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3 Keys to Sustainable Happiness and Joy

Stop putting off your happiness until you achieve all your goals.

Key points

  • Happiness that depends solely on people, places, or things is fragile and often unsustainable.
  • Delaying happiness until you achieve all of your personal or professional goals is a gamble that tends to fail.
  • For sustainable happiness, experts suggest working to cultivate gratitude, altruism, and a spiritual practice.
Simi Iluyomade / Unsplash
Source: Simi Iluyomade / Unsplash

Most people come to therapy because they’re disappointed in life. Things didn’t turn out as planned; hopes were dashed, relationships ended, careers stagnated.

Is it possible to be happy when life doesn’t work out as you planned?

How do you define happiness?

While most folks would agree that happiness is a worthy goal, few agree on how to achieve it, and even fewer know how to make happiness sustainable. The world is full of people who attached their happiness to wealth, romance, or materialism, only to discover that joy was fleeting; old anxieties and depressions returned, and they woke up one morning to find that dreadful weight of despair pressing down on them again. (See "3 Signs You Need a Lifestyle Change")

When happiness slips away, we tend to repeat the same patterns: We chase it with even greater vigor. Sadly, happiness that depends solely on people, places, or things is fragile. Like a phantom, it can disappear suddenly and without notice.

Cultivating Sustainable Happiness

You can’t wait to be happy sometime in the future; cultivating happiness based on your environment, relationships, belongings, appearance, weight, career success, or bank account won’t do. Delaying happiness until you achieve any or all of these goals is a gamble that’s likely to lead to – you guessed it – unhappiness.

3 Keys to Sustainable Happiness and Joy

Here are three things you can do today to build a foundation for sustainable happiness and joy in your life:

1. Gratitude. There can be no lasting joy without appreciating what you have now. Gratitude doesn’t develop naturally; it must be cultivated. Take a moment of quiet reflection – now. Enjoy what you have – now. Express gratitude for what you have – now. Chances are you already feel lighter, your mood improved. But here’s the key: It takes more than just a moment, it takes a daily practice of gratitude. Before you can harvest sustainable happiness, you have to labor in the fields of appreciation. Appreciation and gratitude are the gateways to sustainable happiness. (See "The Power of Gratitude")

2. Altruism. A self-centered life, driven by ego, is a lifestyle that’s may be destined to end in burnout and loneliness. Studies have shown that people who regularly engage in altruistic activities consistently score higher on happiness measures than people who solely focus on themselves. The happiness experienced by bringing joy to others is more sustainable than happiness entirely based on satisfying our own needs. (See "How Altruism Empowers")

3. A Spiritual Practice. I’ve worked with hundreds of people in therapy. I’ve witnessed many of them overcome staggering hardships. But many of those who are able to cultivate sustainable joy in life had a daily spiritual practice that gave them strength and courage in the face of suffering. A spiritual practice strengthened their emotional core and empowered them to find joy even in times of adversity.

As Buddhist peace activist Daisaku Ikeda writes:

“It is not others nor our fate nor the times we live in that make us unhappy; it is our own weakness. Inner weakness is the ultimate cause of unhappiness. It is what makes us fall into apathy and self-destructive patterns of behavior…and fills us with self-loathing. That is why to lead a happy life, the most important thing of all is to forge and develop our inner strength.” (World Tribune, 2/21/22, p8)

Here’s the best part: Sustainable happiness won't cost you a dime. It is available to everyone. Yes, it takes time and discipline. But how can you hope to master anything – even happiness — without practice?

Click here to hear an interview with the author about happiness.

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