If people or things can’t make you happy then what can?

When I find myself desiring a new material item, I notice that I have the thought,”If only I had that shiny, new object, I can be truly happy.” After I have purchased the item and the initial glee with the glitz and glamour wears off, it becomes just another possession amongst many and I find that I am no happier than I was before.


He who knows he was everything is rich.— From a fortune cookie

One approach to finding satisfaction is gratitude practice. Every night before going to bed, think of five or ten things that you are grateful for.

During gratitude practice, you may find that you are grateful for the people in your life. It is often said that when lying on one’s death bed, one’s concern is not about the Mercedes S class they should have bought. Rather one regrets the things they never said—the apology to their father or whether their spouse knows how much they are loved. Relationships bring meaning to life.


How does this relate to your experience of people not making you happy? You need to let go of looking for someone to complete you and notice the connections you already have in your life. Friends and family cannot fill a vacuous hole, but if you focus on the love that is already there, you can find contentment. When you let go of expecting too much of others, relationships can give your life meaning. This is another example of letting go of grasping and finding what you have is enough.


Meaning is an important aspect of a satisfying life.Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who spent five months of hard labor in the Kaufering III concentration camp. He observed that those prisoners who held in mind a future with meaning—reuniting with a loved one or completing an important project, they were more likely to survive. The book about these experiences is known in English as Man’s Search for Meaning. However I love the sentiment of the German title, Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything.

Meaning can be found many ways, but to be meaningful it must express your most closely held values. Finding a charity that you resonate with and contributing money or time to them is a great way of bringing meaning to your life.

Granting Significance

No matter what is happening in life, you have the power to grant significance.—paraphrase of Marty Lowenthal

What if that horrible thing that you dread happens and you chose to not grant it significance? Many times we find it wasn’t a big deal afterall. It was our catastrophizing that made it so.

As I have shown above there are tools you have to for finding satisfaction and contentment, but what about the days, where nothing you do makes you happy? Can you be happy with that? I am not being sarcastic here. I mean this genuinely. Can you be happy with having moments of unhappiness? It is during these times, it is best to focus on meaning. You might not be elated, but the sense of purpose keeps you going.

The goal is not having to be happy in order to be happy — paraphrase of Marty Lowenthal

Enjoying the Moment

Another way to understand Marty’s apparent contradiction is that the search for happiness can get in the way of having happiness. Sometimes happiness is found in relaxing the effort and settling into the moment.

To get the most out of life, we should notice the miraculous moments in daily life. — Zen Master Hakuin

What are these miraculous moments? When was the last time, you sat and enjoyed a sunset? or a nice cup of tea? or took the time to be fully absorbed in music? There is nowhere to go. There is nothing that needs to be taken care of. You simply enjoy the moment as it is. This is the miracle of finding the richness of the everyday.

If you are bored, you aren’t paying close enough attention.—paraphrase of Robert Fripp

I am reminded of the Kinks song, Sunny Afternoon, where the song’s character is bemoaning how he has lost his great fortunes to the tax man and complains, “All I’ve got’s this sunny afternoon.” The sooner he can accept the loss of his material riches, the sooner he can find the riches of beautiful weather in a perpetually overcast area like the British Isles.


Although this song was intended as a satire of the British upper-class, I find other messages in it as well. When you have no way of changing what has happened, let go of the regret and resentment you are carrying around, so that you can truly enjoy the sunny afternoon. Acceptance is the first step towards healing.

Many people worry that acceptance means giving up. On the contrary, you can still strive for things and your will be striving from a place of greater peace. Letting go of struggle conserves energy and allows you to persist longer in your striving.

Getting Out of Your Head

Another aspect the song brings to mind, is that being aware enough to notice the sunset in the first place is in a sense more miraculous than the sunset. This is because we get lost in our thoughts and feelings to the exclusion of the novelty of the present moment pretty much 24/7. We miss a lot when we are in our heads.

Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.– John Lennon

On the other hand, meditators find a point in their practice where they experience themselves as a calm, peaceful vastness where thoughts and feelings occur. In other words, one has thought and feelings, but no longer identifies with them. When I have experienced this, it is the most contented I have ever been. See: Stephen Martin’s answer to How do I not think of anything while meditating? for more about this.

This moment is enough

Lastly, the thought,”If only I had that shiny, new object, I can be truly happy.” conveys the attitude that somehow life in this moment isn’t enough—that I need something else to fix my life and make it whole.

Life is not a problem to be solved.—Marty Lowenthal

Being in the moment is living life. Let go of the chase to find happiness and live fully. Say yes to life in spite of everything.

Image: Ernst Haeckel-Sea Anemones plate 49 from Art Forms in Nature

©2016 Stephen L. Martin

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