The (Real) Secret to Being Happy

Sometimes complete strangers say things that can change your whole life.  That is not what this post is about, though.  This post is about something that happened to me several years ago on a flight from Newark to Chicago, where I was sitting next to an older Asian man who, out of nowhere, turned to me and asked, “Do you want to know the secret to being happy?”  As I happened to be wondering exactly that thing at exactly that moment, I said yes, I would indeed like to know the secret to being happy.  I can still see him, silhouetted by that white above-the-clouds light that comes through the windows on planes.  I turned my body towards him, he raised his index finger and said, “There are three things.”  And that, my friends, is all she wrote.  I don’t remember what he told me.  I FORGOT whatever it was he said. 

 Whenever I come back to this memory, and it’s fairly often because knowing the secret to being happy would come in very handy, I get sort of breathless and excited, remembering that man with his raised finger in the white sunlight, sensing the promise of something incredibly valuable—the secret to being happy!—and then it all comes back to me, like slamming into a mental brick wall, like a tiny psychic explosion—I FORGOT what he said.  Then I have the same two thoughts:  1) I am SUCH a loser; and 2) if I were a really good writer like David Sedaris, I could write something so funny about this. 

David Sedaris and a monkey

 But, as they say, it’s all material, all grist for the mill: someone once told me the secret to being happy and I forgot what it was.  That’s what happened.  This morning, on my way from the car to my office, I had my little PTSD recall of this moment, for whatever reason, and I started to tell myself a little story about why it was okay that someone once told me the secret to being happy and I FORGOT what it was.  Like the way you would talk to a very slow-witted but generally well-intended person, someone you know is working really hard but not quite meeting your expectations.  I thought, “Maybe there is a way to look for all of the small things in your life that teach you how to be happy, the real-life, less obvious lessons, since somehow, you managed to MISS OUT on the huge, in your face, sitting-right-next-to-you-for-three-straight-hours-and-available-for-follow-up-questions lesson.” 

Lots of small things came into my head, because really, it is not that hard to become aware of the everyday things that teach you the language of happiness if you just hone your ability to listen.  And that was going well for a few minutes, until the whole thing started to feel sort of prosaic and gratitude list-ish, and generally not very interesting.  But by that time I was at my desk and starting in on the work I get paid to do, so I stopped thinking about it. 

Then my friend Ann called.  We had a delightful conversation, as we typically do.  She told me about a nightmarish work project that she has to do, about some of the cool stuff she’s reading, and, as a side note, about how she and her husband have developed a theory that the sentiment, “Everyone has an interesting story to tell” might not actually be true, which is very funny.  A little like the statement, “There are no dumb questions,” which is so OBVIOUSLY not true, but funnier.  Then she said, “I just have to tell you about one more quick thing before I go.  The Happiness Project.” 

The Happiness Project:  Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, is a #1 New York Times best-selling book by Gretchen Rubin.  It’s a memoir of “the year she spent test-driving studies and theories about how to be happier.”  The book and corresponding web site are a very structured approach to taking steps in your day-to-day life to do whatever it is that will make YOU happy (or happier).    

On the surface, there several reasons for the cynical among us to dislike this concept on sight, and even the New York Times interview posted on Rubin’s web site has an undercurrent of snarkiness running through it.  But an idea that stands up for mindfulness, personal responsibility, and the general belief that it’s better to stop telling yourself what you should do and start listening to what your own self wants to do, and then helps you figure out how to do that, is just fine by me. 

In any case, the usefulness or appeal of The Happiness Project isn’t the main point of this post.  The Happiness Project may indeed be the secret to happiness for a lot of people; it’s certainly worth a look and maybe even a try.  There’s some very good stuff on the web site.  For me, though, one wonderful thing about hearing about this today was the realization that you get more than one chance to learn the “secret to being happy,” and if you missed it on the first go around, the universe is much more generous with us than we are with ourselves.  It reminded me of something I once heard a minister say, “A God that only shows up in one place at one time to one group of people is not a God I would be able to believe in.” 

But finally, here’s the main point of this post.  The REAL secret to being happy is this (and you might want to write this down, just in case your memory is as reliable as mine): it’s not a secret.  The world around you is calling it out to you all the time, in the voice of a friend on the phone, in the material that shows up at just the right time in just the right place, in the assurance that even if you are not “happy,” you are not excluded from the world.  You belong here.  All the world asks is that you pay attention, and to remember that the reason you are able recognize potential paths to happiness, whatever they might be for you, is because they call to something that is already inside of YOU, waiting to be seen, waiting to come forward and breathe in the clear, open air.  It’s not hidden, it’s not a secret, and although it might be work, it is YOUR work. 

The fell-right-into-my-lap poem choice for today (thank you for reminding me of this, Cynthia) is “The Work of Happiness,” by May Sarton.  Yes, it’s long-ish, but most definitely worth reading (especially the first four lines and the last four lines). 

The Work of Happiness 

I thought of happiness, how it is woven 
Out of the silence in the empty house each day 
And how it is not sudden and it is not given 
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree. 
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark 
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring. 
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark, 
But the tree is lifted by this inward work 
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering. 
So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours 
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone: 
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors, 
White curtains softly and continually blown 
As the free air moves quietly about the room; 
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall– 
These are the dear familiar gods of home, 
And here the work of faith can best be done, 
The growing tree is green and musical. 
For what is happiness but growth in peace, 
The timeless sense of time when furniture 
has stood a life’s span in a single place, 
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir 
The shining leaves of present happiness? 
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind, 
But where people have lived in inwardness 
The air is charged with blessing and does bless; 
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind. 

May Sarton, The Lion and the Rose

10 thoughts on “The (Real) Secret to Being Happy

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  1. The opening and repeated refrain to this essay is the surprise that one could forget or never heard what the elder said regarding the secret of happiness. I often forget peoples names when I have a poor first impression of them – and I am excellent with names and seldom forget a name or a face. But if someone or something disturbs me, I easily block it.
    Is it possible that you or any of us, particularly in the West, do not wish to know the secret of happiness. Perhaps happiness is disturbing? Perhaps we unconsciously fear that in our happiness we will offend the teachings or memory of those elders (parents?) who so enjoyed complaining and elevated unhappiness and restlessness to a high art. Or we will destroy the spell of capitalism which does not thrive when people realize that they can be happy without a dollar cost: happiness is free.
    A dear friend, Barbie died last year, she loved the line from the bible, “choose life.” This was quoted by Leslie yesterday. One could advice, “Choose happiness.” I considered Barbie my spiritual mother/advisor. She and her partner, Mary, used to proclaim, “Show up, pay attention, do the best you can, no attachment to outcomes.”
    It seems to me that truly paying attention, being here now, as Sarton does in the room with the books, the furniture and the lovely curtains – note her loving description of these items, in doing so one can not help but be happy.
    Another saying that I have liked from Buddhism is, “Let Death be your teacher.” The recent loss of those most dear to me in life has ironically taught me to embrace happiness now, not someday down the road when it may feel safer. In my appreciation of those who have gone, I have realized how wonderful a thing, how happy we are when we simply love one another. What a gift is life. How much happier am I today for what I learned about life from loving. Colleen


  2. Just popping in to take a look-see. And what I see is a swell blog that’ll need a closer (and longer) look 🙂

    Oh, and two other things. Thing 1: Yeah, David Sedaris is funny, but I think you underestimate your story-telling. I mean, I laughed out loud. And I don’t always laugh at David’s stories.

    Thing 2: I’m in Lincoln’s “We’re just about as happy as we make up our minds to be” camp. Like today, I woke up and decided to be semi-happy. Yesterday, I woke up and decided to be mostly-annoying (or so said one of my offspring).

    Enjoyed my look-see!

    Cath (from PG-and now your “other” friends will wonder)


  3. Your writing put me in mind of our son who was very sure he had found the secret to happiness as an 11 year old boy. We were riding on a “boom-boom” – a small diesel cargot boat that makes that sound as it delivers good and people in Maloelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands. We were coming back from one of the less inhabited islands that are strung in Robert Louis Stevenson’s words — “like a necklace of pearls in the blue Pacifac.” He was riding in the front of the boat catching the wind that the boat made cutting slowly through the waves, rocking lazily along. It was the end of our two weeks living with friends on this remote atoll. A real paradise for an 11 year old who had not yet discovered adolescence – shells of Japanese zero planes and bunkers to play in, fishing and swimming all day. He leaned back in the boat and said, “Mom, I know the secret to happiness” (a code phrase for a book we read many times when he was a pre-schooler – Mr. Brown and Mr. Grey- who each were tasked with finding the secret to happiness. “It’s riding a boom-boom in Maloelap Atoll. I think I want to be a boom-boom captain when I grow up.” He didn’t do that, but even at his young age he seemed to know that happiness was revelling in the moment that is given.


  4. Great post! Seriously, I write about happiness but this was a great post and so true. You are a good writer. I will definitely check out your other posts right now!

    I had a question for you though since we are in the same “field” of blogs. I am new at blogging and I was hoping to get feedback on my blog. I write about happiness, success, and potential. You can email me with feedback at and my blog is

    Again, I loved your post! And I would love to hear from you about my blog. Take care and keep writing.


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