What makes you happy? Maybe it's not what you think ...

Do you know what makes you happy or do you just think you know? At first, these two questions look the same. If you think something makes you happy, then it makes you happy. You know yourself, don’t you?

Write a list of all the things that make you happy. How many of them are fun? Most of them? So, if you spend your time doing all these fun things, you’ll be really happy, won’t you?

Well, maybe not. For most people, fun isn’t enough for real happiness. Paul Dolan wrote a book called Happiness by Design. He thinks happiness comes from both pleasure and purpose. If most of the things on your list are about pleasure, that is what you think makes you happy. But you also need activities with purpose.

We usually know if something is fun, but we don’t know what brings meaning. For example, most people think air pilots have jobs with clear purpose. They fly hundreds of people all over the world. But they spend a lot of time in boring hotels and airports and they do the same things hundreds of times. Those activities might not bring meaning – and they’re probably not fun. So pilots also need to find pleasure and purpose in their work and life.

There are different ways we can find purpose in things. Some activities might be motivating because they work for the good of people and the world around us. Or what you do might help a team you’re working in.

If you’re a student, your ‘job’ is studying and passing exams. It’s easy to do well in subjects you like, but subjects you don’t like are less motivating. They’re not fun for you, but you have to study them so you need to find purpose. An A in a subject you hate won’t help the world. But can you be part of a study team with friends? Each person can study one part until they understand it and then teach it to the rest of the group. The purpose becomes helping the team.

Go back to your list of things that make you happy. How many of them are activities that bring purpose? Can you add any? Remember, some activities might bring both pleasure and purpose.

Now you need to design a happy life. Paul Dolan believes people should  ‘decide, design, do’. First decide what brings you pleasure and/or purpose – that means your two lists. Then, don’t just think about these activities, fill your life with them. For example, you might love riding a bike but never have time to do it. So, ride to school or the library or the shops. If you live too far away, take your bike on the bus or train. Get off early and ride the rest of the way. If you go in the car, put it in the back, stop a few kilometres away and ride the rest. Or move somewhere you can ride more. Some parts of our lives are good or bad luck, but we can still design the rest to make more happiness.

Nicola Prentis

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What makes you happy?