What are the secrets to happiness and meaning? About two years ago I set out to answer that question by asking several thousand people to identify the one person they knew who had lived a long life and found true happiness.
The first secret I learned from these interviews is Be true to yourself. Each one of us is on a unique human journey and the path to true happiness is to be true to ourselves. This means knowing what brings us happiness and focusing our life on what matters to us. It means reflecting on a regular basis as to whether our life fits our soul. In our daily lives it means knowing what brings us joy and ensuring that we fill our life with the right elements. It also means following our unique destiny.
Being true to self often means drowning out other voices that would ask us to live their dreams instead of ours.
The second secret I learned is to Leave No Regrets. It seems to me that what we fear most as we age is not death, but rather to come to the end of our life feeling that we never truly lived. The saddest words ever spoken at the end of life are “I wish I had…One of the most interesting things I discovered in talking to 235 wise people is that almost no one regretted risks they took that did not work out and most said they wished they had risked more. When I asked these people about major crossroads in their lives, many of them talked about taking risks-sometimes large and sometimes small-which wound up bringing great happiness.
Become Love was the third secret I learned from these people. Not surprisingly, the greatest source of happiness for people and the largest place of regret had to do with people. What I discovered is that those who made people a priority in their lives and who developed deep personal relationships found true happiness. Many of them told me that “things” rarely brought true joy whereas family and friends brought lasting happiness.
Yet the most interesting thing I uncovered is that being a loving person, the choice to give love, is even more important in determining happiness than getting it. These people talked to me about the importance of choosing love and kindness as your way in the world.
The fourth secret was to Live the Moment. One of the most common things people told me was how fast life goes by and how important it is to enjoy each moment. One woman told me “when you are young you think sixty years is an incredibly long time but when you get there you realize it was only a moment.” Among the secrets they shared were how important it is to live in the present, to fully enjoy whatever experience you are having (and not to wish you were somewhere else), and to live with gratitude focusing on what you are grateful for rather than what you don’t have.
The fifth and final secret was to Give More Than You Take. When I asked people what gave their life the greatest meaning, people told me again and again people that being of service and knowing that you made things better because you were here was by far the greatest source of meaning. I learned that whether in career or personal life, that it is what we give not what we take that gives life meaning. Many of them also reminded me that we have little control over what we get from the world every day (whether people will love us, whether we will win the lottery, etc.) but we have complete control over what we give to the world (whether we choose to be kind, charitable, and to give to others). These people reminded me that everything we take from the world dies with us, but everything we give to the world gets recycled. Are you focused on giving or getting each day?