strategy to improve your attitude and appearance. Over longer periods of time, studies have found positive correlations between relative success in life AND length of life. (A great article about smiling and these studies can be found here.) It’s worth noting that not only does smiling make you happier, it also makes those around you happier. Just scroll through this page of people smiling and you’ll see what I mean: you can’t help but be happy. 🙂

Max Ogles

Hi, I'm Max Ogles. I'm a behavior designer, entrepreneur, and writer focused on psychology, technology, and business. Read My Full Bio