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How to Be Happier Without Really Trying

Happy Kid Swinging

“Happiness is the absence of trying to strive for happiness.” ~Chuang Zi 

I sat in the café wondering why I wasn’t happy.

I had been listening to all the happiness and self-help gurus. I was meditating every morning. I ate a healthy diet. I exercised four times a week. I was working hard on projects I was passionate about. I wasn’t wasting time and watching my life tick away.

Yet, somehow, as I sat in the café, I wondered how I could have been “doing it all right” and yet everything felt incredibly wrong.

There is no mistaking the feeling of being unhappy. I wasn’t quite sure where it originated, but I constantly felt exhausted, uninspired, and like the energy was being sucked from my body.

I had this mantra constantly running through my head: if you only get one life, the solution is to cram as much stuff into it, every minute, and waste no time so that you will die fulfilled.

But it just wasn’t working.

So I did what we naturally do. I went to Google, the mystical tech god, to help show me why I wasn’t happy and to help figure out what to do. 

I tried all the usual suggestions. I started journaling and keeping a track of all my moments I was the most grateful for during the day.

I started engaging in random acts of kindness; I would buy strangers’ coffee at Starbucks, pay for someone else’s toll,  or leave a gift on someone’s windshield.

I increased my meditation time to at least forty-five minutes per day, and focused on staying mindful throughout the day. 

But the big problem was still there; I felt stressed constantly, unhappy, and had the weird feeling that even though I wasn’t wasting any time, and was using my life wisely, I just wasn’t enjoying life that much. 

I just could not understand why at the end of the day I felt so grumpy Every. Single. Time. 

And then, as most coincidences in life happen, I stumbled upon an article written by Martha Beck, the famous life coach, about how there was one overlooked path to success—and it wasn’t hard work.

In fact, quite the opposite. And it was something seriously in short supply in the modern world. 

Play. 

At first I thought, “What?” How is that possible? I’m having fun all day long. I go to work, come home, exercise (which I enjoy), work on my side project (which I enjoy), do some studying for a bonus class (which I enjoy). I play all day! 

No, no, no, Martha’s article said. That is not play. Play needs to be restorative; it needs to be a time when your brain and body are turned off and simply in flow. 

I decided to do an experiment. 

Every guru since the dawn of time has mentioned how children are closer to “the truth,” and that by observing them we could learn quite a bit.

So every day for a week I sat in a café. And I just observed. I did nothing but watch people interact, watched them come and go, and in particular, watched how children interacted. 

The first thing I noticed was something obvious: life is a game to kids.

They spill milk and then laugh. Something breaks, and they act scared for a moment, then laugh. It’s pouring outside, and they jump in puddles and laugh. 

It’s incredible the 180 I noticed that I (and many other adults) make. 

Spilled milk? Annoying. Now my clothes are dirty. Broken wine glass? Great. Now I have to spend $15. Raining outside? Ecstatic. I get to run around freezing and potentially get a cold. 

It was insanity. We were both experiencing the exact same things in life, and I was giving myself a heart attack, while little kids were rolling on the floor laughing. Same situation. Big difference.

I then did a flow test, where I wrote down every single moment of my daily schedule and analyzed whether I was having fun or not. 

I quickly realized I wasn’t playing. I wasn’t engaging in the relaxed, restorative kind of play that leaves you feeling strong and healthy. 

I was too concerned with “making this one life count” that I was jamming every minute of every day with some kind of activity, for fear of wasting a single minute.

And the horrible irony was that I was seeking happiness by not wasting time… but “doing more” didn’t get me there.

Isn’t that crazy? One of life’s most important practices is so easily overlooked because we take it for granted.

There’s the old saying about how kids smile 400 times a day, but by the time they reach adulthood they only smile 10 times a day. I think it’s true.

And for me, the real secret to enjoying life, beating unhappiness, and beginning to reverse depression was all about playing more in life.

And, like meditation, everything can become an exercise in playfulness. 

Maybe this life-changing secret will help you too: if you aren’t enjoying life enough, stop pursuing happiness, and just play.

Happiness will come as an unintended side effect.

Photo by Capture Queen

Avatar of Alexander Heyne

About Alexander Heyne

Alexander runs Modern Health Monk, a site that shows you how to reverse health problems caused by 21st century life. Check out his free healthy weight loss crash course, or his free guides on fixing lower back pain and chronic health problems.

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  • http://neilazavedo.com/ Neil Azavedo

    Thank you for sharing your life changing secret with us Alexander. It is so true that just keeping ourselves busy and achieving goals can burn us up within.

    You said “I wasn’t engaging in the relaxed, restorative kind of play that leaves you feeling strong and healthy.” Can you elaborate a little bit on this?

    Thank you.

  • Tania Yardley

    Thanks for this. You made me laugh and reminded me it’s time to lighten up again. I’ve been packing way too much in lately. It’s been making me grumpy. I think I’ll go buy chocolate and play with my slinky :)

  • Ayen Sie

    Thanks a lot for sharing. It makes me realise that we need to play to enjoy the life, instead of taking life so seriously and count every minute of our time.

  • http://awesomeminds.com Awesome Minds

    There is so much we can learn from kids, and yet we are supposed to be the teachers. We get way to serious as we grow into adults, finding our inner kid is something we should all do. We are never to old to use a swing, we are never to old to make a paper plane and if we think we are then we got to serious and need to lighten up.

    Great post Alexander and a reminder of how we should Seek fun and be a kid again.

  • olivia

    Alex! I read milkthepigeon and though the term ‘flow test’ sounded like you!

  • Elisa

    Thank you, you just helped me give my inner child permission to stop worrying and have some fun, as if she needed permission.. Like doh! :)

  • B

    This makes sense but yet I don’t think I’ve ever had those playful childlike responses even when I was a kid. Maybe through play I can find the child that never was!?

  • http://projectsimplelife.com/ Mariel

    I love this. It’s a different take on our pursuit of happiness. I’m kind of the same way where i think if I take one more class or write more, then I will be more fulfilled. I have taken up yoga with the idea of purposefully slowing down- with life, with my mind, and just sitting there and not feeling like I have to do one more thing. Sometimes yoga is too much for me and I literally sit with a cup of tea and let my mind wander. Thank you for sharing this. Definitely a good read

  • http://teawithmara.wordpress.com/ loving_what_is

    Isn’t it funny that as adults we seem to need advice on how to be happy, yet it comes so naturally as children? I always wonder when it happens — at what point do we forget?
    I tend to get really serious about life, so reading this today was a great reminder to take it easy and relax. I’ve found that my ‘happiness zone’ exists in some elusive middle area between being hyper-mindful and totally oblivious. I struggle to stay in that place, often veering too much to one side… Thank you for this reminder to get back in the middle and have some fun :)

  • http://havingtime.com/ LesyaLi

    Thank you so much for the reminder… I can relate to this story wholeheartedly.
    It’s astonishingly easy to forget how to live authentically while having fun at the same time (like most kids do) and to take life way too seriously instead.

    I also have this feeling sometimes that when I do “everything by the book”, the sense of happiness is still something that I tend to postpone till later (or never) putting more and more conditions on it. I guess we can all imagine a little donkey and a carrot on a stick in front of him – that’s how I perceive myself sometimes :) Whereas the simple truth is that we need to live as Alexander suggested and just… have fun with everything we do. “If it’s not fun, don’t do it” – someone once told me. I guess I need to use it as a compass.
    Thanks again for sharing!

  • Peace Within

    I am so glad you figured this out! I feel like it is the key to life. You have to stay young in the heart and the soul. I feel like society forces us to act a certain way, as we grow older. That is why it is hard for us to find and embrace our inner child. Thank you for sharing and keep it up :)

  • Flo

    Excellent article. Reminds me of a George Bernard Shaw quote;
    “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”

  • lv2terp

    Inspiring post, and really good points about the comparisons! :) Thank you for a wonderful reminder of being more in the flow and playing/BEing like children! :)

  • Monica

    This is a gem of a post, Alexander. Thank you :)

  • http://www.gameligit.com Vishal

    Happiness is the default state. If not, then you have to make it.

    Remember, the way you are feeling now is exactly the way you will feel after achieving anything in your life. You might feel excited for 4 to 6 months.. but eventually that will wear out & you will return to your current state.

    If you think your goals will make you happy, then boy are you in for a shock! It is the journey which counts, not the destination.
    Be happy now… in this moment. This is all there is.

  • Shipra

    Now I wanna relate myself to my inner child and see the beauty around in the way it is. It is scared somehow down the line becz my child lost her beauty in urge of being adulthood and mature..but thanks for reminding tht I am beautiful and there is beauty in it. :)

  • Aaron Rosenberg

    Other grown-ups sometimes look at me funny when I become playful in everyday situations. They look confused or just impatient. Sometimes, though, someone will respond back playfully, and there’s a nice connection.

  • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

    You’re very welcome Tania :)

  • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

    You’re welcome!

  • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

    Flo – the last few years have taught me that this couldn’t me more true. Not always easy to remember though!

  • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

    Amen Peace Within!

  • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

    I thought this was super interesting too. We’ve come a long way from our “nature” as children.

  • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

    :)

  • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

    “Remember, the way you are feeling now is exactly the way you will feel after achieving anything in your life.”

    Love this, so important to remember!

  • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

    Try it B :)

  • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

    Haha, small world Olivia! Thanks for reading :)

  • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

    Thanks Awesome Minds!

  • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

    Hi Neil,

    I’ll give you an example. Just sitting in a cafe with an espresso people watching or reading a book. I technically wasn’t “achieving” anything. But I realized I was actually really happy and enjoying my life during those moments.

  • Debbie

    OMG. Your response made me laugh.

  • Debbie

    Thank you for this post. Your openness and observations made me think that adding more fun in my life is what I needed to do too. I have been doing just this lately and I have been feeling all those side effects – happiness. I thought I was reading this article by coincidence but I realize now that I read this article so that I could clearly I identify what has made me feel much more happy lately. Also the statement from the various gurus is so correct. Children are closer to the truth.

    Wishing you much happiness and joy.

  • Tania Yardley

    That’s great Debbie :) I can recommend getting a slinky. Actually I destroyed mine that night – it is now a tangled mess. I’ll have to get a new one. I had about 20 new ideas the next day. I think a bit of mindless silly fun is a very good thing. As Alexander so beautifully put it, some days yoga and meditation just doesn’t do it! :)

  • Mindy

    Enjoyed this article! Feel quite the same, I love what I’m doing, do lots of exercise, yoga, meditation… and yet energy is just flowing out of me. except i know what’s sucking my energy, i need to just laugh about it.

  • http://rebuildlifenow.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    Mindfulness and being in Flow are two key components to living a flourishing (and yes, happier) life. Being present to what we’re doing/seeing/feeling is mindfulness and losing all sense of time when we’re actively engrossed in what we’re doing (usually something we truly enjoy) brings in a sense of well-being.
    Great article – good food for thought.

  • Anna Puchalski

    Great article! I remember one monk saying that everything he does in life he has two rules: 1.) Be kind 2.) Have fun. Thank you for your wisdom…it is also nice to know that meditating for 45 minutes is not necessary! ;)

  • CN

    I so needed this. Thank you.

  • CN

    Same here Arron. I think that’s what makes me stop being playful sometimes. I need to say who cares and let my inner child play.