How to Be Happy: The WRONG and RIGHT Questions

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How to be happy

How to Be Happy? Stop Asking the Wrong Questions

Many people spend their entire lives searching for the answer to happiness. Everyone wants to know how to be happy and yet you probably don’t know many people who actually are.

It is easy to buy into the idea that there are a lot of happy people just running around. Then you tell yourself that’s who you need to be too! There has to be a secret. Why am I not happy but X and Y are? What do they have that I don’t?

This makes you go on a wild chase for happiness. You want to learn how to be happy, but something is missing…

It’s because you’re asking yourself the WRONG questions. Below, you will find both the wrong questions that you are asking, followed by the right questions you should ask.

You’re wondering:

“What can I buy to make myself happy?”

So you go and buy all these things. Woohoo! I figured it out! Now I’m happy because I bought the new (noun) that comes with a(n) (adjective) (noun)!

Then a month passes and you’re back to where you were. You got used to whatever purchase you just made and hedonic adaptation hits you hard.

Unfortunately, my mom is exactly like this. She makes a great amount of money and she quickly spends it on so many things. A lot of the things she buys never even gets touched after leaving the shopping bag.

For her, happiness is about filling the void by constantly buying, only to return to the previous state of dissatisfaction.

Buying things only makes you happy for a short period of time and you eventually get used to what you had. Then you move on to your next desire.

It’s often repeated over and over now that “money doesn’t buy you happiness.” In fact, it’s incredibly cliché.

Stoicismhas a very solid explanation for this dilemma and their answer is to eliminate this cycle of desires by focusing on “wanting what you already have.”

What you should be asking:

“What do I already have that enhances my enjoyment of life?”

questions to ask on how to be happyThis is where you focus and practice gratitude. Try this. Vividly imagine your life without a cell phone. How are you going to keep in touch with your friends? How will you check your emails while you’re out and about? How are you going to read Self Stairway with convenience?

Now jump back to reality and realize you have an amazing tool. You’ve got a cell phone that allows you to keep in touch with others with great ease, check your emails whenever you please, and read an awesome site whenever you need! Life is truly wonderful isn’t it?

Without a cell phone, you would have had to jump through many hoops just to talk to another person who isn’t with you at the moment. You also would have to borrow someone’s computer to check your email and your favorite sites.

When you practice this enough, you’ll realize that you have so many amazing things.

Will a new t-shirt make you any happier? Or will the 56 t-shirts you have in your closet right now be enough? Is buying the next iPhone going to make you cherish today’s technological wonders? I think your current model of whatever phone you have will suffice. Because remember, after buying that new (noun), you’re only going to end up wanting something better in the future. This cycle of desire never stops until you make the conscious effort into ending it.

This level of gratitude is what Stoics practice on a daily basis.

You’re wondering:

“Who do I need in my life to make me happy?”

FriendshipDo you ever get that feeling that the people who surround you now aren’t quite good enough? You want more friends and you ask yourself who would make you happy.

I actually thought this way through a lot of high school. Who do I need to befriend before I’m happy? What was the magic number in real life and the amount I needed on Facebook?

It’s easy to think that the answer to happiness is more, more, more. Of course, that is not the case when it comes to happiness and friendships. No number of friends is the golden answer. Instead…

What you should be asking:

“Who brings me down and who raises me up?”

This is where you have to be brutally honest with yourself. Who are the ones that drag you down and really ruins your contentment?

These are the people who are constantly negative or critical of everything you do. Being around them is normal to you because you’ve grown used to it. But there is always that feeling where you know you shouldn’t be around them.

When someone is draining, you have to strategically cut him or her out of your life. As harsh as it sounds, it has to happen otherwise you’ll be stuck in a toxic friendship that doesn’t serve any purpose but to harm you.

Once you accomplish the task of removing the toxic influences, you can move on to surround yourself with people who only make you better and encourage you to grow as a person. Surround yourself with mentors and people who truly inspire you.

People who encourage you to grow will do wonders for your self-esteem and happiness. Don’t let these people go.

You’re wondering:

“How do I make this person like me?”

You’re so close to happiness and you can almost feel it! All it takes is validation from this one person and you’re going to be happy!

You begin to chase the validation of this one person or even multiple people because you think that if they like you, you’ll finally achieve your ultimate goal in life. So then you go out of your way to impress this person. You begin to act less like yourself and eventually you forget how to be yourself.

I know the feeling. This is actually the question that I’m still struggling with. I’m somewhere between internalizing the right question and removing the wrong one. However, asking the right question is leading to wonderful results for myself because I’m caring much less about what others think. I’m asking myself…

What you should be asking:

“How do I like myself?”

Stop seeking the approval of others. You shouldn’t be living life to impress others because you’re never going to find yourself content with who you are.

Think of how insane it is to live like that! No, seriously. Think about it. It’s very easy to be in that bubble where your goal is to impress others, but it’s difficult to see how ridiculously detrimental that is to your own mental health.

I’ve come to realize people don’t really spend that much time worrying about you because they’re the protagonist of their own story. Everyone else is busy trying to make others like them too. The good news is, you can learn how to stop worrying.

Here’s what you really need to internalize. You have to like yourself before you can expect the world to like you.

When you’re truly happy with who you are, people will naturally gravitate towards you. Sounds cheesy? It’s true. However, there is a bit of a contingency to this.

Sometimes it’s not enough to be yourself then call it a day. You actually have to work on improving your flaws. No, this does NOT mean be fake.

This means focus on the attributes that are less than ideal.

If you don’t listen enough and are always fighting for talk time, practice active listening. If you are never punctual then practice being on time. If you constantly complain then stop complaining. The list goes on.

Learn from the people in your life that you’re captivated by. Figure out what makes them so enchanting because you can work towards that. Just keep self-reflecting as you go along each day. You’re going to get rid of so many flaws that one year from now, your constant self-reflection will pay off in dividends.

If you want to learn how to be happy, stop asking all the wrong questions. Begin to ask the right questions and work towards happiness the right way.

If you enjoyed this article, please share it with your friends using the buttons below. I’m sure they all want to learn how to be happy too!

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Vincent Nguyen is the author of Self Stairway. After landing his dream job with Empire Flippers, he dropped out of college and began living a location independent lifestyle (still always drawn to coffee shops though.) Don't worry, he still publishes every Monday and hasn't missed a single week since starting this site in January 2013.

Latest posts by Vincent Nguyen (see all)

52 responses to How to Be Happy: The WRONG and RIGHT Questions

  1. Awesome stuff Vincent! Everything you say here rings true. Because happiness always starts from within. So the quest to “fill the void” from without will never work. It’s just an endless cycle.

    I think you summed it up best when you say, “Sometimes it’s not enough to be yourself then call it a day. You actually have to work on improving your flaws.”

    That’s the key. The missing ingredient. It’s not the next gadget or t-shirt that’s going to bring you happiness. It’s the journey of bettering yourself. Becoming the kind of person you were meant to be. That’s where you’re going to find fulfillment.

    Or, at least, it’s a helluva good start.

    Cheers!

    • Yup, that’s why I’m careful when I say “be yourself.” I ALWAYS follow it up with another sentence because life is just like that. You can be yourself, but will that guarantee happiness? Nope. That’s just something repeated over and over because they couldn’t come up with a followup or a better response to people’s sorrows.

  2. Happiness is internal. You will always be happy if you simply remember that it is NOW every moment and NOW will never come again. That said, that’s hard to do, but with practice we get better. For me, a higher power helps give me something to live for, too. And gratitude and helping others adds to the equation.

    • It helps to remind yourself that almost everyone around you is constantly time traveling. Walking down the street? Earphones. Sitting down “relaxing?” Thinking about what they did wrong yesterday or will need to do tomorrow. There’s rarely ever just doing.

      When you realize this about everyone else, you start to look inwards and question yourself. “Am I like that too?” Once you find the answer you realize how terrifying it is. That’s how you scare yourself into living in the present.

  3. Excellent post Vincent. :)

    And if we had to pick ONE question, I’d say the gratitude. It’s impossible to not feel full of happiness when we are appreciating what we have.

    ~ darlene

  4. I love this concept. Asking the right questions is so key to life!

    “Buying things only makes you happy for a short period of time and you eventually get used to what you had. ”

    I want to write this quote on my forehead and walk around in the mall to teach people. Sure, I’d be teaching them that I’m crazy, but maybe they’d read it. I think buying experiences or food is money spent well. I’m going to Rome in a week. I could buy a nice TV with that money, but I’m creating a lifetime memory with a friend instead.

    • Asking the right questions makes all the difference. “What should I be like?” vs “Who do I want to become?”, for example. What should I be like implies so much more negative crap that you don’t need to think about. They may sound the same, but the former sounds so fake. The second opens the doors to answers like “I want to become someone (synonym for great.) It also implies growing through those you look up to.

      • I agree, and a great example. One thing I noticed is the first question is based on outside expectations and the latter is based on inward desire.

  5. Vincent,

    I love the questions you have raised! The one on buying happiness resonates with me especially. It’s funny how buying a shiny new toy can give us such an instant rush of happiness. And just as quickly as it came, it disappears.

    I went through this when I got my first smartphone. I was all happy at first, but the excitement quickly died after a few months. Instead of enjoying my (still very new) phone, I became preoccupied with getting an even newer one so I can be happy again.

    Needless to say, that line of thinking didn’t make me happy at all.

    It’s true that being happy is not about having what we want, but rather wanting what we have.

  6. Vincent. You smacked another home run!!! Bravo! I am with Trevor about being yourself and I might add unapologetically too. This is right in line with your methodically cutting the undesirables out. It can be painful and agonizing, but worth the trouble so you can have peace.

    And that Mr. Dan Erickson always shares the best nuggets too. NOW indeed. We must live awake to appreciate what is there at the moment.

    • I wonder how many people spit at their computer screen as soon as I mentioned cutting people out. It’s not exactly something anyone ever says because come on, what person just cuts someone out of their life? My answer to that question is “People who want to grow.”

  7. Being surrounded by those who make you the best version of yourself, cheesy as that may be, seems to be a huge factor. Great insights.

  8. Great post. You’re right to say, “Sometimes it’s not enough to be yourself then call it a day. You actually have to work on improving your flaws.” The key here is to have unconditional love for yourself but to work on being the best you. In addition, you want to make sure you’re doing it because you know it’s the right thing to do, and not because you’re trying to please others. I believe this is the right balance.

    • You’re right, that is the correct balance. The challenge is always keeping in mind that this balance is what to strive for. Even when you have it in mind, internalizing it and executing isn’t easy.

      We can sum it up in three points for a basic reminder.
      1. Love yourself, but be open to growth.
      2. Learn from others. What makes them great?
      3. Live for yourself, don’t live to impress others.

      I guess those can be the 3 L’s.

  9. More people should be reading this article. You are absolutely right when you point out the wrong questions to ask if people want to be happy. So many people ask the wrong questions, do that so called task that supposedly makes them happy, only to feel the same a couple hours later. It’s the equivalent of getting high off of drugs, only this time it involves something such as:

    Wasting time in school
    Eating something that is not necessarily healthy for you
    Wasting more time on the computer

    If we asked ourselves the same types of questions that we should be as stated in the article above, then we would be living more happier, productive lives.

    • It is easy to ask the wrong questions though. No one teaches us to look at things from a different perspective. These are skills we have to figure out on our own, or at least most of the time it’s like that. It’s not exactly something people want to hear from their friends either so that only makes it even harder to get out of the bubble.

  10. I’ve found that things, and even people, can’t fill the void you described – in my view only God can. Great post, Vincent….there is wisdom here.

  11. Hello there, Vincent! What a post! I think that “You have to like yourself before you can expect the world to like you” and “You have to work on your flaws” are so important. It would be such a nice, easy cop out to blame others and boo-hoo your way into complacency. Get out there and make your own awesome! Oh boy, Vincent. You’ve got me all stoked up over here! I love the whole darn post! Thank you!

  12. I hear what you’re saying about the belongings and material objects and how they will ultimately fail to make you happy. When you buy the next shiny object it only holds value until the next shiny object is released and the cycle starts again. You are always focusing on what is coming next, not on what you have right now.

    I try to live my life in a minimalist fashion – Only owning a few essential things like my music equipment, laptop, phone, clothes and tiny bits and pieces. I haven’t even upgraded my phone in 3 years because no new phone can do anything that mine can’t.

    It’s funny how we attach ourselves to objects, as enjoyment comes from within.

    • Speaking of upgrading phones, my family always asks me if I want a new cell phone. I know I wouldn’t need a new one when I know all I use phones for are calls, texts, and email. Speed definitely isn’t an issue because none of those tasks require much power. I suppose it’s because they equate new things with happiness. It’s something that I just genuinely do not believe in.

  13. Great post Vincent.

    While happiness not doubt comes from within I am glad you mentioned the external factors of who you are spending time with because this can play a massive part in your happiness levels.

    I assessed my relationships a few years back and made some significant changes in who I spent my time with, this also coincided with quitting alcohol which helped in the transition :)

    Had a huge impact on my happiness and the happiness of those around me.

  14. The truth is, we can never really ‘be ourselves’.
    Who we currently are is always evolving. I think the most important thing is to be conscious of how we choose to live our lives and to follow a course that it in line with the type of person we want to eventually become.

    It’s very common to see people blindly living life, expecting the best and yet relying on fate to make their lives the way they want it to go, yet it’s very rarely the case.

    Someone once told me that you can either be a ‘waiter’ in life or a ‘creator’. Creators wait, waiters wait. ;)

    • It’s blind optimism. I’m a huge fan of optimism and I’m probably one of the biggest optimists I know, but it’s definitely “calculated optimism.” Maybe I can start a brand new movement off that. Calculated optimism!

      I’m assuming that’s a typo at the end, but I know what you’re saying!

  15. Great article Vincent! I think part of the problem with happiness is that we often mistake satisfying our neurochemical reward mechanisms with achieving actual happiness. Like you said, when we go out and buy things to make us happy we are scratching the itch to buy something, to have something new. But the response from scratching an itch is only ever temporary satisfaction and usually leads to more craving and desire. What we often don’t realize is that our brains are programmed for the chase, not satisfaction with what we have. This makes sense when you live in a world of scarcity and constant survival, but in the modern world it leads us down a spiral of chasing happiness though having to have new things. Asking the right questions about your relationship to the things you own is the right way to help get out of the vicious cycle of materialism.

    • Hi, Jeff! That endorphin rush is definitely addictive. Reading that sentence on scratching an itch made me start itching. Thanks for that, haha!

      Very good insights that you bring to the table, Jeff. I hope more people read your comment because we definitely are programmed for the chase.

  16. Excellent article Vincent. Asking the right questions is the answer…

    Thanks for the mention.

    • No problem, Marc! I really enjoyed that article because not many people discuss the idea of cutting others out. It has a negative connotation (rightfully so in most cases,) but does need to be applied on occasion for personal growth.

  17. Vincent, great questions you pose here. I would argue that happiness is a fleeting emotion. Instead of seeking “happiness,” I prefer to ask, “What gives my life meaning, purpose, and direction?” At some point, we have to look beyond ourselves and seek to love and help others through our callings.

    • I think a lot of people would argue that happiness is synonymous with those three things. Even if they don’t go to that extreme, they would say they are at least related.

      Rephrasing the journey to the way you did it is definitely helpful though, Chris. That is a huge life purpose you left at the end. I’m glad that’s the way you’re living and that’s pretty awesome! I don’t know if I’m that selfless yet.

      • I certainly don’t mean to imply I’m completely selfless. I’m actually pretty selfish with my time. But that is my aim – to look beyond myself and to serve. You’re already doing that here by offering people life-changing content.

        • Thanks, Chris. I wonder if there are such things as completely selfless people on this earth. We can all get damn close, but does our brain have the capability to reach complete selflessness?

          • No, I don’t think we can ever reach complete selflessness. But I will say that having a desire and seeking to fulfill it isn’t usually a bad thing; it’s quite human. We still have intrinsic needs and desires that we must fulfill. If we’re always giving, we’ll eventually become empty and poor.

            • Well said, Chris. You’re right, absolutes are impossible and that applies to selflessness as well. We all deserve something for ourselves every now and then. You’d be lying if you said you never want anything for yourself. The key is limiting it to an extent though.

  18. Reframe reframe reframe – thank you!

  19. Vincent, I am ashamed to admit that it is has been awhile since I have visited, and wow how your site has taken off! Congrats to you, my friend.

    As for being happy, I love your points here. I think asking ourselves questions every day is truly the way to constantly reflect, so that our lives don’t “sneak up on us”.

    Your posts are fantastic. I have a lot of reading to catch up with!

  20. Great thoughts Vincent! True happiness only comes from inside. Knowing ourselves and being satisfied with how we have been uniquely created.

    • Thanks, Dan! Knowing ourselves is one hell of a task, isn’t it? It’s a life cycle where we are constantly growing, improving ourselves, then trying to remember who we were in the first place to make sure our actions align with our morals and so on. It’s not an easy task!

  21. Great Post Vincent- with growing awareness and consciousness we can realise happiness lies within. Happiness for me is a peaceful place of pure freedom. Let go off the illusions of thoughts and be present to oneself.

  22. Definitely like the last one. Loving yourself is a huge part of being happy and creating meaningful relationships with people.

    However, I would add this question you should be asking:

    How can I create my own good emotions and be self-reliant for happiness?

  23. Great stuff Vincent. I like Mans and the others, the last part drove it home for me.

    Essentially you hit the point that after a certain point, money can’t buy happiness, but simply things like hobbies, family, and friends can.

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  1. Quotes, goedkoop delen of waardevol gereedschap? - November 15, 2013

    […] Instead, you need to use life quotes to internalize the ideas. Once you do that, you can move on from the quote and truly understand how to be happy. […]

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