What’s the Secret to Happiness?

Cup of coffee on an outdoor wooden table

I study happiness, good habits, and human nature, and people often ask me, “What the secret to happiness?”

I would give different answers, depending on what perspective is taken.

One answer, certainly, is relationships. To be happy, we need enduring, intimate bonds; we need to feel like we belong; we need to be able to confide; we need to be able to get support—and just as important, give support. Anything that deepens or broadens relationships tends to make us happier.

Another answer is self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is key, because we can build a happy life only on the foundation of our own values, our own interests, our own temperament. When we know ourselves, we can take action based on our values and our nature, and that makes us happier.

In reality, these two answers are intertwined, because it’s when we know ourselves that we can connect most deeply and harmoniously with others.

It’s so easy to assume that’s what true for us is true for everyone—and vice versa.

But the fact is, there’s a paradox: we’re more alike than we think, but the differences among us are very important. Or to put it another way, you’re unique—just like everybody else.

By thinking through how people are different—how they have different preferences, need different strategies, and see the world in a different way—we can gain more compassion for others, and also for ourselves.

Because when we don’t understand how people can be different, we can feel hurt, puzzled, resentful, or angry when they don’t do things our way. Or we can feel discouraged or frustrated with ourselves, when we can’t do things someone else’s way.

To give just a few examples of differences:

Morning people and night people. As a morning person, I used to think everyone could be a morning person if they just went to bed on time. But in fact, it’s largely genetically determined, and a function of age.

Once we realize that some people are morning people, and some people are night people, we can use that understanding. A friend, a morning person, said to me, “I’m so frustrated with my husband. I’m racing around every morning, getting our two little kids ready for school, and he staggers out of bed, he’s useless. I end up doing everything.”

I knew her husband well. I said, “He’s a night person. He can’t do anything for anyone in the morning! Why don’t you let him sleep late in the morning, and then he handles bedtime duties by himself, when you’re tired?” They sorted the responsibilities to suit their individual energy levels.

Simplicity-lovers and abundance-lovers. Simplicity lovers are attracted by space, bare surfaces, lots of room on the shelves; abundance lovers are attracted by buzz, profusion, collections.

Simplicity lovers and abundance lovers thrive in different environments—which is fine, unless a boss declares, “A cluttered desk means a cluttered mind,” and forces everyone to embrace simplicity. Or a boss declares, “Let’s really decorate for the holidays” and covers everything with twinkle lights and garlands for two months. The fact is, some people love simplicity, and some people love abundance—so how do we create an environment where everyone feels comfortable?

Accountability. Some people need outer accountability, even to meet their expectations for themselves. If they want to exercise more, they need to work out with a trainer, work out with a friend who’s annoyed if they don’t show up, or raise money for a charity. But other people resist accountability: they don’t want someone looking over their shoulder, or tying up their schedule with appointments, and they do better when they do what they want, when and how they want to do it.

I’ve seen this difference crop up among writers I know. Non-fiction writers usually sell a book after they’ve written a few chapters. One writer I know wrote his whole book before he tried to sell it. He told me, “I wrote the book because I felt like writing it. If I had an editor telling me that I had to finish a certain chapter by a certain date, I wouldn’t want to write it anymore.” By contrast, I know two writers who meet on Zoom. They mute themselves, sit there, and do their own writing. They both benefit from being accountable to each other. (To learn more about the key factor of accountability, check out my Four Tendencies personality framework and take the quiz to find out if you’re an Obliger, Rebel, Questioner, or Upholder.)

When we understand that people are different, instead of trying to convince each other that “I’m right,” feeling bad when thinking “You’re right,” or arguing about the “best” or “right” way of doing things, we can focus instead on creating an environment where everyone can thrive. After all, what’s the best way to cook an egg?

By knowing ourselves, we can grow closer to others.



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