For as long as I can remember, the term Return on Investment (ROI) has been commonly used as a measure of performance to evaluate the efficiency of a financial endeavor. Today, however, I would like to take this acronym beyond the context of economics and apply it to a broader subject that I believe is far more important and underestimated in contemporary society: happiness.
Having gone through an intricate development process in pursuit of my own happiness for more than a decade, I think I‘ve finally come to have a more profound understanding of what the word ‘’happiness’’ actually means. In this article, I am going to share a few key insights to clarify some of the most common misunderstandings concerning this subject.
As you proceed through this article, I want you to carefully reflect on how each of these 8 principles are embedded in your daily routines, so that by the time you finish you can gradually shift towards a happier and more fulfilling life. However, before we start digging deep, let’s first scratch the surface of the subject and address a more general question as a point of departure: what exactly is happiness?
What is happiness?
Have you ever met a genuinely happy person? They’re always smiling, their laughter is contagious, filled with joy, and their energy radiates more warmth and light than that of a distant sun. Everyone near them seems to be instantly infected with their exuberance and no matter where they’re heading or which situation they’re in, they invariably seem grounded and in control of life.
All of us can think of someone who fits the description above. Someone whose presence – even just for a brief moment – makes our life a little bit better. It’s not even that they’re particularly ahead of us in their achievements, or that their lives are exceptionally advanced. It’s just that their outlook on life is. In fact, oftentimes, these are the people who at first glance seem to be behind us, compared to our current standing in society.
We all must have heard of the expression, ‘’People who have the least are often the happiest’’, or something similar along those lines. Though the idea of having little to nothing and still being happy may seem preposterous, there undeniably is a comforting truth in recognizing that happiness is in no way correlated with materialism or excessive physical possession. Sure, we need to make at least some money to live a dignified life, but the likelihood of increased satisfaction diminishes as our wealth expands beyond what we require to take care of our basic needs. In fact, numerous studies have shown that people who considered spiritual values more important than physical comfort were significantly happier than those who didn’t.
Put simply, happiness all boils down to perspective. If I could define happiness in my own words, I would describe it as a perpetual state of well-being and joy deriving from one’s optimistic perception of life, and a sense of fulfillment that reaches far beyond materialistic possessions. In essence, it’s not so much about what we have, but how we perceive what we have. For this very reason, we can state that happiness is predicated on the freedom of choice. The next paragraphs will explain how so.
Rule #1: Happiness is a choice
One of the questions I frequently get asked is, ‘’If you’re happy, does that mean you’re never having a bad day?!’’. The answer to that is simple: of course I do! I think it’s humanly impossible to be happy 24/7. I mean, how could you?! All of us, at one point in life, have to face the loss of our loved ones or deal with hardships and challenges, which virtually explore every limit of the human mind and body. Be that as it may, just as happiness is not so much about what we have but how we perceive what we have, so too, I believe, happiness is not about what happens, but how we respond to what happens.
Though we may not be able to constantly predict or control the outcome of every event or circumstance, we can always control how we react to it. In fact, one of the key elements for determining one’s level of happiness is the ability to see negative events in the bigger scheme of things and to snap out of that pessimistic state as quickly as possible. After all, what’s the point of dwelling on problems when you could also focus the exact same amount of energy and attention on finding a solution? Therefore, the first rule to increase your ROI on happiness is to stop focusing on what you can’t control and start focusing on what you can.
Rule #2: Happiness is a state of mind
At this point, it should be fairly clear that if feeling crappy is a choice, then so is feeling happy. Understanding that we actually hold power over how we perceive the world, allows us to go deeper and regard happiness as a set of optimistic choices that over time become a positive state of mind. And just like any state, it all starts in our head. How we go through our day-to-day lives is primarily governed by our thoughts. They are the gatekeepers of our deep-seated beliefs and eventually the catalyst of our behaviors and actions, which then again turn into habits. In short, our thoughts are like an enormous garden, planted with thousands of seeds each day, and it’s up to us to decide whether we want to grow weeds or flowers.
I know, learning how to make sense of what’s going on in your head and penetrate the barriers of your imagination can be a difficult thing to do, especially since our brain can be a master deceiver (or at least so it seems). However, if there is one thing I’ve come to learn over the years, it is that although it may be relatively difficult to immediately change our thought patterns, it takes much less effort to change our physiology. Our body language reveals much about how we feel and by simply adjusting our posture, we can break a negative cycle. So next time you want to increase your ROI on happiness, see if you can catch yourself sitting with a sour face and your shoulders down, breathing shallow.
Rule #3: Happiness is a skill
Yes, I said it! A skill! And just like any other skill, it’s something that can be learned and developed with the right amount of effort and consistent practice. We all have – what I like to call – the ‘’happiness muscle’’. Think of it as working out in the gym. In order for you to build muscles, there are two basic principles that cannot be ignored.
First, you need to know on which muscle group you want to focus. Without focus, you’ll probably end up roaming around from exercise to exercise without any strategy and thus, without any progress. Second, you need to be consistent. It would be most unlikely for you to be able to do a 100-kilo squat the first time you go to a gym. Instead, to ensure that you will be stronger, you concentrate on small incremental growth over a longer period, until your body and mind become more resistant to the gravity of the weights.
The happiness muscle kind of operates in the same manner. First, you choose what you want to focus on. You can start by paying more attention to how you respond to the small insignificant things you usually complain about, such as the lousy weather, that person who cut you off in traffic, or the dirty laundry awaiting you when you get home. Once you’ve done that, you can proceed by gradually considering alternative responses. The best way to go about this is by pausing each time such an event occurs, taking a step back to observe the situation, then choosing to put it into perspective and not letting it ruin your day.
Once you get the hang of this, you can start focusing on other trivial issues that carry slightly more weight than the lousy weather outside. Here, you can think of how you respond to a coworker that has a clearly different opinion on your input in the group project, a promise that wasn’t delivered by someone you could usually rely on, or maybe even the occasional insult of someone that’s close to you. Do this consistently enough and you will start noticing a shift in your mindset as you become more resilient to the gravity of life.
Over time, two things will radically change: the frequency and the intensity of your unhappy state. You’ll observe that by not complaining about anything that won’t matter in three to five years from now, you’ll have considerably fewer bad days, which in turn will allow you to focus on things that do matter in life, such as purpose, gratitude, friends, and family. This is how you build momentum. By the same token, you will notice a remarkable decrease in the intensity of your unhappy state, as the ‘’distance’’ between your current emotional state and your former positive feelings and emotions is much smaller than usual, making it easier for you to snap out of it.
Rule #4: Happiness is NOT pleasure
One of the most common mistakes I see people making in today’s society is confusing happiness with pleasure. Although these words are used interchangeably, there are distinct differences between the two. For instance, unlike pleasure, happiness does not rely on external sources. Accordingly, we must first understand the conditions and premise under which it operates.
To be more specific, most people think that happiness is something that can be achieved or obtained by an inexhaustible end goal or destination, such as money, cars, a mansion, fame, or sex. They hope to reach that evergreen place up in the sky by chasing what they perceive as happiness, while simultaneously ignoring the process and journey along the way. Unfortunately, what they are chasing is pleasure in the disguise of happiness, and by default, they will never be fulfilled.
The reason for this can be found in the primary key distinction between happiness and pleasure. The first one is long-term and postulated in the form of a relative constant feeling of inner peace, as it is built upon intrinsic values such as respect, self-acceptance, awareness, and gratitude. Pleasure, on the other hand, is short-term, as it is based upon external stimulus and by definition therefore unsustainable.
So, for you to increase your ROI on happiness, you have to ask yourself what is it that you are chasing? If it is something that can only be achieved or obtained from outside, then you will probably never be happy, as you’re chasing something that is unsustainable in the long run. A wise man once said, ‘’Those whose nourishment consists solely of the fruits of pleasure will always be insatiable’’. Actually, I just made that up, but you get the point…
Rule #5: Happiness is understanding
Now that we have established that happiness cannot be accumulated in amounts of dollars (though money obviously is important to some degree), we can start analyzing the underlying cause behind why we feel unhappy, unfulfilled, or maybe even plain miserable. One of the fundamental requirements of happiness is that one has to understand its absence. In other words, you have to ask yourself why you are unhappy in the first place. For this, you need to take a brief moment to do some introspection and explore some of the possible reasons like these below:
- I am unhappy because I am ashamed or insecure about my physical appearance.
- I am unhappy because of my poor social skills and the way I carry myself as a person.
- I am unhappy because I lack deep meaningful relationships.
- I am unhappy because I am insecure about my competencies or my application of them.
- I am unhappy because I only live in the past or future.
- I am unhappy because of an unprocessed accident, trauma, or breach of trust.
- I am unhappy because I don’t like my job or salary.
- I am unhappy because of my lack of spare time and freedom.
- I am unhappy because I don’t have any pursuits in which I can explore my abilities.
- I am unhappy for a different reason.
Take a few minutes to quickly jot down some of the reasons of your unhappiness. Do not continue reading until you have finished this exercise!
Okay. Now that we have identified the reasons why you are unhappy, you have to ask yourself another question. See, most of the times we perceive our thoughts as our own. However, you’d be surprised to know that to a large extent our thoughts are not really ours, but imposed on us by someone or something else. We allow pressure and expectations to get to us very easily, usually from society or even worse, our beloved ones. So ask yourself this: Are the reasons of your unhappiness based on your own core beliefs or have you been ‘’tricked’’ into thinking they are, over a longer period of time?
I personally believe that there is nothing worse than being trapped in the cage of other people’s opinions. That being said, I understand better than anyone how difficult it can be to silence the inner voice that is constantly trying to remind you of something that’s not. Nevertheless, change always starts with a decision. Everything great and worthwhile has its foundations in small beginnings and this is in no way any different. So, are you willing to significantly increase your ROI and become the happiest version of yourself that ever lived on planet earth? Then let’s continue to the next paragraph!
Rule #6: Happiness is a commitment
Now that you have a better sense of what happiness actually entails, it is time for you to put in the work. It would be wrong to think that simply by having a more optimistic view on life, all your problems will just magically dissolve and go away. It simply means that you will be better equipped to deal with them in a more proficient manner.
See, there ain’t such a thing as a ‘’problem-free’’ life. You will always have problems. Some people just have better problems than others, that’s all. For instance, not knowing which bookkeeper to hire to look after your well-earned dollars is a better problem than having no dollars at all. However, as we learned before, life is not about dwelling on what you can’t control, but focusing on what you can. Having that in mind, you can start focusing on how to upgrade your problems and start living a more fulfilling life.
Realize that along the way you will have to deal with tough times and difficult challenges. Embrace them, for they will not only make you stronger, but they will grow your confidence as well. You’ll feel more comfortable with mistakes and bad experiences, and in doing so, you will become wiser and inevitably happier. Just think about it. Have you ever met a strong person with an easy past? Have you ever witnessed something extraordinary that wasn’t difficult to create? The answer most probably is no.
There will always be setbacks, there is always the risk of failure and things going wrong. Notwithstanding, happiness only finds those who can also endure the hardships and stick to the valuable lessons learnt along the way. Happiness is a commitment and just like any other commitment, it is articulated through consistent effort.
Rule #7: Happiness is now
I remember years ago I was sitting in my room staring out a window, thinking of ‘’the good ol’ days’’ as a student when life was still easy. I remember that moment very vividly, as I felt trapped, confined by the walls of my nostalgia about the past and my anxiety about the future. It took me a while to understand that the only place where one can truly be alive is here, now, in this very moment.
I honestly believe that almost anyone has what it takes to make it in life, one way or another. Most of you just don’t know it yet. And the reason is because you’re probably still stuck in the past or in the future, worrying and comparing yourselves against other people’s ‘’progress’’. But it doesn’t require much intelligence to understand that by doing so, per definition, you will always stay behind.
Luckily, I have some good news for you. Unlike some of the other rules and principles we covered here today, living in the present comes at a relatively low expense. The only thing you have to do is accept that each of us has their own timeline and the only timeline that matters is yours! The past is in the past and future has yet to come, so stop existing and start living! Now!
Rule #8: Happiness is gratitude
Richard Branson once said, ‘’Happiness shouldn’t be a goal, it should be a habit’’ and honestly, I couldn’t agree more! The most valuable things and the most precious moments in life are typically those that are too often forgotten by the fickle nature of memory. Most of us take what we have for granted, failing to realize that gratitude is the key to almost anything! I cannot emphasize enough how profound and literally life changing the daily practice of gratitude can be. Unfortunately, most people are completely oblivious of what can happen when you just pause for a few seconds and say ‘’thank you’’ for everything you have going on in your life.
Personally, I like to keep track in a journal, as expressing my gratitude in writing makes it easier for me to bring it into existence. Every night, before I go to sleep, I write down three things I feel grateful for that day. By focusing my attention towards all that is good in my life for just a brief moment, I experience inner peace and a regained sense of trust in the universe that everything will eventually be just fine.
So, if you are unhappy, it is probably because you cannot think of enough reasons to be grateful for. That is exactly why you need to become more conscious of what you have instead of pondering over what you could or don’t have, and if you can, even write it down. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It could be something as small as the glass of water you’re drinking, the soft pillow you can put your head on when you go to bed, or your best friend who you can always count on in your time of need. It really takes less than two minutes to write down three small ‘’thank you”s per day. So, if you want to substantially increase your happiness ROI, you first have to be willing and smart enough to change a shitty attitude to witty gratitude!
Having gone through all the rules and conditions to increase your ROI on happiness, I hope you finally have come to understand that it is something that can be achieved by anyone who is willing enough to live it. Just remember, no one is responsible for your happiness but you. No one! Once you realize that, you can start taking responsibility again and renegotiate the terms of your reality. In the end, everyone deserves to be happy and so do you…