If you’re a regular reader of The Inner Way, you’ll know that I often feature the philosophies of others who I admire and who have influenced my thinking. This includes the soul-virtuoso Thomas Moore, the businessman-turned-philosopher John Templeton and the passionate promoter of “interspirituality” Mirabai Starr.
I like to think that these writers, and others of their ilk, add an additional layer of wisdom to what I already know, putting a fresh coast of paint on the bedrock principles that inform my life. But there was a time, back in the early-1990’s, when these principles were not so firmly set and I embarked on a quest to find a singular life philosophy, a code or set of rules I could live by.
I was soaking up as much knowledge as I could, reading everything from the Bible to books on obscure religions to different strains of new age philosophy. This included the works of Robert Pirsig. I had read his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, followed by the slightly less dense, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. In both books, Pirsig tried to set up a philosophical system by which you could identify “quality” or value in life, including its ultimate expression, the highly subjective “dynamic quality”.
It was all heady stuff, a lot of which I could barely comprehend, but it made me realize that I was searching for wasn’t this indefinable dynamic quality, but something a lot more basic.
I wanted a simple road map to help me find my own sense of happiness and contentment. So I set up my own belief system.
I broke down my life into categories to try and figure out where things were right in my life—and more importantly, where things had veered off course. I carved my life into distinct segments, each of which I had some control over, that could spell the difference between a life that was good and satisfying and one that was lacking in one or more important ways. I named it “The 5 Keys to Happiness” and while I hadn’t looked at it in well over a decade, it has held up pretty well.
You’ll see “the keys” below though I did make some tweaks to the original list, combining two categories and adding “Spirituality” and “Exercise/Diet” to the mix. I’ve added questions to each category to help you determine your life is on track or could use some fine-tuning.
The 6 Keys to Happiness
- Family & Friends Identify those people who you are closest with. Is everything right between you and them? Do they know their importance to you? Are you in regular contact or do you owe someone a visit or a phone call? Are you spending quality time with them or plan to? Are there any problems that need to be addressed or fences that need to be mended?
- Love Is there a significant other in your life? If yes, are you satisfied with your relationship? Are there steps you can take to make it better? If there are problems that can’t be fixed, are you taking steps to move on? If you’re solo, are you content? If not, is there a person you connect with on a regular or semi-regular basis that might become more than an acquaintance or friend?
- Spirituality Have you found a spiritual pursuit with meaning to you, whether it’s prayer, meditation, spiritual reading or reflection? If no, begin searching. If yes, do you spend some time each day in this pursuit? If not, can you find the time, ideally twice a day for two 20-minute intervals?
- Work/Hobby Do you like your job and find it satisfying? Does it put to use your unique talents? If needed, can you improve your circumstances—or do you need to take the steps necessary to embark on a new path? If your job is an unlikable but unavoidable necessity, can the void of meaning being filled by a favorite hobby? Are there steps you can take to pursue your hobby or passions more vigorously?
- Exercise/Diet Because a healthy body can be an integral part of a healthy and happy mind, are you exercising on a regular basis? If not, what steps can you take to make exercise a regular part of your schedule? Are you eating a well-balanced diet? Are you guilt of over-eating? If yes, are you taking the steps necessary to address any issues?
- Place Do you love where you live? Are you in the right apartment/condo/ house? Are you happy with the geographic area you live in? Does where you live give you a sense of place, where you either have roots or can grow them? If not, are you exploring other possibilities?
When I first developed the list, my thought was that if I could achieve happiness in all these areas, I’d be leading something close to a blissful life. But the fact is, it’s really hard to have all facets of your life going right at the same time. Chances are that at any given moment, there’s an area or two that can stand some improvement.
The key for me was to isolate the single area that needed the most work—and really focus on it, doing everything possible to make the changes necessary to improve it. Once there was improvement in one area, it was then time to move on to the next area that needed attention.
I’ve got to admit that 20-plus years after I wrote my belief system, I don’t think about it much. Rather than divide my life into categories, I tend to view it as a seamless whole. But this may be because, unlike my younger self, I’m now more settled in terms of my family life, my career and the things I now know are most important.
What about you? Are you taking the steps necessary to get happy?
This story first appeared July 25, 2013, on my Patheos column “Wake Up Call“.