How to Stop Looking For Happiness in All the Wrong Places

By default, we tend to look for happiness in external circumstances—the next trip, the next purchase, the next raise at work… But so often we forget that happiness is an inside job!

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We fail to predict what makes us happy because let’s be honest, we don’t know what actually makes us happy. It’s not that we can’t know. It’s that very few, if any, of us have actually stopped to realize the truth about happiness: that at the end of the day, happiness is an inside job.  It’s not a question of “what” makes us happy. It’s “who.” And that who… is ourselves!

We have a hard time knowing what makes us happy because we as a culture have always looked at outside sources to fulfill that happiness. We think the next job, the next relationship, a move out of state, or the newest trendy pair of shoes are going to do it. We live in a world where we think, “When X happens, then I’ll be happy.” We DIY every inch of our homes, get into credit card debt up to our ears, and go on a social media photo overload about all of our whimsical vacations. None of these are bad or unwarranted by any means. In fact, if you want to photo-catalog every moment of your trip to Jamaica, go for it. But we give all of these projects, destinations and possessions way more credit than is due. We credit them for making us happy and that, folks, is just not the case. 

Have you ever been on a vacation and started thinking about (or planning) the next vacation before your arrival flight home even touched ground? I have—many times! Why is that? It might be because I had such an incredible time, and I’m sure that’s partially the case. But what else might be true? It is actually more likely that it is because the high of the trip was already fading and the reality of my life was coming back. Or how about when you finally get that new pair of shoes you’ve been waiting for (although with Amazon, who even waits anymore?!)? How quickly does the newness wear off once you try them on for size? We plan more trips, we buy more shoes, we dream of moving into different homes because we are looking to all of those sources to be our source of happiness, content, and satiety in our lives. 

In Search For Happy

When we are finally smacked in the face with the reality that we are not feeling happy, that’s when the real investigation starts. If you have pretty much everything you wanted and still do not feel happy, then what else could make you happy? Or if you don’t have everything you thought you wanted and are happy anyway, why might that be? The answer is the same in both cases: happiness depends on you. Feeling happy is a way of living. It is not the things we have in our life. It’s the way we internalize all that is going on in and around our lives. Feeling happy depends on how we process the circumstances that are going on around us. 

This reminds me of the stories I have read about from people who sustained the torture and torment of Auschwitz. How in the world, in the midst of so much death and destruction, could some of the survivors come out to tell their stories of victory and triumph? How were they able to forgive some of the people who treated them so inhumanely? It was not because of the possessions they carried with them, as they had nothing. It was the mindset they diligently and intentionally focused on and the faith that something good would come from seemingly impossible situations. A mindset of seeing any good, no matter how microscopic, that could have unfolded that day, that hour or that moment. And a faith that the moment they were in was not the end of the story. That is a happiness—a gratitude—muscle that must be flexed every single day so that when the not-so-great situations arise in our lives, we are equipped and prepared to tackle those as well.  

How to Stay Happy in a World of Ups-and-Downs

If you truly want to quantify happiness, then look at those who are joy-filled and happy in the midst of whatever circumstances come their way. It’s easy to be happy, to feel grateful and to see the good in life when all is going well. But true character, and one’s ability to be happy (or not) really shows when life hands us some unpleasantries. It’s in those moments that someone’s true character—and their happiness factor—reveal themselves. 

Covid took away so many “things” that we thought made us happy. Meeting friends after work for dinner and drinks was halted. Company Christmas parties were put on hold. Bank accounts fluctuated, jobs were anything but secure, and from one moment to the next, we had no idea what this illness would do to our world. We still don’t. So how did we fare, friends? Are you still finding yourself wading in your own unhappiness and fear of the unknown? Do you still say that you miss the good old pre-pandemic times? Or have you found new ways to find contentment in your life? 

If we have learned anything since 2020, it’s that nothing will last forever. Jobs will come and go, money can be both plentiful and scarce, and people in our life can die. And if our happiness is tied up in all of these ever changing external sources, then our being happy or not will be that uncertainty as well. We will experience a somewhat bi-polar happiness that is completely dependent on things and people that we cannot control. 

Be the Thermostat, Not the Thermometer

So how do we set the temperature for our life? Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Be the thermostat in your life, not the thermometer.” It means that you set the gauge on how your life, your day, your hour will go, not anyone or anything else. It’s being proactive in your life instead of reactive and it requires that we stop seeking happiness in everything and everyone else and start seeking it from within our own skin. 

But having a happiness thermostat is never possible without this key nugget of truth: our greatest happiness, our truest source of joy and contentment in life comes when we dedicate our lives to helping make other peoples’ lives happy as well. When we focus more on other people and making their day great, their world a little sweeter, that’s when we receive the most happiness. We are a society focused on “me, me, me.” I am just as guilty of this mindset as anyone. But I know, without a doubt, that I can quantify my own happiness by how much I positively affect someone else. There is a joy that cannot be explained—it can only be felt—when we look outside our own selves and focus on others. The Bible talks about this over and over and over again, and I have found that the more I listen and practice the teachings that are on repeat through its pages, the more joy, gratitude and happiness I experience. 

So if you are feeling like happiness is not your default or that you are struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I encourage you to stop mindlessly scouring the internet, turn your car around from heading to Target and instead, figure out a way you can be a blessing to someone else today. Set the thermostat of your life to expect happiness, because if you are living with a heart for others, happiness will be one of the many blessings you will receive.  

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