The Secret to Being Happy

The happiest time of my life was probably my senior year of high school. There was the usual stuff — no more college apps, more free time, an end to high school in sight. But most significant to me was the fact that I could see myself grow. The way I thought about my life, the people around me, and the future changed over the course of the year. I felt more mature and understanding, and it made me feel proud of myself.

While that fleeting, vibrant joy has faded, and while times of stress and despair have sometimes deeply affected my daily life, that overall feeling of contentment in myself and my life has not gone away. I wake up every morning feeling like a new day has begun, that I have the skills and ability to use my time well.

Over time, I’ve realized that I tend to practice specific philosophies that help me maintain my sense of happiness on a day to day basis.

Stoicism

Minor setbacks occur fairly often in our daily lives. I can’t count the number of times I’ve lost gotten distracted and failed to keep up with my schedule. Sometimes interviews go badly, sometimes conversations with friends end in ways I never wanted.

Even when it comes to major mistakes, it is possible — and important — to look on the bright side. During my first year at UCLA, I got the lowest grade I have ever gotten in a class thus far: a B- in multivariable calculus. If I were still the person I was in high school, I would have panicked and worried incessantly about my grade. What if my grade would significantly affect my graduate school applications? Older me, in contrast, was upset for a few hours, then accepted there was nothing I could do except move on and do my best in the future.

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This “what’s done is done” mindset of looking for newly opened doors instead of fixating on the closed ones is part of a philosophy known as Stoicism. Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy developed by the philosopher Zeno which essentially espouses that we are only controlled by our responses to difficulties in our lives, and not the events themselves. Stoicism teaches us self control and optimism in the face of obstacles.

That doesn’t mean we should ignore our natural emotional reactions to difficult events. We don’t want to bury our emotions — not letting ourselves grieve is also an unhealthy behavior. Rather, we we should train ourselves not to wallow in despair once we have sufficiently grieved our losses and instead look for ways to bring the best out of the situation.

What About Trauma?

This principle is something that needs to be discussed in the face of traumatic events as well. Many people who either have not gone through or cannot relate to the mental health effects of severely traumatic events think survivors should “just get over it already,” that “it’s been long enough” and they should just “let it go.” As a result, sometimes trauma survivors ask themselves how long they should ‘allow’ themselves to grieve, and if they really need to search for something ‘good’ about the situation to force themselves to move on.

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Traumatic events tend to be a case of their own. Many times, severe trauma can take a very long time to move forward from. You should never feel the need to move past an event that caused you trauma by burying your feelings. Instead, it is often only possible to truly move forward by allowing yourself ample time to grieve what you’ve lost and work through the event; seeking out therapy is a great way to start. Ultimately, Stoicism is best applied to the grievances that come with daily life, not with severely traumatic events.

Can Only Go Up From Here

Closely related to Stoicism is the growth mindset. I’ve seen this be especially helpful for me when it comes to school or character traits I see in myself that I want to improve on.

The growth mindset is a way of thinking where you focus on learning and getting better as you go forward. Very similarly to Stoicism, the growth mindset prioritizes the future, especially through steps you can take to improve, over what has already happened in the past. It also emphasizes your locus of control, which is essentially how much control you feel like you have over your life.

There are two loci of control — internal and external. Ideally, you want an internal locus of control, which comes with the belief that you have the power to change your own life and situation. In contrast, having an external locus of control means you think you have little control over your life, and that outside phenomena are limiting how much you can change your fate. In order to use growth mindset, you must build your internal locus of control, which makes it much easier and more natural to believe that you can take steps to improve yourself and alter your situation.

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The growth mindset tells us how to think when we are faced with failure. If things don’t go as you planned, you can always try again. Your life does not end with this one failure, and you can always, always pick yourself back up. The only direction you can go from here is up.

Wanting What You Have

The last thing that I find helps me maintain my happiness is practicing gratitude.

It’s easy to get lost in the pit of wanting something, gaining it, losing appreciation for it and wanting more. Wealth is a common example of this phenomenon. We often think the money we have is not enough to be comfortable and happy, so we try to earn more. But when we do get more money, we think we need even more to be happy.

This is a recipe for unhappiness. When you feel like you never have enough, you can never be satisfied with what you have. You tie your happiness with your desire for more, so you never actually reach that happiness because you keep raising the bar higher. The way to combat this process is by actively wanting what you already have.

I have a lot to be happy about in my life. I have a close-knit, (sometimes) sweet family, several quality friendships, and I’m doing well academically. By continuing to think of what’s good in my life and actively wanting those things, I’m able to feel glad that I have them, that I’ve checked off some of the boxes for having an ideal life.

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For me, being content requires me to think of my life in very specific ways. I have to remind myself of all the good I already have. I have to accept that bad things can happen, and that I can sometimes make major mistakes. At the same time, I have to recognize that I have the power to change my future by learning from my mistakes and acting differently the next time I come across a similar situation. More than the actual events that happen in my life, my mindset is what affects my happiness, and I consider this true for all people who have their basic needs met.

Hi, I'm Ash. I’m a college sophomore and aspiring scientist who loves discussing science, the brain, and our ever-changing society.