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How to Recognize What Really Makes You Happy

Happiness isn’t what you think it is: It’s less, and more.

Key points

  • To be happy and have your life be an ongoing, ever-intriguing adventure, it has to be dynamic and free of self-constricting insecurities.
  • Released from outdated fears, you can be more open and curious, and ready to take on the risks associated with trying new things.
  • If you feel isolated from others, then, independent of how much wealth you have, you’ll experience the unhappy malaise of alienation.
 Ave Calvar/Unsplash
Source: Ave Calvar/Unsplash

Part 2 of “How Happiness Integrates the Values of Income, Relationships, and Purpose."

It may be that you’ve concentrated on gaining financial security as preliminary to giving serious thought to your personal happiness. Or maybe you believed achieving such security would “secure” your happiness.

But what if your financial concerns actually obstructed the state of well-being that you—and, frankly, everybody else—seeks? And what if you’re now financially prosperous but that hasn’t actually brought (or bought) you a state of well-being?

This post centers on the different factors social scientists have linked to this ideal mental and emotional state. And, although this seminal subject is hardly without controversy, a consensus does exist about what people generally require to feel good about themselves and satisfied with their life.

Preoccupation With Your Occupation Can Hinder Opportunities for Happiness

Happy individuals regard their life as an adventure. Yet, if you’ve single-mindedly focused on bettering your finances, it’s possible that you’ve also come to experience your life as burdensome—more a source of worry and fear than wonder and gratification.

Plus, once your income reaches a level commensurate with your goals and you recognize that you’ve finally made it financially, you may also come to realize that your longer-term issues and self-doubts haven’t been resolved at all. Nor had you concretely planned what the free time now at your disposal could most beneficially be used for.

Worse than this, the “grind” that characterized your work-related commitments may have become second nature to you (virtually a compulsion), such that altering your lifestyle might not even feel viable.

Ironically, the freedom and self-determination you assumed making enough money would provide could engender anxiety all on its own. Instead of creating happiness, it could create a distressing vacuum.

It’s like a newly retired person expecting that the day of their eagerly awaited retirement will—intrinsically—be fulfilling. But, after first delighting in this long-sought-after freedom, they experience an emptiness much like lethargy or boredom, or depression.

There are other downsides of financial security that space doesn’t permit me to go into here. But I think what I’ve just described should be suggestive.

In short, money can definitely buy you more leisure time, material goods, and enjoyable experiences. In itself, however, it can’t do much to rectify deficits in your self-image or offer you a sense of purpose (i.e., other than making more money).

What Contributes to Happiness as Much as, or More Than, One’s Income

Other writers have reported instances of people living in poverty who are yet happy with their life. And what accounts for their contentment is their gratefulness for what they’ve been “gifted” with: namely, a caring family and community—which they’re at once a part of and nurtured by.

On the contrary, if we feel isolated from those around us, then, without such affinity and independent of how much wealth we’ve accumulated, we’ll experience the unfortunate malaise of alienation.

Plagued by mental and moral ill-being, emotionally we’ll continue to yearn for the contented state impossible to come by until we’re able to feel we fit in, that we have a genuine connection and sense of belonging to what’s outside us. We may feel financially secure but not relationally secure, and that leaves us lacking in what, otherwise, would help enable our well-being.

The so-called “golden triangle of happiness,” based on a 20-year research study executed through Deakin Univesity’s partnership with Australian Unity Real Wellbeing, posits that the three crucial aspects of happiness are standard of living (cf. finances); strong, validating relationships (which aren’t necessarily romantic); and an abiding sense of meaning, purpose, or achievement.

Getting more into the particulars of these three key areas, we might add that once they’re effectively addressed, individuals will no longer be held back by primitively conceived threats of survival, usually stemming from the emotional instabilities of childhood.

Released from outdated fears, then, by standing up to their potential-limiting anxieties, they can be more “out there,” open and curious, and ready to take on the additional anxiety and risks associated with trying new things.

After all, if living is to be an ongoing, ever-intriguing adventure, it has to be dynamic. So, as long as we’re saddled with mental and emotional insecurities, we won’t be prepared to engage in life fully—whether by ourselves, with others, or with our physical surroundings.

Courage and confidence blossom when we’re able to quell former anxieties that in various ways may have kept us stuck in life. And, once we can disentangle from these self-confinements, our much-expanded comfort zone will free us to feel all our feelings—not just the safe ones that kept us closed off from so much life might have to offer us.

And it can hardly be overemphasized that, done correctly, such engagement entails a creative, individualistic balancing of (childlike) immediate pleasures with (more adult and pleasure-restricting) longer-term goals and aspirations.

Newly awake to possibilities we hadn’t before opened to, we can envision, welcome, and experiment with things that felt too scary when our modus operandi was too often one of defensive avoidance. From this broadened perspective, our life can take on dimensions yielding a level of contentment earlier unavailable to us.

Adam Omary, in his post “The Science of Happiness,” downplays the importance of finances and tersely outlines the components of well-being by stating: “Overall, being happy is to live with mindfulness, meaning, and purpose.” And it’s up to each individual to decide, based on their particular values, just what purpose they wish to pursue.

I’ll get to the most concrete, “how-to” level of specificity in my next post on happiness. Here I’ll just allude to some elements that, more explicitly, contribute to a state of well-being.

And that includes (but is hardly confined to) fostering dietary health, fitness, and resilience; cultivating authenticity, gratitude, and forgiveness (for both yourself and others); advancing your motivation and sense of self-worth (but without arrogance or egotism); and spending more time returning to, and communing with, nature.

Part 1 of this three-part post focused on the relationship between financial security and happiness; part 3 will discuss in detail the many things you can start doing right now to make yourself happier.

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


Bunn, T. (2019, May 15). The good news and the bad news about feeling secure.…

Dieker, N. (2017, Oct 24). How important is financial security to happiness?…

Hamblin, J. (2017, Oct 23). A lazy person’s guide to happiness.…

Lycett, K. [Lead Researcher]. (2022, Mar 31). The golden triangle of happiness.…

Omary, Adam. (2022, Aug 2). The science of happiness.…

Seltzer, L. F. (2012, Oct 17). Greed: The ultimate addiction.…

Zlatopolsky, A. (2021, Nov 24). How much money do you really need to be happy?

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