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7 counter-intuitive keys to a happy life

Fr. Michael Rennier

January 29, 2017


As the saying goes, “There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.” Here are 7:

The quest for happiness is a strange one. The minute we focus on self-fulfillment, it slips away. So often it seems instead that when we’ve forgotten all about happiness, a look back shows us that it’s been there all along.

When I began writing this article, I kept falling back on wanting to write that happiness isn’t found in social status, wealth, or power; in blindly following the whims of the human heart, or in being true to oneself, or taking “me time.” But I think we already know those approaches don’t work. I suppose that the difficulty lies in the fact that, even though I know happiness isn’t found in a huge paycheck, universal admiration in the eyes of my peers, or doing whatever I want at any given moment, I still desperately want those things.

There’s a real difference between theoretically knowing the path to happiness and putting one foot in front of the other and walking along it, which is why the spiritual writer Thich Nhat Hanh says, “There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.” Perhaps that has to do with the fact that happiness isn’t so much a thing to be reached out for and grabbed, but it is found in letting go and allowing it to surround us. This means that happiness is found not when we directly seek it but instead when we do our level best to give it away to each other. So, with that in mind, here are seven counter-intuitive keys to a happy life:

  1. Think of others first

This is fairly typical advice, but what I mean by it is to think of others first as people, not as political units, demographic groups, employees, or any other label that limits who they are as human beings. Sure, everyone has some sort of label attached to them, but no one should be reduced to it. When we think of others as human beings first, we empathize with them more, enjoy the intricacies of their personalities (including the quirks), and find it easier to forget about ourselves and seek joy in the them.

  1. Go to funerals

It might not be fun to take time off and spend and hour not quite knowing what to say to a grieving family, but beside the fact that they will appreciate it greatly, funerals are a healthy outlet for emotions and they put life in perspective. Nothing lasts forever and our time here is short; we are made for eternity. Being reminded of this helps us to avoid being sidetracked by demands on our attention that really aren’t very important.

  1. Live for the next life as much as this one

Mourning the shortness of this life helps us to appreciate its fragile beauty, but also knowing that there’s an even better world right around the corner helps us to let go and enjoy whatever time we have here. Nothing gained here on earth survives death except our souls. The more we adorn our souls and beautify them through love, the more we take with us to heaven—especially if our love helps others make it there too. Personally, my goal is to love this life and get the most out of it that I possibly can, but never to the detriment of my spiritual goals.

  1. Seek excellence

Every time I think I’ve mastered a good habit, it turns out I can do even better. That’s because the human soul will continue growing over the course of our whole lives. Happy people are content with who they are, but they know that when it comes to excellence there isn’t too much of a good thing. They are always looking to improve and build on progress, knowing that none of us is made to simply be comfortable and get by. We are made for greatness.

  1. Be kind to those who are miserable

This seems obvious, but I notice an embarrassingly significant number of occasions when it’s easier to drop my eyes and ignore people, like the beggar on the corner near my house or the really sweet but talkative lady at Church when I’m in a hurry. But truly happy people want to share their happiness, especially with those most in need. This can be challenging, especially when it comes to showing kindness to those who may have hurt us in the past.

  1. Don’t allow emotions to rule you

Emotions are good and natural reactions to events around us, but if they overwhelm us they can cloud our judgment. We often mistake motivations in others (and even ourselves), and our emotions can cause us to feel unhappy when we really don’t need to be. Happiness is a deeper state of being than emotions. When I’m over-emotional, it helps to take a quiet moment and reflect on whether what I’m feeling is truly accurate and if I might benefit from adjusting my perspective.

  1. Find the silver lining

Positivity doesn’t need to be a naive denial of reality. Negativity is sometimes considered more realistic, but it can be every bit as wrong as too much positivity. The balance is somewhere in the middle, the willingness to acknowledge it’s been a bad day, but also understanding that there is good in every situation. Everything life throws at us can build character and bring people closer together. Seek to accentuate what is excellent instead of dwelling on inadequacies and you’ll be on the road to true happiness.

Each week, Fr. Michael Rennier reflects on the Sunday Mass readings and pulls out a theme applicable to our daily lives. Today’s reflection is based on the Gospel for the 4th Sunday in ordinary time

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I am an Informed and fully practicing Roman Catholic

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