7 Things That Influence Happiness That You Don’t Need to Have

Happy Woman

“Being happy doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. It means you’ve decided to look beyond the imperfections.” ~Unknown

When someone asks, “Are you happy?” we tend to look around at our peers and see how they are living.

If we’re better off than our peers, it’s likely that we decide to be happy. Therefore, one of the tricks of being happy is to change the group we compare ourselves to.

Silicon Valley gossip columns enjoy pointing out that Oracle’s software titan Larry Ellison, whose $40 billion net worth makes him one of the top ten richest people in America, is not the happiest guy around, mainly because he always compares himself to Bill Gates.

Meanwhile, on the Appalachian Trail, some backpackers feel smug because they got a spot in a shelter (which only has three walls and frequently has rodents nearby), whereas the latecomers have to set up their tent in the rain.

For some reason most backpackers covet the spots in the shelters, and prefer cramming next to snoring neighbors than setting up their tent.

I suppose if we put Larry Ellison on the Appalachian Trail, he might feel better about himself if we somehow made sure that he always got to stay in one of the shelters (and Bill Gates had to sleep outside under a shoddy tarp).

Let’s say you’re a thru-hiker (someone who spends months hiking an extremely long trail). Now imagine that someone visits your campsite and gives you and your four friends an envelope.

You open yours and it says that you get a free pizza at the next town. If you’re like most thru-hikers, you’d do a somersault with your backpack on!

Clearly, you would be ecstatic: Most thru-hikers value fresh food more than anything on the trail.

Therefore, if I were to ask you if you were happy about getting a free pizza, you would shout emphatically, “Yes! Woo-hoo!”

But now imagine that your friends finish opening their envelopes and not only do they all get a free pizza, but they get to stay at the Ritz Carlton, have a foot and back massage, stay in the Presidential suite with a Jacuzzi, and have all their laundry done for them.

Now, all of a sudden, you don’t feel so good anymore. You went from a state of exhilaration to one of melancholy.

From a purely rational perspective, if you were happy before, you should still be happy now. After all, you still get your free pizza, and that’s what got you so excited in the first place, right? I didn’t take that away from you, so you should still be happy.

However, when we’re trying to decide how happy we are, we tend to look at how other people are doing to help us make that decision. This is natural and it’s hard to fight this primal tendency.

“Happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of others.” ~Ambrose Bierce

Use the urge to compare yourself with others in a positive way. Instead of avoiding the comparison game, just change who you compare yourself to.

If you want to instantly make yourself feel depressed, think about all the people who have much better lives than you. Conversely, if you want to make yourself instantly feel happy, compare your state to those less fortunate than you.

Moreover, don’t just compare yourself with those less fortunate than you, take it a step further—compare yourself with people who are less fortunate than you and who are happier than you.

It is at that moment that you will realize that you have no excuse. It’s all in your head. What else can explain why so many thru-hikers, who effectively live like bums in absolute squalor, are happy and fulfilled?

“One who is content with what one has is always happy.” ~Chinese Proverb

The implication of this Chinese proverb is that the fewer desires you have, the easier it will be to satisfy them and be happy. Confucius reinforced this philosophy when he praised his favorite disciple, Yan Hui: “A bowlful of rice to eat, a gourdful of water to drink, and living in a mean dwelling; all this is a hardship others would find intolerable, but Hui does not allow this to affect his joy. How admirable Hui is!”

“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” ~Abraham Lincoln

Some psychologists believe there are seven factors that influence whether we are happy or not. Next time you feel like you’re being short-changed on one of them, compare yourself to the following:

1. Wealth.

We’ve all met plenty of poor people who are happy. In case you haven’t, just ask yourself if Gandhi or Mother Teresa were happy.

2. Education.

You don’t need to have access to encyclopedic knowledge or a Ph.D. to be happy. There is a reason that we say, “Ignorance is bliss!” There are tribes in the world, such as the Aborigines, that have little access to the Internet, TV, newspapers, books, and other sources of knowledge. Are they despondent?

3. Personal freedom.

In every repressive regime there have been plenty of happy people. The Diary of Anne Frank demonstrates how a Jewish family in Nazi Germany enjoyed the simple moments of life even under the most confining of situations.

4. Equality.

South Africa’s racist laws were extremely unequal. Yet many of its citizens did not let that be an excuse for being miserable and depressed.

5. Health.

Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist, seems to enjoy every day of his life despite being confined to a wheelchair and living with ALS. Magic Johnson still maintains his ever present smile, even though he is HIV positive.

6. Social position.

Order takers at McDonalds aren’t the pinnacle of the social ladder, but try to find an unhappy one among those who were selected to represent McDonalds in Utah’s 2002 Olympic Games. McDonalds picked their most service oriented employees from all over the world and flew them in for that world event.

7. Positive life events.

Some of us get big lucky breaks (e.g., winning the lottery), others get big unlucky breaks (e.g., getting paralyzed from a car accident). However, just like there are unhappy millionaires, there are happy paraplegics. A tragedy does not force you to be unhappy for the rest of your life.

I’m not suggesting that you learn to be happy living the monastic life. Nor am I saying that people who live in challenging conditions have no right to complain or to try to improve their situation.

I’m simply suggesting that it is possible to enjoy life without all the things that we typically think of as basic requirements.

Too many people think, “I’ll be able to start enjoying life once I get __________________.” Don’t put it off for tomorrow or next month.

Even though there is some correlation between having the above things and enjoying life, they are not necessary to enjoy life. Just ask anyone who has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.

Happy woman image via Shutterstock


About Francis Tapon

Francis Tapon is a personal coach, world traveler, and author of Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons from Backpacking Across America. You can get a copy at the WanderLearn Shop. His second book, The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us, will come on August 20, 2011.

See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!
Announcement: Tired of feeling stuck? Learn to let go of the past & create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • Bhuvana

    Very well written…simply loved it…thank you..

  • Kisane

    I love the point of this article – thanks for sharing you view.. I agree with the summary so much, I would never have thought to explain it that way though! Isn;t that the most fabulous thing in this universe – that contrast widens our perspective!!!

  • Jaclyn R

    Loved this article!

  • Ppelayo

    I loved reading this amazing piece! you are so right on to what happiness really is. I’m tired and done with comparing and asking what will bring happiness.. I’m just happy no matter what.
    thanks for such a great piece !

  • Anonymous

    Very inspiring…. Thank you! : )

  • Lauras Iacobet

    Such an inspiring read! Really makes you want to get out of that “slump” and be happy… 🙂

  • What a fabulous posting! There’s just so much to comment on, I can’t even focus on anything specific. But I do love all 7 factors. You hit the mark on so many ideas,concepts and life lessons. And I love all your quotes.
    I, too love to hike. I started at 50 – my birthday present was a hiking trip to the Swiss Alps- Muren and Grindelwald.

  • loved it

  • SK

    I am not sure if I agree with this post that much. Being in comfort of life, one can contemplate about ways of being happy in the middle of suffering, but there is a very good influence of basic material comfort to be happy. That is a common denominator. I am not talking about poverty by choice. If I decide to fast for a day I wouldn’t suffer much. If I can’t eat because I am poor, that is suffering. Denying this fact is not Buddhism.

  • Anonymous

    SK, as I mention in the article, having those 7 things (which include food on the table) can help you achieve happiness and avoid unhappiness. There is a statistical correlation between the extremely poor and being unhappy. So you are right.

    However, my point is that not all are unhappy, just like not all rich people are happy. In short, the point of the article is that much of our happiness comes from how we compare ourselves with others and how we can use that fact to our advantage.

  • Pingback: 7 Things That Influence Happiness That You Don’t Need To Have | Truth Is Scary()

  • I feel as though another medium through which people compare themselves to others is Facebook. I used to spend hours looking at friends’ photos, wishing I were as happy as they appeared to me in their pictures. I never felt good about myself after spending time on Facebook.

    So I stopped going on as often, and only read my own notifications when I would sign in, to keep it brief and avoid browsing. Since then, I’ve realized anyone can create their own self-image online. Perhaps these people whose lives I had previously envied weren’t as pleased or happy as they appeared to be online.

    Rather than viewing others’ lives on Facebook, I spend time with my friends and family, and realize how much I have to be thankful for.

  • Neville

    I lived in depression for many years even though I have so much to be thankful for. As soon as I decided just to be myself and not look at what others have ie compare, examine etc – life has been absolutely great!

  • “What you chase, won’t set you free”

  • Ndowling

    Its strange that when we do chase things and get them, which i have done many times in my life and i have got them but i still feel unfulfilled. The best best thing is when i have say to myself I am in the best situation now and am grateful for that, everything seems to fall into place.

  • Thanks!


  • Adam Lewis

    you DO need these things to be happy.  I lost my job, unemployment running out and no place to live.   Will be homeless soon and I have a cat who loves me who I will need to give away.   It don’t get much worse than this.
    everyone needs to be realistic… life is good or bad depending on WHAT WE HAVE!

  • Saralemay850

    all so simple but true

  • Pingback: Giveaway and Review: the 2-Year Anniversary of! | Tiny Buddha: Wisdom Quotes, Letting Go, Letting Happiness In()