“I Just Want To Be Happy”—Here’s the Code to a Good Life

Imagine you’re offered a million dollars to predict whether someone is a good or bad student. Your only data will be bullet point facts about the person.

If your only bullet point said, “shows up on time,” you wouldn’t have much to work with. If your facts included “shows up on time” and “pays attention,” things get better. If you also had “studies three hours per day,” you’d probably feel much safer about your million-dollar guess.

All of the above are correlative to good grades. Their statistical weights vary, but they all stack. 

If we pivot and apply this same logic to predict a person’s happiness, a framework for contentment emerges, particularly if we get a science-backed cheatsheet.


If you’ve ever thought, “I just want to be happy,” it’s time to embrace these five things 

1. Prioritize experiences over material things

The smartest guy I know loves to invoke jealousy on my Instagram feed. He’s a well-paid engineer and his travel photos stir awe in the most cynical wanderlustian.

He’s standing on a sparkling Hawaiian beach with his buddies. He’s snowboarding in white-caked mountains. He doesn’t own a big house or sports cars. A majority of his money goes towards travel. In his posts, he includes the hashtag “#memoriesovermoney.”

He isn’t off.

People who spend their money on experiential purchases tend to be happier than those who buy material things. Moreover, investing in life experiences delivers longer-lasting satisfaction. The thrill of shiny objects decays faster than a well-delivered memory.


2. Nurture THIS—one of the most powerful predictors of happiness

One Harvard study followed 800 people across seven decades. Their careers spanned that of janitors, doctors, lawyers, and school teachers. It was a fantastic mix of every human attribute and experience.

At the end of the study, they asked elderly participants to reflect on their life and overall satisfaction. They found one of the most powerful determinants of a happy, healthy life was the quality of a person’s relationships. Poor relationships and marriages spoiled contentment across all income brackets.

Those who worked to preserve existing friendships and replace those lost reaped the greatest benefits. This insight is particularly relevant in my own life. My social circle has shrunk as people are increasingly consumed by their careers and new families.

The data suggests we be very deliberate in maintaining friendships and choosing a spouse. Remove toxic people. Consider it an exercise of addition through subtraction.


3. Don’t make a high salary the ultimate goal

I lived in the Philippines in the 1980s as a child. We often traveled “off base” to go exploring.

The transition was humbling as toiling farmers walked behind oxen in the blistering heat. A bike went by with a caged pig being pulled behind it. Large families shared small shanty homes. Paying for basic amenities demanded far more time, money, and physical sacrifice than most of us will ever experience.

One has to wonder how the toiling farmer would answer the question, “Does money buy happiness?” I reckon I could predict what a wealthy person would say. I’ve met enough depressed men with expensive toys to know.

At Princeton, they found that money makes people happier up until roughly $75,000 in annual earnings. The biggest jumps in happiness occurred as you moved from $30,000 to $60,000. Various studies have found similar results, showing optimal “happiness” salaries somewhere in the $70,000 to $90,000 range. These numbers will obviously change over time and there are many factors in the data. 

But the insight is anchored in the idea that high-paying jobs are all-consuming. There is a massive tradeoff being made. The broader point: a “happy” salary is enough to cover your basics and provide adequate spending money, while also allowing you to live. Don’t get too caught up in getting rich or failing to do so.


4. Value time over money (and no, that doesn’t mean settling)

Five years ago, the project manager I was supporting had his face in his hands. He’d worked 70 hours that week. We started talking about life as I sometimes found myself playing therapist with him. He sighed and said, “I’ve never had time and also money. I’ve only ever had one or the other.”

He explained how it was his own fault for choosing this career path and wanting to make good money. It was a sad sentiment to hear from a guy who was clearly cracking under the pressure.

A Harvard study followed 1,000 students after graduation. They found that those who went out into the workforce and valued time more than money tended to be happier when surveyed later in their career. This didn’t mean they took lazy, low-pressure opportunities. It generally meant they demarcated a line at which the pursuit of money wasn’t worth the sacrifice. They understood the importance of balance.


5. Lastly, happy people take care of themselves

More plainly, they get the basic stuff right. They eat healthy. They exercise. They maintain an adequate and routine sleep schedule.

Every human is a walking science experiment. We are composed of chemicals that swirl and change based on the thousands of decisions we make each day.

When people act in reckless disregard for their chemical nature, it poisons any happiness initiative. They take up meditation but then they binge drink. They manage their work-life balance but stay in dysfunctional relationships. They eat healthy but stay up until 3 a.m. on their phone every night.

Avoid deal-breaker habits.


Happiness is the product of what you DO—with your time, energy, and resources

While a magical happiness fix would be nice, it’s a lifelong process. You’ve got more power than you realize, but you have to actively engage. The little decisions you make every day? They all add up.

Remember, this is about correlation.

Create a lifestyle where someone could look at your bullet points and predict that you’re happy.