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The Secret of Happiness: Let It Find You (But Make the Effort)
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

"...happiness doesn't come with fireworks and a parade. Instead, it sneaks in quietly as the night so that you don't realize it has been there for awhile."

The first and most important key to finding happiness may be the most difficult for many people (especially those reading this article): To find happiness you must not seek it! In other words, the more you try to find happiness, the more it will elude you. I think Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) said it best, “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

However, don't be discouraged. You can do many things to create a life where happiness is more likely to find you. Yet, the same caveat applies: If you do everything for the purpose of finding happiness, you may achieve much, but you are not likely to find happiness. Researcher Mauss and colleagues (2012) who found that the higher the value a person places on being happy, the more likely they are to be unhappy, stated, “encouraging a mindset to maximize happiness (as some “self-help” books do) may be counterproductive.”

The reason happiness becomes elusive the more you strive for it is due to creating a fixed desire of achieving happiness.

If you have read some of my previous articles, you know that a fixed desire is a demand that something has to occur, or be true, or be achieved in order to be happy. Demands, or “shoulds,” are irrational thinking styles that create conditions for stress and unhappiness. Most of the time these demands take the form of “To be happy, I must be thin and wealthy” or “I must find the love of my dreams” or “I must have a fulfilling job.” In fact, a fixed desire can be almost anything. It could be "I should feel good today" or "My son should get an A on his exam."

However, typically the demands are not completely under the control of the individual and/or they are externally focused which means that the individual may not be able to make these things occur even with a great deal of effort. Therefore, this demand attitude allows happiness to be at the whim of the external world.

In the case of happiness itself, many people make the attainment of happiness a fixed desire: “I must be happy.” However, it is only when we realize that we don't need to be happy that we can find happiness. As William Saroyan (1908-1981) said in My Heart's in the Highlands “The greatest happiness you can have is knowing that you do not necessarily require happiness.”

The difference between a fixed desire and a desire or a goal is that the latter doesn't connect personal happiness with the outcome. For instance, a person may desire to find a fulfilling job but doesn't demand that it has to occur.

Interestingly, people who have desires rather than demands may be more likely to achieve their goals (Berg, Janoff-Bulman, & Cotter, 2001) possibly because they are more motivated and less discouraged. When the very essence of happiness is dependent upon the achievement of a goal, striving towards that goal can be quite overwhelming and even frightening: “What if I fail?”

The one time I experienced test anxiety was just as I started to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) that would affect my entrance into graduate school to become a psychologist. Just before I picked up my pencil, I said to myself, “This is the most important test you will ever take. If you don't do well, your life will be ruined.” My anxiety shot up as I opened the booklet to read the first question which might as well have been written in Russian because I couldn't comprehend a single word. Fortunately, I knew enough about self-talk and recognized what I had done to myself, so I put my pencil down, did five minutes of deep breathing and told myself, “This test doesn't matter. If you fail, all it means is that your life will take a different path.” That is the difference between a fixed desire and a desire.

The Tao te Ching (also known as “The Book of the Way” which I think of as early cognitive therapy) states, “If you want to be given everything, give everything up.” If you reflect on this statement you may realize that to give everything up, you must also give up the desire to be given everything. Very paradoxical and mind-boggling, isn't it? But that is the first step: To find happiness you must not seek it.

Similarly, Charles Dickens stated in his novel The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, “Happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it, but to delight in it when it comes.”

However, that being said, let's discuss how to achieve happiness. Actually, how to create the conditions so that happiness can find you. The work to finding happiness is to remove the obstacles to happiness.

What Is Happiness?

The general definition of happiness is that it is a state of well-being or contentment. In psychology it is defined as positive mood, life satisfaction, and subjective well-being (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005). The subjective aspect of the definition indicates that only the individual can define whether he or she is happy—it cannot be defined from an external perspective.

Over 2000 years ago, Aristotle proposed that “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Yet, achieving happiness has often been focused on the external such as obtaining the approval of others or accumulating wealth, possessions, or power. As a result we have a fairly good idea of what happiness is not. For instance, beyond having a satisfactory standard of living, wealth does not contribute to happiness (Lyubomirsky, 2001).

Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher (369-286BC) described the pursuit of happiness in a way eerily similar to what many people today do: “I cannot tell if what the world considers ‘happiness’ is happiness or not. All I know is that when I consider the way they go about attaining it, I see them carried away headlong, grim and obsessed, in the general onrush of the human herd, unable to stop themselves or to change their direction. All the while they claim to be just on the point of attaining happiness.”

So whether we are talking about today or 2000 years ago, I believe that we have made it fairly clear that happiness isn't attained through wealth or power or achievement. In fact, happiness does not appear to be derived from “the pursuit of happiness” but is a consequence of pursuing a life of meaning and well-being.

With that in mind we will look at what the psychological research has indicated as worthwhile pursuits that can impact a person's overall sense of well-being, satisfaction, and contentment with life and self. First, let's examine the influences on happiness.

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Is Happiness Possible for Everyone?

Generally, the psychological literature has shown that happiness is due to genetics, life circumstances, and intentional behavior (DeNeve & Cooper, 1998) Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005). The bad news is that a significant portion is related to genetics. However, the good news is that a significant portion is related to intentional behavior.

1) Genetics. About 50% of an individual's degree of happiness appears to be due to genetic influences. Such factors include personality traits, negative emotional states, and excitability. The genetic aspect of happiness may not be very changeable, however as Rick Hansen, author of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (2009), indicates, that by being aware of the human tendency towards negativity we are able to take steps to counteract it.

Researchers Kristina DeNeve and Harris Cooper (1998) suggested based upon their meta-analysis of 148 studies with over 42,000 participants that the most influential personality traits on happiness in order of importance are: (1) affiliation, (2) perceived control, (3) emotional stability, (4) internal locus of control, (5) social desirability, (6) sociability, and (7) extraversion. However, as you may be aware by examining the list, many of these are interrelated. But there are distinctions. For example, extraversion may suggest a personal style of relating to others whereas affiliation may refer to the overall quality of relationships.

Although the idea that genetics can account for 50% of a person's happiness can be discouraging especially if you are low in those personality traits, there are reasons for optimism regarding pursuing happiness and recognizing that genes are not destiny. In particular, researchers have found that CBT interventions and developing certain attitudes can increase happiness. Also, older people are generally happier than younger people indicating some influence that can override genetics. Therefore, it is believed that genetics can have some indirect influence but a person is capable of making choices regarding change (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005). For instance, although excitability may be genetically programmed, the experience of anxiety or agitation can be reduced through certain meditations, relaxation, and cognitive methods.

2) Life Circumstances. Probably the most surprising factor as it relates to happiness is the contribution of life circumstances. Although many philosophers have indicated otherwise, the general belief by the public has been that life circumstances contribute a great deal to happiness and unhappiness. However, research has shown that even major life changes only account for 8 to 15% of a person's happiness (DeNeve & Cooper, 1998, Lyubomirsky, 2001).

What this means is that the things that happen to us such as illness, injury, financial troubles, etc. only account for a small part of overall happiness. This is why people who have suffered tragedy can still be happy.

3) Intentional Behavior. Most important to our purposes, however, is that intentional behavior accounts for 40% of an individual's level of happiness. In other words, even an individual with negative life circumstances and poor genetics has potentially a great deal of influence over their sense of satisfaction and well-being in life.

However, this doesn't mean that attainment of happiness is easy because there are often obstacles to people engaging in the intentional behaviors that influence happiness. The ingredients of happiness have not changed over time and can be somewhat elusive for people because although they may be simple, they are not necessarily easy: “One is happy as a result of one's own efforts once one knows the necessary ingredients of happiness: simple tastes, a certain degree of courage, self denial to a point, love of work, and above all, a clear conscience (Georges Sand, 1804-1876).”

Intentional behavior is the aspect of happiness that we want to examine more closely. What this means is that there are certain behaviors, lifestyles, and choices that can be made by the individual that can increase the likelihood of happiness but likely involve some work. Let's look at those.

What Intentional Behaviors Can Influence Happiness?

In examining the research and the general wisdom of philosophers and others, I have categorized the intentional behaviors into seven general types that do have some overlap and may vary in importance for different individuals. The information that comprises the list of intentional behaviors below is from research literature reviews by positive psychology researcher, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005; Lyubomirsky, 2001) and a meta-analysis by DeNeve & Copper (1998).

1) Sense of Purpose. Commonly people believe that a life of leisure provides happiness. They believe that if they had plenty of money, didn't need to work and could play all day, they would be happy. And yet studies of truly happy people show that they often have a high commitment to goals and a sense of purpose driving their lives.

Happy people focus intently upon achieving meaningful goals. This drive and the progress towards these goals often aid in creating more positive daily experiences in life. Thus, it becomes a positive cycle of the pursuit of a sense of purpose creates more positive experiences which provide more reinforcement for pursuing goals.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt, the thirty-second president of the U.S., a man who required physical assistance every day of his presidency due to disability from polio and yet lead the U.S. through a very difficult period, stated “Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.”

2) Affiliation and Service to Others. Our relationships to others is a strong factor in overall level of happiness. As Epicurus stated over 2000 years ago “Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.” However, the way that we affiliate may differ according to personality style. Outgoing individuals may be more interactive with many people, whereas introverted folks may be content with one or two relationships. Some people may find sense of purpose in their service to others whereas others are content with socializing.

However, there are some components of relationships that are more likely to contribute to happiness. One is the feeling of kindness and compassion towards others as well as being genuinely pleased for others' success rather than being competitive or jealous. As the Dalai Lama says “Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek.”

In addition, the ability to trust, love and see oneself as part of a community is conducive to happiness. The more that we see ourselves as entrusted with the happiness of others, the more we receive in return. “Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting some on yourself (Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882).”

3) Philosophical Perspective. How we frame the world and our experiences within it influence our degree of happiness. Those who tend to be more optimistic about creating positive outcomes are more likely to engage in active problem-solving and to be more content. However, this does not mean being unrealistic in assessing outcomes which can be detrimental (as discussed below in the section on emotional tolerance).

Happier people tend to be satisfied with all their options when making a decision. In other words, as discussed at the beginning of the article, they are not attached to any particular outcome. They will strive towards a particular goal but are equally content if they don't achieve it. Remember, as I stated earlier “all it means is that your life will take a different path.”

This philosophical perspective allows the individual to see the value in all experiences without a need to evaluate them negatively. As Euripedes (480-405BC) opined, “The man is happiest who lives from day to day and asks no more, garnering the simple goodness of life.”

Although happiness may not be as simple as developing an "attitude of gratitude," developing a more optimistic perspective and seeing the positive aspect of an event can be helpful.

4) Emotional Tolerance of Suffering. Although emotional tolerance is an area I could write an entire article about (if not a book), I will try to briefly discuss this concept. What I have learned over the course of my career as a clinical psychologist is that most problems are worsened by the inability to tolerate emotions. A couple of areas depict this quite well. The most striking area is grief due to a death or tragedy. I have frequently seen people who contact me in extreme distress due to grief (often the only time they have even seen a therapist) and after I explain to them that their feelings are a normal part of the healing grief process and they should just allow these emotions, they feel much better. So much so that they don't need another appointment. Although they continue to grieve, they are able to tolerate the emotions because they understand them better.

Another example that I have seen frequently since I specialize with anxiety disorders is people who have Panic Disorder. A hallmark of their symptoms is the inability to tolerate the feelings of panic. When they can get to an understanding that the feelings won't hurt them, that it is just a feeling that will go away, their panic usually decreases significantly.

As I wrote about in Sadness is a State of Happiness, it is not the absence of negative emotions, but the full expression of our emotions that contributes to our happiness. Research has found that denying negative emotions or information threatens happiness (DeNeve & Cooper, 1998). How does this fit with research that shows happier people are more optimistic and have more positive emotions? Interesting research by Maya Tamir and Brett Ford (2012) answer this question by examining the concept of the usefulness of emotions. What they found is that happier people want to feel useful emotions that are appropriate to the situation but they don't want to feel negative emotions when they are not useful. In other words, when it is the time to grieve, happy people grieve; when it is the time to be angry, happy people are angry; but most of the time, happy people are content.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) expressed this idea of tolerating emotions: “Happiness lies for those who cry, those who hurt, those who have searched, and those who have tried for only they can appreciate the importance of people who have touched their lives.”

I believe this research helps to explain other findings that happy people pursue success rather than avoid failure, do not engage in excessive worrying, are less sensitive to social comparison, are able to forgive and are less likely to dwell on moods (Lyubomirsky, 2001). If you think about it—all of these things, failure, worrying, social anxiety, inability to forgive and dwelling on moods are not useful. However, happy people are able to feel anger and sadness and anxiety when the immediate situation calls for it. As William Faulker (1897-1962) stated in Absalom, Absalom! “If happy I can be I will, if suffer I must I can.”

5) Self-Contentment. Research shows that happier people tend to have greater self-confidence and belief in their abilities. They use social comparison in a positive way that tends to be more motivating rather than comparing themselves negatively to others, and so are not threatened by others' success or abilities. In other words, they are comfortable with themselves. This contentment with the self allows them to strive for self-improvement as a means of creating something positive rather than avoiding something negative.

As Aristotle (384-322) said, “Happiness is the settling of the soul into its most appropriate spot” and Erasmus (1466-1536) believed “The summit of happiness is reached when a person is ready to be what he is.” It can't be emphasized enough that the contentment with the self provides the foundation for happiness to emerge.

6) Choice. Happier people believe not only generally in their ability to control their experience in life but also specifically in their ability to choose to be happy. “Happiness is a choice that requires effort at times (Aeschylus, 525-456BC).”

This desire for control has beneficial effects in their lives. They tend to be more assertive, decisive, and engage in active problem-solving. Such a direct approach tends to increase positive life experiences which, in turn, influences belief in control and degree of happiness. Conversely, it has been found that an external locus of control, a belief that luck, not effort, is a primary factor in what occurs, has been shown to be detrimental to the achievement of happiness ( Lyubomirsky, 2001).

Helen Keller, who overcame being born deaf and blind in the 1800s to be the first with her disabilities to earn a Bachelor's degree and become a successful writer and speaker, expressed her belief that “Your success and happiness lie in you.” She demonstrated this belief every day of her life.

7) Health Behaviors. Finally, researchers DeNeve and Cooper (1998) in their analysis of 148 studies concluded that as important as personality variables are to happiness, health behaviors are of even greater importance. Happier people take care of their physical and mental health needs. As such, they are more likely to exercise, eat nutritiously, and engage in relaxation of some sort. If they need medical care, they are more likely to follow through and take proper care of themselves.

One other point about health behaviors is that exercise (and other health behaviors) is a good example of how we need to be able to tolerate discomfort for the benefit we derive. People may not always get immediate reward from these behaviors but they persist due to the long-term benefits. This doesn't mean you can't try to find activity you enjoy (or healthy foods you like)—it just means that at times you may not enjoy it, but it is important to take care of your health anyway.

How To Choose Which Intentional Behaviors to Pursue?

After reading about the intentional behaviors that contribute to happiness you may be feeling a little overwhelmed about what it takes to find happiness. However, keep in mind that you do not need to engage in all the above behaviors for happiness to find you. It is not even clear which are most important as some people find happiness in their sense of purpose in life whereas others might find happiness in their affiliation with others. However, as I said earlier there is overlap among the categories so that people who are highly focused in one area probably have strong influences in other areas as well.

VERY IMPORTANT: Do not try to change everything at once! If you try to do that, it indicates that you don't understand the first concept of not overvaluing happiness: To find happiness you must not seek it! Try to make just small changes in your life at a time.

To pursue intentional behaviors to increase happiness there are several important issues to consider: person-activity fit, initiating and maintaining effort, and the development of happy habits (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005).

1) Person-Activity Fit. The behaviors that influence happiness may vary from person to person. For instance, an extravert may find affiliation and group relationships as an appealing pursuit whereas an introvert might find a sense of purpose in quieter, more independent activities. What is important is to recognize your strengths and what provides you with a sense of satisfaction rather than trying to fit a mold created by others.

For example, I once had a client who had a passion for art but was pushed into the family business and spent her life doing office work. When I asked her why she didn't pursue art, she said her family had convinced her that she could never make a living in that area. However, she always felt that something was missing from her life. Doing something just because you are told you “should” is not likely to lead to happiness.

2) Initiating and Maintaining Effort. As I stated previously, happiness is simple but it is not easy. To create the conditions for happiness, effort is required. This can be an obstacle for many people especially because they may not receive immediate reward for their efforts. As I see it, the need for immediate gratification is a major problem in our society because it tempts people to focus on short-term rewards rather than long-term gains which are often directly opposed to one another.

For example, it may be immediately rewarding to have a piece of chocolate cake, but the weight gain caused by focusing on the short-term reward prevents the long-term reward of being healthier. Or, it may be immediately rewarding to avoid the discomfort of facing a fear but by avoiding the discomfort in the short-term, more pain may be experienced in the long-term. For example, a person who is afraid of failure may avoid developing goals where failure could occur, but in the long-term that person may also prevent success and end up leading a less fulfilling life.

Therefore, once you have identified intentional behaviors that are a fit for you, it may be necessary to identify how to incorporate these behaviors into your lifestyle. If you identify any obstacles to doing so, you need to develop a plan to overcome the obstacles so that you can engage routinely in the behaviors that will influence your overall happiness.

3) Development of Habit. Unfortunately it is human nature to adapt or become accustomed to the impact of certain behaviors so that if something feels good the first time, it may not have the same intensity of feeling the second, or especially the hundredth, time. Therefore, it is important to vary how the intentional behaviors are implemented so as not to habituate to the experience (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005). In other words, you want to develop habits that are not so routine that they lose their beneficial impact.

How can this be done? I think there are probably many ways but one that I find particularly suitable for this is the development of a mindful attitude. Mindfulness allows us to approach the same circumstances with the perspective of a fresh experience. For instance, you might see a certain tree every day on your morning walk. Without mindfulness you tend to become less and less aware of that tree. However, a mindful approach allows you to become more intimately aware of that tree in all its variations. Not only would you notice the impact of different seasons on the tree, but you might notice how different weather conditions affect the tree such as a dry day or a humid day, or you might notice the micro-environment of the tree such as the insects and birds that live there. A mindful approach provides you with a new experience every day that you engage in the habit of your daily walk.

A Final Word About How to Know Happiness When it Finds You

Some of you reading this article may have realized by now that you are already happy. As I have described in other articles, that happened to me a number of years ago. When I quit seeking the elusive “perfect” life, I realized that I was already happy.

However, the problem is that happiness doesn't come with fireworks and a parade. Instead, it sneaks in quietly as the night so that you don't realize it has been there for awhile.

Aldous Huxley in Brave New World described this quite well: “Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn't nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

We often expect happiness to be similar to the artificial means used to create the illusion of happiness: power, alcohol, drugs, prestige, winning. All these can be quite intense experiences. But true happiness, when it finds you, just sits quietly on your shoulder.


Berg, Michael B., Janoff-Bulman, R., & Cotter, J (2001). Perceiving value in obligations and goals: Wanting to do what should be done. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 982-995.

DeNeve, K.M. & Cooper, H. (1998). The happy personality: A meta-analysis of 137 personality traits and subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 197-229.

Ford, B.Q. & Tamir, M. (2012). When getting angry is smart: Emotional preferences and emotional intelligence. Emotion, 12, 685-689.

Hansen, R. (2009). Buddha's Brain.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2001). Why are some people happier than others? The role of cognitive and motivational processes in well-being. American Psychologist, 56, 239-249.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K., Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111-131.

Mauss, I.B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C.L. & Savino, N.S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11, 807-815.

Tamir, M. & Ford, B.Q. (2012). Should people pursue feelings that feel good or feelings that do good? Emotional preferences and well-being. Emotion, 12, 1061-1070.


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