Five Tips for Achieving Greater Happiness

Here are five tips for achieving greater happiness in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. For more insights on happiness and character development, check out my e-book, The Character Cure: Four Cornerstone Virtues for a More Fulfilling Life.

Tip number one: Focus your time and effort more on building your character than securing your happiness. The idea of striving for greater happiness can be paradoxical. Sometimes the more you strive for happiness, the more elusive it becomes. When you try too hard to achieve a perennial state of happiness, you can actually end up more vexed and disappointed than you would otherwise be. You probably know overly anxious people who are constantly asking themselves why they’re not happy. It’s important to study and reflect on the meaning of happiness, but there’s no question that we can overdo it. Find your purpose, build your character, do noble things, and most of the time happiness will find you.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Henry David Thoreau. Near the end of Walden, he declares, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Happiness is about confidently and steadily living the life we’ve imagined and then finding an unexpected success.

Tip number two: Understand that adversity can refine your character and make you more capable of experiencing happiness in the future. During difficult times, remind yourself that your character is built to manage those very difficulties. Generally speaking, happiness is less about what happens to you and more about responding to your own life’s challenges in a way that builds your character and confidence.

A quote from an unknown author sheds some light on this point: “Adversity introduces a man to himself.” If we allow it, adversity can give us two invaluable gifts. First, it reveals our character strengths and weaknesses, showing where to direct our self-improvement efforts. Second, adversity can be a refining power, giving us confidence and stability in successfully facing future challenges.

Tip number three: Find joy in the simple, quiet, everyday moments with family and friends. You should by all means dream big and stay motivated for achieving great things in your life. But if you ever feel like family responsibilities are preventing you from fulfilling your true purpose, you probably need to sort out your priorities. There’s no higher purpose than reaching out to family and friends, supporting them in ways that only you can. More than anything else, genuine happiness is about finding joy in these ordinary, unremarkable moments.

Tip number four: Strenuously avoid the two unmistakable adversaries of happiness, blame and self-pity, especially during moments of intense disappointment. We know that happiness depends to some extent on other people. But one of the surest paths to unhappiness is to blame others for your lack of good fortune and to feel sorry for yourself. On avoiding self-pity, I admire Thoreau’s encouragement: “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names…. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.”

ConfuciusOn finding happiness when those we love and depend on fail to meet our expectations, I appreciate the wisdom of Confucius. His key to “banishing discontent” is “to demand much from oneself and little from others.” Be generous and forgiving of other people’s shortcomings. And while striving for lofty personal goals in terms of your own character development, be charitable to yourself too. So much of life is about moving forward with hope, avoiding negativity in spite of frequent failure. When life knocks you down, pick yourself right back up and keep going. Refuse to allow yourself to wallow in self-pity and to blame others for your lack of good fortune.

Tip number five: When the happiness odds seem particularly stacked against you, make the conscious decision to be happy anyway. Make the best of whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Remind yourself that even winning the lottery would not endow you with happiness for more than a short period of time. You have great power in choosing happiness now, in any situation, if you’re willing to cultivate the characteristics that are conducive to happiness.

In summary, use these five tips to discover greater happiness: First, focus on building your character and happiness will follow naturally. Second, allow adversity to refine your character by revealing your flaws and providing invaluable experience. Third, uncover joy in the common, everyday moments of life. Fourth, find greater happiness by avoiding blame and self-pity. And fifth, practice making the conscious decision to be happy, under any circumstances.

Podcast 5: Justice

Find the courage and wisdom to make the world a better place. While the universe may indeed be on the side of justice, Dr. Martin Luther King warned us about the danger of passively accepting the illusion that a “new age will roll in on the wheels of inevitability.” We all share responsibility for promoting justice and relieving suffering. After a brief critique of Aristotle’s views on justice, this podcast explores how we can overcome moral blind spots through a commitment to love, compassion, and a shared quest for justice and fairness.

Podcast 4: Self-Mastery

Discover the inherent pleasure of disciplined habits. According to Aristotle, self-mastery extends beyond the arduous task of exerting our willpower to resist temptation. It’s a refined capacity to enjoy the wholesome pleasures of life without a constant struggle against intemperate desire. This podcast uses social science to consider how we can live the good life with greater ease and spontaneity.

Podcast 3: Courage

Be prepared for your own Rosa Parks moment. Aristotle describes courage as the golden mean with regard to feelings of fear and confidence. While most of us recognize the need for cultivating this virtue, we fail to recognize that life presents us with more opportunities to display true courage than we’re willing or prepared to embrace. After gleaning insights from Aristotle and from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, this podcast uses recent social scientific studies to describe the meaning of courage in the 21st century.

Podcast 2: Practical Wisdom

Channel your inner Gandalf. We learn from Aristotle that practical wisdom is the glue that holds a noble character together. It’s the “executive virtue” that relies on keen moral perception to see what a particular situation calls for. Practical wisdom maintains harmony between the moral virtues such as courage, self-mastery, and justice. This podcast turns to social science, history, and literature to show how the “wisdom of wizards” can sort out the messiness of real life.

Podcast 1: Happiness and Character

Aristotle

Make a small investment in your personal character development. Social science reaffirms Aristotle’s claim that by far the most important factor in determining a person’s happiness is a noble and virtuous character. After exploring Aristotle’s insights into happiness, this podcast samples some of the most recent research in the field of happiness studies. The final segment introduces Dr. Miller and explains how the first four “character cornerstone” podcasts will be organized.

Humility: Authentic Virtue or Personal Weakness?

I’ve spent the past few months researching and writing about practical wisdom, courage, self-mastery, and justice, which are described in classical ethics as the cardinal virtues. I released a podcast series on these four virtues and published an e-book entitled The Character Cure: Four Cornerstone Virtues for a More Fulfilling Life.

In my first Character Cure blog post, I’d like to begin exploring some of the other virtues required for human flourishing. Let’s start with humility.

ConfuciusIn teaching his disciples to avoid boasting, Confucius cites the example of a great warrior who had recently performed an act of valor. He was the last man to flee on horseback after his fellow soldiers had been trounced in battle. As he returned late to camp, he immediately deflected attention from his courageous acts with the excuse that his horse was slow.

The point of this anecdote is clear: modesty or humility is a distinguishing feature of noble men. Confucian humility is also a basic duty called for in the presence of your parents and the elderly. And humility is built into the Confucian definition of knowledge. While the wise are confident regarding what they do know, their quest for knowledge makes them keenly aware when they do not know something.

As a religious virtue, humility includes a profound sense of your dependence upon God. It means acknowledging the relatively meager extent of human knowledge and power. People of faith humbly turn to God for the strength and inspiration they currently lack.

Those who claim Jesus Christ as their exemplar have a particular duty to cultivate humility. In their quest to become like their Master, Christians cannot ignore the height of His self-sacrifice, submissiveness, and ultimate humiliation on the cross. Jesus’ triumph over sin and death was made possible by His self-emptying sacrifice.

John Calvin preached the doctrine of predestination largely as an antidote to pride. In Calvinist theology, good works do not factor into God’s unconditional appointment of the elect unto glory. The idea that you are elected through God’s mysterious and unmerited grace induces true humility, an essential requirement for living in God’s presence.

In cultivating the virtue of humility, we cannot ignore the legitimate critique offered by Nietzsche and other modern philosophers. When promoted by those in power, humility can be a tool to subjugate others. Along with virtues such as kindness and compassion, humility is for Nietzsche one of the central features of a “slave morality.”

AristotleAs a contrast to both Confucianism and traditional Christianity, Aristotle’s man of complete virtue wholeheartedly claims well-deserved honor and praise. His magnanimous nature is always truthful. According to Aristotle, high-mindedness rather than humility is the crown of the virtues.

On the surface, the contrast between Aristotelian pride and Christian/Confucian humility is unmistakable. However, if we look deeper, we see a significant convergence between these moral philosophies.

Starting with Jesus Christ as the embodiment of divine virtue, we can recognize that the humility of Christ emanated from his moral perfection.

In a similar way, both Confucius and Aristotle presume the rare achievement of complete human virtue as they discuss humility and high-mindedness. With regard to the vast majority of people, Aristotle speaks against unjustified arrogance just as much as Confucius.

So what is the proper place of humility within flawed human beings?

Perhaps Aristotle and Confucius are right. The question of whether a situation calls for humility or pride might only make sense when it comes to certain narrow areas of our lives where we have risen above mediocrity. If I have mastered a certain art or achieved a specific virtue, I can then decide whether to follow the Confucian and Christian path of humility or the Greek path of magnanimity and high-mindedness. Where I have not achieved excellence, the only question is how hard I am willing to work to achieve it.

Alexander Dumas’s morally flawed Count of Monte Cristo observes, “I maintain my pride before men, but abandon it before God, who drew me out of nothingness to make me what I am.” Such a sentiment has a persuasive appeal in today’s ultra-competitive society. Even though I fully recognize ways in which I am inferior to other people, why should I defer to them or diminish myself in their presence? Measuring my personal weaknesses against other people’s strengths is usually unhelpful.

So keeping your head held high might make sense as a default posture. But if you have definitively achieved some aspect of virtue, a call for humility can offer a helpful warning against arrogance and self-worship.

In the end, we are still faced with a final dilemma. How can we cultivate true humility while rejecting its self-serving forms? The appearance of humility is immeasurably easier to achieve than the authentic virtue that rises naturally from a foundation of moral excellence.

C.S. Lewis may have the best answer: “If you meet a really humble man…probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him….He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”