Happiness is a Skill


Happiness is a SkillThe foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.” — James Openheim

That’s one of my favorite happiness quotes. It reminds me that happiness is a skill.

While some people seem to be born happy, others have to work at it. Some have to work harder than others. Rather than work harder, we can work smarter.

Luckily, with all the focus on happiness, we now have a better body of knowledge to draw from. Carlin Flora shares a collection of patterns and practices for skilled happiness from a variety of sources in her article, The Pursuit of Happiness, in Psychology Today.

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • We’re lousy at predicting what makes us happy. This is especially true when we try to make predictions from our past experience. Things are almost never as good or bad as we expect them to be. Our memory is a bad recording device. We recall beginning and endings better than the long middles.
  • Improve your self-talk. Your can lift yourself up or bring yourself down. Practice a positive internal dialogue. Another way to put it is, be your coach not your critic.
  • Find engaging activities. Focus on activities that are dynamic, surprising, and require your full attention. This is a way to find your flow in your day to day activities.
  • Feel your full range of emotions. Don’t fear your negative emotions. Just notice them, but don’t let them overwhelm or control you. Remember that what you resist persists.
  • Practice mindfulness. Don’t struggle against your negative emotions. Just let them be there without struggling against them. Be open and curious towards your feelings rather than making judgments.
  • Work towards goals. Don’t make happiness a goal. Enjoy the pursuit. Progress and pursuit are the key to happiness. Be sure to stop and smell the roses.
  • Be generous. Share more of yourself. Whether it’s your time, experience or wealth, giving is the key to getting true joy.
  • Be careful who you hang with. Your peer group can have a large influence on how you feel and what your expectations are. The more values you share, the more you’ll enjoy it.
  • Limit your choices. While more choices sound good, it can actually lead to frustration. You worry more about making the wrong choices, or you stress over lost opportunities. Enjoy the choices you do make.
  • Build your relationships. Make building strong personal relationships a priority. Your relationships can wax or wane. Invest your time and energy in your relationships rather than take them for granted.
  • Evaluate your well-being at the macro as well as the micro level. Step back and take a look at your life. What makes you happy day to day, may not be what makes you happy over the last 10 years. Use different time frames to find your personal trends in what makes you happy and to gain perspective.
  • Find out whether somebody else liked it. Chances are, you might too. We’re bad at predicting what we’ll enjoy. Rather than try and predict what you’ll like, ask somebody who’s been there and done that. One of the best ways to figure out whether you’ll enjoy something is to ask one of your friends. This goes for jobs or vacations or just about anything. The key here is to ask a friend who has similar values and taste.
  • Leverage your natural coping style. If you’re not a shiny, happy person, don’t pretend to be. Instead, leverage your natural style to be more effective. For example, maybe you can turn your stress into better performance.

I think the key themes boil down to how we talk to ourselves, how we respond to things, how we make meaning, who we spend time with, and how we make the most of what we’ve got. The other key thing is that happiness is dynamic and it’s not a static state. It’s about living, learning and growing, and rolling with the punches.

3 More Ways to Grow Your Happiness Muscles

Here are 3 more ways to flex your happiness muscles:

  1. Raise your frustration tolerance. What if you knew that the single most significant way to undermine your own happiness is to have a low frustration tolerance? Getting mad at traffic or blowing up when you spill coffee on yourself, or breaking down when the copier decides to mess with you right before your most critical presentation ever are all tests for you. You get tested daily. Things go wrong. Life happens. Practice laughing at yourself and taking life less seriously. Learn to laugh at the situation. More importantly, raise your frustration tolerance so that you don’t die the death of a 1000 paper cuts. If you decide that it’s tougher to frustrate you, then you instantly own and directly control your happiness factor.
  2. Ask what’s right with this? If you walk into every situation and start finding the flaws, then your natural tendency is to ask yourself, “What’s wrong with this situation?” Well, flip that around and start asking yourself, “What’s right with this situation?” You’ll quickly find that a lot of wonderful things were right under your nose, but you couldn’t see them through your blinders. Even if you open your blinds just part way at first, that’s a start.
  3. Reduce crossed-expectations. Set your expectations better. One of the ways we get disappointed in life is we experience crossed-expectations. You can improve this in two ways. First, you can improve your ability to anticipate. Knowing what to expect can help you reduce crossed-expectations. Second, you can work at your ability to respond to the scenario. In fact, focus on responding over reacting. When you *choose* how to respond, this puts you in control, and this has a direct impact on your happiness and puts you in charge of your thinking, feeling, and doing.

The bottom line is never adopt a victim mentality and don’t let the world get you down. Instead, own your happiness, and use skills to make happiness an integral part of your life. You’re the author of your life and you get to write the story forward. While life may continue to throw curve balls your way, and you’ll still face set backs, drive from happiness, grow happiness right under your feet, and make happiness a path over just a destination or an idealistic happily ever after.

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Photo by Sabrina Campagna.


  1. JD you are a truly a skilled writer, coach and motivator. Every morning before work I read a series of blogs and for some reason I tend to read yours first if you’ve published one. I’m full of excitement before reading one of your posts and lifted seven stories afterwards.

    I’ve been a natural driven person as long as I can remember but to push beyond my goals is something that I’ve learned. Negative emotions have always scared me to death and I’ve tried to avoid them to any price but nowadays I actually started to enjoy them and seek them for some twisted reason. Good or bad I’m not sure but they release my endorphins once overcome. This is my drug.

    I admit though that my primary challenge still is to push further beyond my comfort zone. It’s hard work!

    Thanks for sharing you knowledge and experiences with us.

  2. Hi JD .. self-esteem helps and the realisation that our ‘peace’ is what makes us happy as long as others aren’t upset by our actions along the way.

    Cheers Hilary

  3. @ Ershad — Thank you.

    We all need a lift in life, now and then.

    The negative emotions remind us to take action or to change how we see things. They also remind us how precious the positive emotions are. It’s part of the bitter sweet of life.

    Whenever I hit a limit I remind myself of Bruce Lee’s “aim past your target” philosophy, and I find a few folks getting amazing results that I can model from. And it always helps to call it an experiment.

    @ Juliet — You’re welcome. Enjoy.

    @ Hilary — Yes, self-esteem and confidence help in exponential ways.

    Some people find their happiness in losing themselves to others in a higher purpose. Others find happiness in finding themselves, after they’ve lost sight of who they really are. It’s a balance and a blend, and the common denominator is spending more time in our values. I think this is one more example of how happiness is an ongoing process.

  4. Nice article with a lot of wisdom in it. I was thinking today about happiness and the ability to handle surprises. It may fall under handling frustration, but I think that the ability to handle surprises well, can provide a inner feeling of resilience that makes happiness more achievable.

  5. @ Maria — You actually hit a key point.

    An important point I read long ago in the book, Feeling Good, is that our happiness is directly related to our frustration tolerance. Low frustration tolerance equates to a happiness challenge.

    We need to be very choosy about what we’ll be frustrated by, for the sake of our happiness.

  6. Hi, JD

    It is great that you call frustration a choice. I find the instant gratification expectations in our world to be -well – frustrating!

  7. That is very interesting. Happiness i know flows like a river which can only dry up when give attention to those that do not matter.

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