For the International Day of Happiness: The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned About Happiness.

Tomorrow (Monday, March 20), is the International Day of Happiness (there’s a day for just about everything, isn’t there?).

That got me thinking. I’ve been researching, thinking, and writing about it for a decade now: what’s the most important thing I’ve learned about happiness? How can we help ourselves to become happier?

And I realize that my crucial insight is that the answer is…It depends.

It depends on the kind of person we are — our interests, our values, our temperament, our circumstances.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking there’s a “best” way, or the “right” way — but it just depends.

For instance, maybe you know you’d be happier if you exercised regularly, or if you spent less time on your phone, or if you finished your Ph.D. thesis, or if you yelled at your kids less, or if your house were less cluttered.

How do you do that? It depends…


And so many other factors.

Very often, though, we’re told we “should” be able to do something, or that something “should” make us happy.

We should be made happier by …

  • travel
  • wine
  • shopping
  • spontaneity
  • music


Those aren’t major sources of happiness for me.  I see their value, they do bring me some happiness, I understand that they’re very important to other people, but for me, meh.

If pressed for a universal answer about how to become happier, I do think there are some aspects of happiness that are true for just about everyone.

We need self-knowledge.

This is what I’m talking about above. When we know ourselves, we can shape our lives to suit what’s true for us.

We need relationships.

To be happy, we have to have enduring, intimate bonds with others; we have to feel like we belong; we have to be able to give and get support.


If someone asked you, “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about happiness?” what would you answer?


  • Herbie Smith

    The most important thing I’ve learned about happiness is that you can find it pretty much anywhere with the right approach to life. I find happiness throughout the day with a positive attitude and quiet reflection. Of course, a cold craft beer definitely doesn’t hurt 😉

  • Diane Schmitz

    For me, happiness is the opposite of fear. I spent a decade or two unhappy, and making decision out of fear (of the unknown, of failure, of judgement). I realized I did not want to look back on life with regret that I had not tried things. I had to very consciously make myself acknowledge that fear and then make a decision on its own merits. So, I moved cities and changed jobs. When people invited me to try something new, I said yes, though I’d rather stay home in my PJ’s. When I had a notion to make a major career change but was terrified of taking a class that had been too hard decades before, I moaned for a year, then did it. If I failed, at least I would know I’d tried. Now, I’m happy when I’m moving forward, even if the individual moments are hard. As a bonus, this has made my relationships better and richer. It’s forced me to choose my diversions wisely because my time is full of things I’ve said yes to (studying, experimental cooking, a new wine, a new cafe). And of course, a happy kitty on my lap always helps.

  • Gillian

    I agree with everything you’ve said but would add that, to be happy, we need a sense of purpose and accomplishment. This would include what you have called “an atmosphere of growth”. Rather than the word “happiness”, I actually prefer the word “satisfaction”.

  • Mimi Gregor

    I have found that you can’t get happiness from anything external. Happiness is a state of mind that must come from within. Focusing on the positive and being grateful for what one has definitely helps, but as you and others have pointed out, our psyches are skewed toward negativity as a survival tool. This means that it is a constant battle to get into a positive frame of mind, and then to stay there. I fully admit that I have trouble with this. I just try to enjoy the times when I feel truly happy, and not be too bummed when they inevitably run their course.

    • mom2luke

      I agree. External things (good things, that is) definitely HELP us to be happier, they make it EASIER to get happy/regain a happy state of mind after becoming disappointed or depleted with something as simple as a good night’s sleep.

      But, if you look at happily married people ( like Gretchen) with financial security you see that they too must make a concerted effort to overcome negativity bias.

      Suffering brings us to a place where we can appreciate and be grateful for even the smallest moments of happiness –if for no other reason than the comic relief from our major heartache. It’s why people laugh even at funerals.

      But –as much as I love Gretchen’s books, podcasts and blog posts– it is hard not to feel sometimes “easy for her to say!” as she came from a happy home and lives in one now with all children healthy, all their grandparents living, with no unemployment, no terminal illnesses. All that can change in an instant as most of us know.

      While most of the advice she shares I love and can easily apply it to boost my day to day happiness, sometimes I can’t help but feel annoyed at how privileged /Pollyanna the problems discussed are. My window treatments or standing in line at the post office are not on my list of worries.

      Adding sister Liz to the podcast was such a needed /welcome counterpoint as Liz has shared some of the harder experiences more representative of what the rest of us go through in our lives. A chronic disease (diabetes I, fertility issues, tiredness, weight struggles, working mom time constraints, commuters traffic, “only child” needs for parental attention, cluttered closets, spec work “turning to ashes”– sister Liz is what keeps all that relentlessly cheery advice real.

      So yes, external circumstances DO matter but what’s most important is our attitude. No one is exempt from life’s sufferings. Tho some of us get way more thrown at us than others. It helps to know ourselves and what comforts us and what stresses us so we can go to those things when we need them most.

      • Gillian

        Thank you for this!!

      • Kristen Hammerback

        I would differ on this. Gretchen Rubin is the person who has done all of the research, all of the original thinking, all of the blog posting (over 10 years!) and all of the writing around happiness. She does her best to talk about issues from a broad, science-based perspective. Liz is on the podcast because she is Gretchen’s sister. Gretchen is incredibly nice to Liz, whereas Liz frequently makes jabs at Gretchen. It gets tiresome. Note to Liz: stop telling the world that you deeply value thank-you notes and you disagree with your sister’s view. Actions speak louder than words — if you really cared that much, you would have done something about it. And by the way, you think Liz, a Hollywood TV writer who just spent months upon months talking nonstop about remodeling her home, is less “privileged” than Gretchen? Not fair.

        • mom2luke

          I was not trying to impy privilege is “bad”! Privileged or not we will ALL be confronted with major life challenges, death/illness of loved ones, setbacks, difficulties and disappointments of our children etc. I have some major life challenges, but also many, many privileges too.

          Gretchen herself discusses her own privilege, her happy marriage, healthy kids, all her blessings. Yet she wanted to learn how to be less cranky/happier and store up wisdom/lessons for the future when things might not be so great. She wanted to learn everything possible about happiness research to help gird her for “the big one” when it inevitably comes.

          I think they are like Oscar and Felix … we can like BOTH of them but upholders (like Felix/Gretchen) CAN become relentless (or “happiness bullies” as Gretchen & Liz affectionately refer to her) … one of the few downsides of being an Upholder is thinking your way is the best “right” , only way. I, like Liz, am jealous of Upholders! They get so much accomplished! (Bully for them!) But Gretchen grew in her research for Better than Before and recognized why much in her happiness book wasn’t going to resonate with everyone and then, writing Better than Before , she figured out why: IT DEPENDS on your tendency.

          I love that she pointed out that Upholders are “rare and extreme” personalities. Thus, I no longer have to feel bad that I am NOT one! Neither is Liz. Liz is the co-host for the rest of us! Gretchen quotes “research shows xyz makes most people happier” but always adds, that does not mean that xyz works for ALL. (Introverts/ambiverts/ extroverts, 5 different love languages, Myers Briggs types all have different preferences/strengths/weaknesses…but clearly she believes your tendency is most important when it comes to selfimprovement and expectations)

          I can relate more to Liz struggles than Gretchen’s successes..
          And I don’t think Liz is ragging on Gretchen. The love both sisters feel for each other is clear and their differences is what makes the show so interesting. Oscar and Felix could drive each other crazy, but they also were both well intended and both had great affection for each other.

          A listener pointed out that Gretchen tends to give herself gold stars as well as demerits, Liz tends to give stars to others and demerits to herself. I find Liz’s struggles with self-discipline, and giving herself w/ demerits when she falls short, similar to what I do. But I also feel she and Gretchen have GROWN –and so have I– from what we’ve learned since the beginning of the podcast

          The podcast is happiness research applied/tried at home. Without Liz sharing her very different POV it would not be nearly as interesting or memorable for me.

          • Kristen Hammerback

            Wow, this is a LONG post! You missed all of my points, but that’s fine. We can agree to disagree.

            Btw, I would ask the podcast producer to actually tally how many gold stars and demerits each sister assigns. I doubt the one listener is correct in her assertion that Gretchen “always” assigns herself gold stars. At the end of the day, Gretchen is the person with the science behind her, and the person who is the reason the podcast exists. I am tired of listeners denigrating her, like you. As I noted, it gets tiring.

          • mom2luke

            I was not denigrating, Gretchen, but the opposite!! I am a big fan of both her AND Liz. I was trying to point out how much VALUE ADDED Liz’s perspective offers to the podcast. (“My sister the sage,” as Gretchen says.)
            But I obviously failed to communicate that if you thought I was in ANY way denigrating Gretchen. I constantly quote her pithy takeaways to my family and friends. “Choose the bigger life” for example when making a tough decision.

            In giving advice to others I actually refer to her as “my happiness guru” and say “Well, as my happiness guru would advise …”

            I am sorry if I “missed all your points.” I think we are both fans of the show, the blog, the books.

  • Jonny Khaos

    Ooooh isn’t this the same day Iraq was illegally invaded and Scumerica went to war under false pretense? weapons of mass deception? As said by kofi Annan in 2004 and then reiterated in the chilcot report 12 years later (last June)

    Happy war mongering and international War crimes day!!

  • Aimee Hadden

    So good! As an upholder I used to assume that most people would be happy if they would just become more disciplined (what works for me). Since listening to the four tendencies information I’ve realized that knowing yourself is always key to happiness.

    • mom2luke

      I am glad to hear that! I have only one close upholder friend in my life. And often found her difficult to understand me. Learning about the 4 tendencies has helped ME stop feeling bad/ judged by her standards simply because I cannot make myself accomplish what she does (uncluttered house)– tho I do admire her abilities.

      I’m a questioner and It’s hard for me to let go of sentimental things and books/articles for writing projects I might never even get to.

      I too like a clean space/lack of clutter , but I also like hanging onto things that remind me of the past and loved ones now gone. My basement holds way too much stuff I need to sort through and let go.

      But: that’s ok! That’s just me.

      But my upholder friend has come over to help me declutter and organize and I can appreciate her help more since learning about how upholders think. She succeeded in getting me to sort and donate some books, papers, etc that I’ve dreaded going through ….but also I have learned how to stand up for myself i.e., that things that might look like clutter to her are legitimately important to me and who I am and future projects I want to complete.
      (In my dreams maybe, maybe only my fantasy self will find time to turn that travel file of messy papers and phamplets and keepsakes into an article…but it’s not a dream I’m ready to give up for a little extra space in my home office. )

  • Jude Bell

    I think it’s really important to do regular check-ins with yourself as far as happiness goes becuse sources of happiness change so much over time. When I was 18 crazy loud rock music made so happy, now silence recharges me and relaxes me. I used to crave the city and now it’s the ocean that draws me. The only constant that has made me happy from as early as I can remember is books, and even then the kind of books which make me happy at any given time changes drastically!

    • JoannieO

      Smart young lady, you are!

  • Grace C. Willams

    I suffer from chronic depression, and have since I was 14 years old. (I am 38 now.) So, I am never fully happy any day of my life since I was 14. I have low grain depression every day of my life, and the low energy that goes along with it. I also have a headache 24 hours a day from a brain injury caused by two car acideds, and a foot that has been hurting ever since I broke it in the last car accident in 2015. It looks like I have a lot stacked against me that would cause me to be totally miserable all the time, but that is not the case at all.
    I have a zest for life that is greater than most people I know. I think I value being alive, and being happy more because of the depression I suffer from. To have joy in my life though the joyful things I do is critical for me to have the will to stay alive. And, I am grateful, and happy with my life.
    I have extra time because I get disability that pays my expenses. This gives me plenty of time to do my dream job of being a writer and an arts who’s work is regularly expiated in a local museum. (A very hard thing for a artist who is just starting out.) I do three painting classes per week which is over five hours of free class and studio time.I am starting my first book, and am writing for a bit each morning. I go to church, and have a great spiritual with lots of prayer and mediation.
    On a daily basis for fun I:
    *watch things on Netfix
    *chart my habits using Gretchen’s journal for Better Than Before
    *go on the internet to really fun sights
    * do research for my book
    *talk with my brother
    *hear news and pictures of my two year old nephew Benson
    All in all I am very blessed in spit of, and because of my challenges. I have a good life that I am very grateful for.