The Four Habits of Happiness

It all comes to this: the simplest way to be happy is to do good.” – Helen Keller

I was listening to a 10 Percent Happier podcast that featured Arthur Brooks. A professor and social scientist, Arthur Brooks has recently published a book called From Strength to Strength: Finding Success Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life. He named a list from research of the 4 most important habits of happiest people:

  • Faith
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Work that serves others

But it made me wonder if everyone can fulfill that formula? First of all, faith means so many different things to different people. But perhaps it’s the trust in one of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes (which as Dr. Stein pointed out seems to build off Kierkegaard’s famous quote about living life forwards):

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Steve Jobs

But going down Brooks’ list, what about people who don’t have a lot of agency in their work? I recently heard an example of a hospital janitor. Instead of feeling like he didn’t have purpose in his work as he cleaned up vomit in the oncology ward, he’d framed it as an opportunity to make people feel a little bit better on what might be a low point in their lives.

And this made me think of my life. One of my least favorite activities about parenting is cleaning up spills. On a weekday when we are at work/school/daycare, it’s not so bad, but on any given weekend day, I clean up (or help my kids cleanup up) 6-10 spills a day. It feels like a waste of time to me, like I could be spending more time laughing and playing with my kids if we didn’t have spills.

But of course, despite my best precautions – kids, especially at age 3-years-old and age 7-years-old have accidents. They splash water out of the sink, they tip over the reservoir of paper they were using for a project, paint brushes fly out of little hands, and so on.

Reframing it, I see that I am not cleaning up spills. I’m teaching my kids how to react when things don’t go right. I’m helping them learn to pick up the pieces and continue when we have lost our mojo. And most importantly, I’m building up their belief that they can do it, even when it isn’t fun.

This big picture sentiment when it comes to caretaking is echoed by research professor Dr. Alison Gopnik “Taking care of children, like taking care of elders is frustrating, is tedious, and it’s difficult in all sorts of ways but it is also deep and profound and an important part of what makes us human.

In this way, maybe it is not only work that serves others but also quite possibly a habit of happiness.

What do you think about the four habits of happiness? Is there anything you do regularly that you’ve reframed as work to serve others?

(featured photo from Pexels)

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35 thoughts on “The Four Habits of Happiness

  1. There are endless lists of things. I’ve even made a few myself. They always seem to raise questions of the kind you rightly ask.

    Freud referred to “love and work” this way: “Love and work… work and love, that’s all there is.”

    Van Gogh wrote a touching letter to his brother Theo that included this:

    “Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. The passers-by notice only a little smoke from the chimney, and go their way… I am drawn more and more to the conclusion that to love much is the best means of approaching God. Love a friend, anyone, or anything you like, and I tell you, you will be on the right road to learn more. You must love with a high and intense determination, with your will and your intellect, and seek always to deepen, expand, and improve your knowledge. …”

    One could reconfigure the quote you offer, Wynne, by saying the first three involve different forms of love (faith, family, friends). Add work, and you have Freud’s formulation.

    One way or another, reframing as necessary, we search for satisfaction, one of the many “temporaries” of life. Perhaps, in a sense, knowing everything is temporary is the first step.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Wow, you’ve added some incredible synthesis to this, Dr. Stein. Satisfaction is temporary – indeed. And the Van Gogh quote is wonderful – I especially like the “love with a high and intense determination, with your will and intellect, and seek always to deepen, expand and improve your knowledge…” Wow, wow, wow.

      Love and work. A beautiful summation! Thank you!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. We are back into the new year of home school science– both work and serving others!
    These words from your post sum it up so well: “I’m teaching my kids how to react when things don’t go right. I’m helping them learn to pick up the pieces and continue when we have lost our mojo. And most importantly, I’m building up their belief that they can do it, even when it isn’t fun.”
    The almost 7 year old and I had this very discussion regarding school and “fun” on Monday. It may be a very long year!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I’m not so keen on lists, having felt I came up short on many of them years ago. They seemed to trigger some anxiety as I nervously scanned them, wondering how my efforts stacked up. Now I see that our happiness is a choice + actions we take to turn our minds and thoughts in that direction. To seek happiness is to chase the wind. Like a butterfly, it will land on our shoulders when we focus on turning the negatives in our lives into positives, when we focus on healing our hurts, when we reach a point of praying prayers of thanks for all we have, instead of constant pleading for what we think we want.

    I do love your phrasing “Reframing it, I see that I am not cleaning up spills. I’m teaching my kids how to react when things don’t go right. I’m helping them learn to pick up the pieces and continue when we have lost our mojo. And most importantly, I’m building up their belief that they can do it, even when it isn’t fun.” I think this is an oft-overlooked piece of parenting!

    Liked by 5 people

    1. What an interesting comment about lists. I didn’t even see it as a list really before you pointed it out. Thanks, Tamara.

      And your point about the oft-overlooked piece of parenting is another good one – and I think perhaps because it isn’t much fun!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. LOL! So true! It certainly isn’t a fun part of parenting, but you have brought up a thoughtful point re teaching our kids through our examples of how we handle life’s inconveniences.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. I myself love lists, but your comment, Tamara, I think hit on an essential truth: life is a journey, not a destination. Maybe it’s not ticking things off the list, it’s creating and recreating the list? 🙃

      It reminds me of an old saying:
      “If you want happiness for an hour: take a nap.
      If you want happiness for a day: go fishing.
      If you want happiness for a year: inherit a fortune.
      If you want happiness for a lifetime: help someone else.”

      Yes, the irony of this being a list is not lost on me …

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Oh, I’m laughing about your comment about the irony of it being a list, EW! That’s funny – but also a very wise saying. Although I might substitute hiking for fishing…. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      2. You guys are cracking me up! I’m not a fan of fishing either, but I like Wynne’s idea of substituting hiking or walking! That DOES sound more fun!

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I love Tamara’s comment about lists! Thanks for putting a name to the feeling, Tamara. When I peruse a list I’m immediately in ‘self-eval’ mode, even though I love the simplicity of small bits – easily digestible. My problem is that the little bits stick with me, in a nagging way. But that’s just me. 😉
    Wynne – I DO love your post but I’d flip the order and probably focus on the ‘service to others’ as my #1. When my disabled sister experienced challenges upon challenges in her young life, we focused on a daily re-set (yes, a reframing) to help her focus on the positives – to acknowledge how SHE GAVE to others each day. It became a nightly ritual – one that I continued as a parent. Bedtime prayers, songs and kisses – punctuated by the query. “Tell me who you helped today…and how.” Carrying that forward from my own childhood with sweet sister Lisa and into my parenting tool kit was magical and it’s still what I try to fall asleep thinking about each night. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Vicki – that question “tell me who you helped today and how” is brilliant. I love that it came from your sister and you continued it as a parent. I’m borrowing it from you to use with my own kids. I love it!

      So interesting about the lists. As I said to Tamara, I didn’t even see it as a list before this but I’m so glad I do now.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I like the list. It resonates with me and of course I think Family and Friends come first and foremost.

    I agree with your take that Faith can be of the non religious mind – meaning belief that things will work out regardless of the situation.

    As someone who works in a public sector role, and that manages staff, I also agree with your take that Work That Serves Others can take on different others. I interpreted this as work that is meaningful when you see its positive impact on others.

    For me, I think these four capture the habits of happiness well. What I would add to it is perhaps Good Health.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Good health is a good addition. Certainly when we are in good health, a lot of other things become easier.

      I like your take on work that serves others as when you see its positive impact on others – because that expands the idea of work to be a lot of things that could have a positive impact whether it be volunteer work. Certainly parenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting. I think those 4 items serve very well, especially if one can use the Steve Jobs approach to faith. I think any kind of work can be in the service of others; if you are making your colleagues and/or clients (students, patients, customers, etc) feel heard and appreciated then you are serving them … and you are a much happier person for it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a lovely comment, Belle. For me, it’s interesting when I get stuck in a way of thinking and forget that I can reframe things. It certainly opens my experience up when I remember to do it! Glad you like it too!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think the four habits are spot on and, for me at least, the value of meaningful work can’t be underestimated. The times in my life where I didn’t feel that my work was serving others usually ended in either depression, a job switch, or both. Thanks for the post Wynne!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Another interesting and thought-provoking post, Wynne. Yale’s The Science of Happiness class is the most popular course at the university, according to Yale. Everyone is trying to figure out the secret to happiness. I took the class online in 2020 and came away knowing what I’d already known. There is no list…no secret. Happiness is different for everyone, but I think it begins with contentment and gratitude for whatever we have.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I love this part so much: I’m teaching my kids how to react when things don’t go right. I’m helping them learn to pick up the pieces and continue when we have lost our mojo. And most importantly, I’m building up their belief that they can do it, even when it isn’t fun.

    That’s so true–so important–teaching our kids how to react and push through when things don’t go perfectly. (I still need to learn that. I get discouraged so easily. I can at least put on a brave face for them. Hello, whine about my JJ test not going perfectly much?)

    The quote in the next paragraph is also great–it’s hard but profound.

    Great post, W!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Betsy! That is high praise coming from you! And boy do I hear you about not only teaching how to react when things don’t go perfectly but also learning it myself. Not an easy lesson – at any age!!

      Liked by 1 person

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