How to Have an Abundance of Happiness in Your Life
And why that’s only the beginning of a life worth living.
When people find out that I write about happiness for a living, after a brief amount of small talk, they inevitably ask me: “So, what’s the secret?!”
“Happiness is easy,” I tell them. “You can be happy right now if you want.” The problem is with that last part: “if you want.”
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that happiness is simply a choice you can make— decide you want it and then it magically appears in abundance. Wanting is a long way from getting. You can want to be a good person, but that doesn’t get you much closer to actually being one.
Nor am I trying to be overly elusive like some kind of happiness Zen master. It’s actually quite simple. That’s why I’m going to try and explain what I mean over the next 1000 words or so. What I’m going to say is this:
You can have an abundance of happiness in your life relatively easily — happiness isn’t that hard (spoiler: it’s about paying attention). But after you’ve achieved that, the real work starts — the work of doing what really matters. That’s much harder. It’s also what ultimately makes your life worth living.
How to create abundant happiness
We typically think that happiness comes from getting what we want in life. “I’d be happy if only I had ___” where the blank is filled in with “a loving relationship”, “a meaningful career”, “more free time”, or whatever.
This is partly true. These things do make you feel happy for a short while — sometimes ecstatically so. But, after having achieved them, you quickly adapt to your new normal and start focusing on achieving the next thing. In general, it’s a lot of work for not much happiness.
There is, however, a different approach. Instead of trying to change reality, you can simply pay attention to it. That’s how you can be happy right now if you wanted: just drop the rest and start paying attention.
Now, at first, this might seem ridiculous. How can simply paying attention make such a difference to how you feel? The key is to realise how little we pay attention to the world around us. As an example, just think about the attention you pay to a stranger vs someone you’re in love with.
If a stranger passes you by on the street, you pay very little attention to them. You might clock whether or not they’re threatening or attractive or interesting in some other way. But that’s about it. But when you see your lover, you notice so many things about them: the way they smile, not just with their mouth, but also their eyes; their tone of voice, the phrases they use, the way they see the world; what moves them, how they look at you, how beautiful they are.
You don’t just pay more attention to someone you love, you also pay them a different quality of attention. You open yourself up to them. You drop all other thoughts and practical concerns, judgements and expectations. You simply see them, eyes wide open. You take them in, fully. It’s a kind of awe.
You can learn to pay this kind of attention at any time. Including now, if you wanted to take a short break from reading this. The Vietnamese peace activist and Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, developed a “Tangerine Meditation” to illustrate this point. The exercise shows that if you look at a ripe tangerine, the amount you enjoyment you experience will depend entirely on the kind of attention you pay to it. In this book, Peace is Every Step, he wrote:
"If you are free of worries and anxiety, you will enjoy [the tangerine] more. If you are possessed by anger or fear, the tangerine may not be very real to you."
That last point is crucial. When you pay attention to reality, without judgement or expectation, the world starts to become more real. Instead of living in a world of static, lifeless objects — where things that are only valuable insofar as they are useful to you— you open yourself up to a world that is much more real, complex, and full of aliveness.
As Thich Nhat Hanh points out to his meditation students, the tangerine had a mother — a beautiful tangerine tree, which had previously weathered storms, and eventually bore the fruit in front of you. Someone picked that fruit, and someone else transported it to where you are. You can peel it and smell it, take your time eating it. All of this undivided attention — seeing deeply into the tangerine, seeing its universe— will make you happy.
Of course, you don’t need a tangerine to focus your attention on. You can see deeply into anything, as long as you let yourself. What will distract you from doing so is the feeling that you’ve got something better to do. Eating a tangerine, or paying attention to anything else you’re doing, can make you happy, but only if you’re not trying to be somewhere else at the same time.
An abundance of happiness comes from paying an undivided attention to the world. Because the world is full of beauty and wonder, depth and complexity. But you have to give yourself over to it. You have to temporarily let go of all your other concerns — your to-do list, your relationship issues, your work pressures. You have to view paying attention to the world as a worthwhile use of your time. Then happiness is all yours, whenever you want. It’s that simple.
Why happiness is just the beginning
Learning to pay attention to the world is a skill. Like all skills, it gets easier with practice. The first step is to understand both why it works — the world is full of beauty, wonder, depth, and complexity— and why it’s sometimes so hard to do — there are many other competing pressures on our time.
But if happiness is what you want then it’s a skill worth developing. Knowing that you’ll be constantly distracted by things that seem more worthwhile — your goals and to-do list, and your thoughts about your goals and to-do list— it helps to set aside time to practice. Leave your desk and go for a walk. Turn off your phone. Give yourself a few minutes at various points throughout the day to simply pay attention to the world and let yourself be happy.
The more you do this, the more happiness you’ll feel. As a side-effect, the less concerned you’ll be with the happiness that comes from achieving all your goals to be happy. You don’t need achievement to be happy anymore. Which means you might give yourself even more time to simply pay attention to the world— to all those things you might otherwise have ignored in your rush to be happy in the future.
So far so good. I’m convinced — alongside every meditation and mindfulness practitioner out there — that if everyone learned how to pay attention to the world in this way, the world would be a much happier place. But at some point, there are serious trade-offs that come from having an abundance of happiness in your life. Too much happiness can be a bad thing.
An abundance of happiness is wonderful when you don’t have much of it. Most people I know (including myself) work too hard or worry too much about their relationships. For them, spending more time paying attention to the world, and being happy, would be a good thing.
But, after learning this skill, and getting good at it, you’ll reach a point at which you need to make a decision. You need to ask yourself: “Am I happy enough?” Today, instead of paying attention to the food you eat, the contents of your room, the way your body moves, or the people you meet, should you start paying attention to something more worthwhile?
This is exactly the same question that would’ve previously distracted you from simply paying attention. But, after having learned how to successfully pay attention to the world, there will come a time in which you need to start asking yourself again what is worth paying attention to.
This includes paying attention to the things that cause pain and suffering. We typically ignore these things, especially if we want to be happy. You may find yourself turning away from the woman and her child begging on the street, or the catastrophe on the news. But you can also choose to see that pain and suffering, without judgement or expectation, and work with it.
In her timeless book, When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron describes the Buddhist practice of tonglen, which helps people pay attention to suffering and transform it into compassion. Practitioners are instructed to breathe in the suffering they encounter, relax, and breathe out happiness.
This simple practice is designed to help people pay attention not just to all the beauty and wonder in the world, but also to its dark and ugly sides. Once you’ve learned how to have an abundance of happiness in your life, the next step is to learn how to work with unhappiness — your own and others’.
Pema Chrodron speaks about this process as “going down, not up.” Spiritual practices are often sold on the premise of rising above life’s troubles and concerns — being happy despite all the pain and suffering. You can totally do that if you want. As I said, happiness is relatively easy. But rising above your own struggles does nothing to help others.
I encourage you to spend some time being a little selfish — learn how to drop your judgements and expectations, and open yourself up to the world, temporarily rising above your practical concerns. But, once you’ve spent some time getting the hang of this most beautiful and precious of skills, it’s time to give something back. Pay attention to the world of pain and suffering. Develop an abundance of compassion in your life, as well as happiness.
This part of the journey is much harder. It’s when the real work starts — the work of doing what really matters. It’s what makes life worth living.
So when people ask me what the secret to happiness is and I tell them that happiness is easy, you can now see how having an abundance of happiness is only the beginning of a much larger story. Learning how to simply pay attention to the world is the gateway to living a truly meaningful life.
Summary — How to have an abundance of happiness in your life, and begin doing what really matters
Happiness is relatively easy —you can be happy right now if you wanted. Instead of trying to change reality, you can simply pay attention to it.
Creating abundant happiness is a skill you can learn. Your goals and thoughts will inevitably distract you from simply paying attention to the world. If you want to be happy, set aside time to practice.
Once you’ve learned how to simply pay attention to the world — and create abundant happiness — you need to ask yourself: “Am I happy enough?”
With an abundance of happiness in your life, you can also start paying attention to pain and suffering, and transforming it into compassion.
This is a much harder skill to learn. But, by paying attention to suffering, you can work with it, and begin to do what really matters.