Whiteboard Notes on How To Be Happy



At Microsoft, a lot of great discussions happen at the whiteboard.  Recently, I was discussing happiness with one of my colleagues.  It was a bit of a brain dump on happiness with the goal of getting to a simple set of insights for designing and driving personal happiness.   Jotting down some quick notes on happiness at the whiteboard, was both a way to quickly enumerate some cornerstone concepts and principles, as well as a way to connect some key happiness dots.

Here are my notes …

  • Fulfillment vs. happiness.  One of the most helpful insights about happiness is that there are two questions about happiness: 1) How happy are you? and 2) How happy are you with your life?  It’s the short-term and the long-term view.  The first question is about happiness in the moment.  The second question is about fulfillment.  While you may not feel happy in the moment, you can take steps towards a more fulfilling path for the long run.
  • Happiness level.  I remember the first time I saw somebody rate happiness on a scale of 1-10. I hadn’t thought about it as a scale of 1-10 before.  It makes sense that people have different happiness levels.  Some people are more melancholy, while others are more sunshine and rainbows.  We can work against our own happiness if we hold ourselves to a happiness bar that doesn’t match who we are.
  • Predicting Happiness.  In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert teaches us that we aren’t very good at predicting our own happiness.  In fact, we’re better off asking a friend about a job they have, or movies they’ve seen, or vacations they have taken.  If they have similar values, chances are we will enjoy the same jobs, movies, and vacations.
  • Mental Model. Your idea of what happiness looks like might be one way, but then what life really looks like, might be another way.  For example, if you’re idea of happiness is based on having a pretty little house, with a white picket fence, but you’re reality is completely different, then your mental model of happiness can work against you.  Create a new vision of happiness in your mind.  Throw out the ideals you’ve learned from movies and stories, and adopt a mental model that better supports you.
  • Crossed-Expectations.  One of our biggest setbacks in life is crossed-expectations.  We fully expect on thing, but get another.  We get better at reducing cross-expectations by learning how to set our own expectations better, as well as seeing things as they are, not just as we think they should be.
  • The When of happiness.  One of the worst ways to define happiness is to have a series of “Whens” — “When this happens, I’ll be happy.”  Pushing happiness out to the future, and hinging it on a condition, is not very effective.  Instead, find a way to be happy as you go, and most importantly, find happiness in the now.
  • Happiness as active.  Happiness is a verb.  It’s not static.  Happily ever after is great for fairy tales, but not for real life.  It’s not like you can build up so much happiness that it just lasts forever.  Happiness is more of an active thing.  There are ups and downs.  If you treat it as something that’s more dynamic, then you can better embrace the challenges, and the opportunities.
  • Frustration tolerance.  In Feeling Good, Dr. Burns teaches us that a low frustration tolerance will block our happiness.  Things go wrong.  When we’re already late, of course there will be unusual traffic.  When we really need that print out, of course the copier will eat it.  One of the best ways to raise our happiness level is to raise our frustration tolerance.
  • Me Centered Universe.  Professor Srikumar Rao in his Personal Mastery Program teaches us that a lot of our problems come from a Me Centered Universe.  We analyze the impact of everything that happens in terms of what it means to us.  We can instead, align what we do to the bigger picture and the greater good.  By shifting our focus, we can reduce our own pain and suffering.
  • Rules.  This is similar to our mental model, but it’s more fine-grained.  We have a lot of rules around how things should be in order to be happy.  When we project our rules on how other people should be, or how life should go, we can set ourselves up for disappointment.  while some of our rules may serve us very well on our happiness path, others can very much work against us.  When you aren’t happy with a situation or with somebody, is it your rules?  One way to get over this hump is to ask, if this situation never were to change, what’s the one quality I would need to truly be happy?
  • Wins vs. Losses.   It’s easy to keep a score that works against our own happiness.  We get taught to focus on how many we got wrong, not how many we got right.  I tried to balance this out in my Friday Reflection pattern, by asking, “What are three things going well?” and “What are three things to improve?”
  • Drive from happiness.  One way to increase your happiness is simply to do more of what makes you happy.  The trick is to know what actually makes you happy.  It’s very easy to fall into the trap of doing what makes other people happy, at the expense of not knowing your own happiness factors.  Treat happiness as a choice, and decide to be happy, then drive from that.
  • Own it.  One of the most effective ways to drive your happiness is to own it.  Own your own happiness.  Don’t be a victim and don’t make happiness outside of your control.  Drive your happiness from the inside out.

While it is a bit of an eclectic collection of happiness ideas, I hope it can help you while you design and drive your own personal happiness and fulfillment in life.


  1. I love that you guys have a whiteboard. We have this in my office, too, but I never thought of using it for personal goals as well. I think that’s a brilliant way to stay connected. I especially like your Happiness & Fulfillment point as well as “When THIS happens, THEN I will feel happy.” Fulfillment is important, and we have to do what we know in our heart matters deeply.

  2. @ Alik — Driving from happiness is one way to break away from the trap of living other people’s lives or expectations, and getting to the core of what counts for you.

    @ Bryan — The whiteboard has been my friend for years, and it’s one of the best ways to quickly plot out big ideas.

    I think the path of fulfillment is a way to stay the course, when the road gets rough.

  3. …happiness is a verb –> I love that one, especially, JD!! Reminds me that I *actively* choose happiness (even if it might not always look like an active choice)…

  4. @ Lance — I also like the idea that it’s something we work at, and that it needs reinforcement. It’s like what Zig Ziglar says about motivation: “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”

  5. Doing more of what makes you happy can make the rest of the world happy, too. Okay, not the rest, but a whole bunch of people- like domino effect. Happiness is important and I wish there were more happy people around and about because tons of individuals are quite sullen and depressed.

    I lied this post a lot! It needs to be shared :]

  6. @ Gabriella — Beautiful point on the domino effect, and it’s so true. Happiness is contagious, and if flows from the inside out.

    @ Farouk — Thank you. It was a bit of a random dump, but I like how the happiness dots connected.

  7. Thank you for a good article! Dr. Burns is well worth reading. I’m currently listening to Feeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships Work on audio – it has wide applicability in any area that involves communication.

  8. Wow! This post really vibed with me on so many levels, JD! First of all, I’ve been editing a paper on happiness measures and I thought it noteworthy to mention that there are generally four kinds of scales that measure different dimensions of happiness: remembered well-being (measuring happiness of the day before), experienced well-being (measuring this moment’s happiness), eudaimonic well-being (life satisfaction), and hedonic well-being (optimal functioning).

    Personally, I loved your notes on “Mental Model,” “The When of Happiness,” and “Own It.” Truthfully, I can be happy here and now if I change my perception of what happiness means to me without constantly yearning for more! =) That’s so empowering!

  9. @ Bill — I’ve been super impressed by Dr. Burns ability to share so much of his insight. He’s deep, and well-versed in his ability to turn feeling good into a set of actionable habits we can all use.

    @ Samantha — Beautiful! I really like the happiness dimensions.

    I’m a fan of personal empowerment, and, rather than sour grapes, it’s more like rising to the challenge, and we get to frame the challenge, right under our feet.

  10. Hi JD .. happiness comes in many guises and is there all the time – IF we look for it. We’re so lucky with where we are .. yet others who have no running water, struggle with food, sick families – they too are happy, despite their difficulties – war and famine withstanding. That outlook on life .. and not craving something else .. Especially at Thanksgiving time .. cheers Hilary

  11. @ Hilary — I think the lesson here is that happiness serves us better than misery, even when we have bunches of perfectly good reasons not to be happy.

    There’s truth in the saying, “laugh and the world laughs with you, cry, and you cry alone.”

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