A Checklist for Happiness

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There are two types of happiness:

  • transitory feelings arising from a situation or event
  • your happiness baseline or level of contentment, arising from your feelings about your life overall (emotional holistic evaluation) and your conscious thoughts

Stretching for happinessYour happiness baseline is your starting point. Any transitory feelings are added to your baseline.

Imagine stretching your arms as high as you can above your head. The height your fingertips reach is your level of happiness.

Now stand on a box and stretch your arms. You can reach higher – you are happier.

And the bigger the box, the higher you can reach.

The box is your happiness baseline.

Your happiness baseline affects your happiness at every moment in your life and so the most effective approach to achieving maximum sustainable happiness is to raise your happiness baseline – and the Happiness Checklist can help you to do that.

The Happiness Checklist

The Happiness Checklist is a set of 9 principles, based on the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology, for raising your happiness baseline:

Happy At Work

It may seem obvious and yet so many lives are shaped by decisions made early in life which condemn people to unfulfilling careers.

Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.

Albert Schweitzer

Conventional wisdom may push you down paths which make sense for many – but not for you. Think hard about what you enjoy doing and be open to the new opportunities that technology is creating.


Having control over your life. If you have ever been micromanaged you will know why autonomy is so critical to happiness. We don’t like being told what to do (me especially!) But there is always someone or some thing that wants to control you — society, government, boss … friends and family even. Or we can become trapped by our circumstances: mortgage, the need to pay bills, others’ reliance on us. Sometimes it’s unavoidable but more often than not, with a little forethought and planning, we can create greater freedom for ourselves.


Living a life with meaning. Having a ‘purpose’ behind the things that you do in life creates a deeper kind of happiness. In fact, so deep that it can affect your genes. A recent study distinguished between ‘hedonic’ happiness arising from doing pleasurable things and ‘eudaimonic’ happiness that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification.

We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but those ‘empty calories’ don’t help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically. At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose.

Professor Barbara L. Fredrickson.

So, what is really important to you? Where can you make a tangible difference that will make you feel good?

These questions are not always easy to answer but there is one universal purpose that we can all pursue:

to be the best version of me

The objective is not to create some vision of perfection but rather a clear, attainable image of yourself that incorporates your values, character, skills and attitudes. Having a clear image of the ‘best you’ will help you to make the important decisions in life, particularly when there are trade-offs to be made, and will also guide you day-to-day.


PerspectiveYour attitude towards events will have an enormous bearing on your happiness. Unfortunately, the response of many self-help books is to push the mantra of ‘just think positive and everything will turn out fine’. Of course, it’s an easy sell; no work involved just think positive thoughts and magically the universe aligns to meet your goals.

But we cannot levitate ourselves into [happiness] by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.

Barbara Ehrenreich

There’s a lot of truth in the old phrase: “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is”.

And sometimes, being happy is not the right response in the moment. As Professor Daniel Gilbert says:

If someone offered you a pill that would make you permanently happy, you would be well advised to run fast and run far. Emotion is a compass that tells us what to do, and a compass that perpetually stuck on north is worthless.

Maximum sustainable happiness is founded on realistic optimism. As a realistic optimist you aim for the optimal balance between positive and negative thinking. A good habit to develop is to capture the three most significant benefits of achieving a particular goal and then the three biggest obstacles you will face. This is known as ‘mental contrasting’, and it is particularly valuable when you are feeling confident. It will overcome the unconscious ‘ticking off’ of the vision and help you to concentrate your energies where they are most needed.


Introvert or extrovert, we are hard-wired for relationships and research reveals considerable benefits.

The Harvard Men Study illustrates the extent of our genetic programming for relationships. From the late 1930s, when entering college, 268 men became subjects in a 70-year psychological study. The data gained has enabled scientists to identify the circumstances and personal characteristics that set apart the happiest from the rest. George Vaillant, a recent director of the project, stated that he could sum up the findings in one word:

“love – full stop”

later expanding on this to say that there were

70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world.[1]

Shawn Achor in the Happiness Advantage supports these findings saying that:

When we have a community of people we can count on we multiply our emotional, intellectual and physical resources. We bounce back from setbacks faster, accomplish more, and feel a greater sense of purpose … Social support was a far greater predictor of happiness than any other factor, more than GPA, family income, SAT scores, age, gender or race…And as we know, the happier you are, the more advantages you accrue in nearly every domain in life.[2]

Gallup surveyed over 5 million workers over 35 years and found that people who had a ‘best friend’ at work were 7-times more likely to be ‘engaged’ (enthusiastic, creative, care about their work).[3] And if more proof were required of the importance of relationships, the distinguished Ed Diener’s research led him to declare:

The most salient characteristics shared by the 10% of students with the highest levels of happiness and the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.[4]

So the evidence is unambiguous; relationships matter for happiness and, therefore, reflect on:

  • who matters to me?
  • who should matter less? (I accept that that sounds cold but time is a finite resource, and you should ration it accordingly. Maximize the time you spend with people who matter and whose company you enjoy.)
  • how much and what quality of interaction will I have?
  • how can I help the people who are important to me?
  • how will I be perceived by others: am I open, friendly, forgiving, supportive? In a conversation, how much do I talk about me or the other person?
  • what actions do I need to take to develop, maintain and nurture meaningful relationships?

Truth is everybody is going to hurt you: you just gotta find the ones worth suffering for.

Bob Marley

Not to Be Materialistic

It’s not money that matters, it’s your attitude towards it and all things materialistic.

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.


materialismThere is a saying that a Japanese garden is not truly finished until there is nothing more to take away. If you apply this philosophy to your life, then you may increase your chances of happiness. What is ‘enough’ for you? How much do you really need to live and be happy? As mentioned earlier, hedonic adaptation means that a new iPad, car or promotion will cause but a temporary bump in happiness levels. And losing any of these will be a blip before you return to your baseline happiness. It is the principles of the Happiness Checklist that bring sustainable happiness.

To give up pretensions is as blessed a relief as to get them gratified.

William James

And this fits nicely with the most consistent finding regarding money – if you want to increase your happiness, spend your money on other people.


Man in the mirrorThe importance of living according to your values. Whether you are bound by a code of religious principles or not, reflecting on what you believe to be right is still a cornerstone of contentment. And it is you who must decide, as Dale Wimbrow says:

When you get what you want in your struggle for pelf [money],

And the world makes you King for a day,

Then go to the mirror and look at yourself,

And see what that guy has to say.

For it isn’t your Father, or Mother, or Wife,

Who judgement upon you must pass.

The feller whose verdict counts most in your life

Is the guy staring back from the glass.

He’s the feller to please, never mind all the rest,

For he’s with you clear up to the end,

And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test

If the guy in the glass is your friend.


The penultimate principle takes us to fitness training, practising on your guitar, revising for exams – the joy of personal growth.

Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.

Theodore Roosevelt

Set Goals

And, finally, linked to stretching, is the importance of setting of goals.

Happiness grows less from the passive experience of desirable circumstances than from involvement in valued activities and progress toward one’s goals.

David Myers and Ed Diener

I hope that you have found this quick outline of the Happiness Checklist principles interesting. You may have noticed that the principles together spell HAPPINESS:

Happy at Work





Not materialistic



Setting Goals

I have merely scratched the surface but perhaps it will prompt you to set some time aside to consider how you will build your own personal route to happiness.

But don’t put it off!

We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.


[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/06/what-makes-us-happy/307439/
[2] Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage
[3] First, Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman
[4] Ed Diener, Very Happy People, Psychological Science 2002