Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who spent much of World War II in concentration camps, where he lost most of his family to illness and murder. Yet, somehow, he kept his humanity and later wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Can we really choose our outlook, even in such a dire situation? This question is at the heart of the new book Build the Life You Want, by social science writer Arthur Brooks and media mogul Oprah Winfrey. While Brooks and Winfrey certainly haven’t suffered hardship close to Frankl’s, they draw upon exemplars like him—as well as decades of research—to distill some lessons on cultivating happiness in life no matter your circumstances.
Most of us probably expect a happy life to be devoid of suffering and full of constant joy. But no one has a life free of sorrow or pain, write the authors, and thus we should not insist our circumstances change—that we land the perfect job or find a romantic partner, for example—before we can be happier. Achieving unwavering happiness is an illusion, they argue, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps over time that will nudge us toward more enjoyment in life.
“Happiness is not a destination. Happiness is a direction,” they write. “We won’t find complete happiness on this side of heaven, but no matter where each of us is in life, we can all be happier.”
The key ingredients of a happier life
Instead of having a goal of unfailing joy, say the authors, we should aim for the following to be happier:
1. Enjoyment: not seeking pleasure alone (like eating a delicious dinner), but enjoying pleasurable experiences while engaged with others in meaningful activities (like sharing a holiday meal with loved ones and giving thanks). Our relationships and the meaning we imbue on our experiences make life more enjoyable.
2. Satisfaction: not based on achievement alone, but on our sense of accomplishment based on our efforts. Achievement without effort—like getting an “A” in a class that you didn’t have to study for—is ultimately unsatisfying and doesn’t lead to lasting happiness.
3. Purpose: a sense of meaning and direction, based on our values and our ability to contribute to the greater good. Without purpose, they argue, it’s easy to lose our way in the face of challenges. And acting from a place of purpose is important for feeling satisfied with life.
Which leads to a key point about happiness: Some things that bring true happiness are difficult, involve effort, or can even be boring—like caring for a sick child. Plus, negative emotions can be useful, such as when sadness helps us seek support from others or regret helps us figure out how to change our behavior going forward. If you’re waiting for negative feelings to disappear before seeking more happiness, it’s counterproductive, write the authors.
“If you believe you have to eradicate your feelings of unhappiness before you start getting happier, you’re going to be unnecessarily held back by the perfectly normal negative feelings of everyday life,” they write. “Unmitigated happiness is impossible to achieve . . . and chasing it can be dangerous or deleterious to our success.”
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue things that improve our situation in life, nor that living under difficult circumstances doesn’t matter for happiness. In fact, there are many external factors that affect our happiness that are mostly beyond our control—from racism to inequality. But keeping in mind how our mindsets affect our well-being may help us be happier even when things aren’t going well.
How to manage negative emotions
Negative emotions are clearly a barrier to happiness. But we can’t avoid all negative emotions; we can only learn to handle them better—either on our own or with professional help (especially if we suffer from a mental disorder, like depression). To that end, Brooks and Winfrey suggest the following:
1. Meta-cognition, or thinking about your feelings rather than just experiencing them. This can be done by slowing down a bit—for example, by counting to 30 when you’re feeling angry—and considering your options before responding—maybe taking a break rather than berating a frustrating colleague.
2. Focus on the good even in the midst of bad feelings—like practicing gratitude for friends who support you through your grief. You can also try to learn from your bad feelings, even recognizing that, in some cases, they may help you to grow.
As we all have a negativity bias that makes us focus too much on what’s going wrong instead of what’s going right, we need to actively appreciate the positive to tone that down, they argue. Using humor or cultivating gratitude and hope can be helpful for sustaining our well-being even in the midst of difficult times.
To counter that, they suggest “looking in the mirror less, disregarding your reflection on social media, paying less attention to what others think of you, and fighting your tendency to envy people for what they have but you don’t.”
Less self-focus also allows us to pay more attention to the suffering of others and reach out with kindness. As research suggests, when we act kindly toward other people, we become happier than when we focus on being kind to ourselves.
The main realms of happiness in life
The world is full of distractions, which can keep us from focusing on what matters most for our happiness. While many things carry importance for life—like good health, having fun, or taking care of finances—the main keys to happiness involve relationships and what brings meaning, write the authors.
“Our lives are spent in connection—to other people, to our world, to nature, and to the divine—and the more we do to improve those connections, the better off we are,” they write.
Here are some of the ways they suggest we can augment our happiness within the four main areas of life.
Family relationships. Family relationships can be messy, and conflicts abound even in the most harmonious families. That means that it’s important to apply skills like meta-cognition and nurturing positive feelings, while also finding ways to get through conflicts and preserve our relationships.
Most conflicts involve differences in unspoken expectations, write the authors, which can lead to resentment when those expectations aren’t met. Having more regular conversations, letting go of perfectionism, and treating family members with respect and appreciation can go a long way toward avoiding relationship problems.
For romantic partners or spouses, the very things that bother us can be viewed as strengths for a stable relationship, they argue. Having complementary traits—like being the extrovert to your introverted spouse, or being more spontaneous when your partner likes to plan—can be better for long-term relationships than having too much in common.
“If you have been in a relationship for a long time and are struggling to keep it together, you might have assumed that you simply aren’t compatible enough,” they write. “More than likely, the real problem is that you and your partner have not been working to turn your differences into the complementarity a healthy relationship needs.”
Seeing our loved ones go through struggles can bring down our happiness. In that case, it helps to nurture our own happiness, avoid taking their negativity personally, and try to help alleviate their pain—maybe by surprising them with something kind or fun to do.
Friendships. Strong friendships are important to introverts and extroverts alike, and they account for much of our happiness. While deepening friendships is a good way to be happier, even having just one very close friend you trust and love can make all of the difference, say the authors.
Close friendships take some effort, though, and may involve more than having fun together. Deeper friendships are made through expressing affection, being vulnerable, and showing up when your friend needs you. Though online communications may help when nothing else is available (like during COVID), the authors warn against relying on texts or social media alone. Face-to-face contact is usually best for our well-being, they argue.
“Technology that crowds out our real-life interactions with others will lower our well-being and thus must be managed with great care in our lives,” they write. “Solitary and screen-based diversion lower happiness and can lead to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.”
Having more humility—recognizing that you don’t have all of the answers—can lead to happier friendships, too, they write. If you can be less attached to your own opinions and stay open to learning from others, you’re bound to be happier, which helps attract others to you.
Work. Some of us have limited opportunities when it comes to work. But it’s good to recognize what you love about your job—whatever it is—and to understand its meaning in your life, write the authors. Even a not-so-great job may provide intrinsic rewards that make you happy—like the meaning it has for others or the kind people you work with—that can at least offer some sense of fulfillment.
“Engaging in work with your whole heart is one of the best ways to enjoy your days, get satisfaction from your accomplishments, and see meaning in your efforts,” they write.
While work we love is good for our happiness, we shouldn’t overwork as a way to avoid painful realities. Many people dive into their jobs to distract themselves from feelings of depression, anxiety, boredom, or loneliness. And, just like other addictions, workaholism can harm your overall happiness even if it provides temporary relief.
Transcendence. Transcendence is a feeling of being part of and connected to something greater than ourselves. Whether we find it through religion, meditation, or experiences of awe, it’s important for us to sometimes look beyond our everyday concerns and focus on the greater meaning of life. Transcendence or awe can help us feel a sense of meaning and purpose and protect us from depression, which brings greater well-being in our lives.
How to experience more transcendence? By stopping our ruminations about the past or future and engaging more in the present—perhaps through meditation or taking a walk in nature. Being in nature is of the most-researched ways of making us happier and healthier, possibly through its ability to inspire awe. Whatever the case, though, transcendence is part of a more meaningful life.
“If you walk the transcendental path, you will get happier, but only if getting happier is not your goal,” write the authors. “Your goal must be seeking truth and the good of others.”
In each of these realms, write the authors, the greatest happiness comes when you act from a place of love. Life may be unpleasant or stressful; you may feel yourself losing certain abilities as you age; you may act out at times in fits of anger and hurt the ones you love. But, if you keep coming back to loving your family, friends, work, and the world at large, you will be heading in the right direction.
“The key to progress isn’t perfection, it’s to begin again, and again, and again. Every day is a new day, and another opportunity to pick up the hammer and go back to work,” they write. “Just remind yourself that the life you want is built on love, and start again.”