cherishing life's little joys

Filtering by Tag: happiness

A Life Well-Lived: What Makes Us Truly Happy?

What do I really need to do to be happy?  How can we live more joyfully?  



Discussions of happiness are as old as humankind.  Hunter-gather societies looked to the sky to finding meaning and purpose in something greater than themselves.  In the West, thinkers like Aristotle considered how virtue played a role in eudaimonia, or "flourishing."  While Socrates and Plato considered how humankind cultivated a place in the world through virtue, and thus happiness through learning & following a set of ethical principles, Aristotle added the idea of practicing virtue using social & emotional skills ("Aristotle's Ethics," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, updated 2018).  

In the East, Confucius considered how -any person, regardless of social standing, could pursue self-cultivation and moral virtue as a way to life happiness. It is important to note that discussions of pursuit of happiness often go hand in hand with thinking about virtue. Confucius talked about how any person could achieve the level of a "Junzi" (chün-tzu) or a noble or ruler's son, by seeking personal cultivation and the flourishing of humankind.  On the other hand, Confucius compared this to the (xiaoren; or “little person”) who was egotistically driven, only focusing on personal gain and limited in understanding by their own personal biases.  Finally, the Sage (shengren), the rare person who had a profound understanding of human nature (Matt Stefon, Encyclopedia Britannica).  Much like Western philosophies, Confucianism focused on Jen, or the idea of helping humankind, and respecting the dignity of all people.  

“When a thoughtful human being has overcome incentives to vice and is aware of having done his bitter duty, he finds himself in a state that could be called happiness, a state of contentment and peace of mind in which virtue is its own reward.”
— Immanuel Kant

 Kant wrestled with the very idea of virtue in his writing - and came to the following conclusion: happiness and virtue went hand in hand. As Andreas FollesdalReidar Maliks explain in "Kantian Theory and Human Rights," Kant believed that happiness was more the result of doing things with a worthy cause, and as would be the case, for the world; this is what Kant believed produced true happiness.  Kant also believed that the more we pursued happiness, the more it alluded us, because we did not know what ultimately would make us happy.  Kant essentially believed in doing the right thing out of duty to our fellow human - rather than using people as a means to an end. 

Many of Kant's ideas laid the foundation to human rights principles. So what Kant refers to in the quote above is a "state of contentment," in agreement with many spiritual practices.  Instead of focusing on the selfish pleasure, happiness is more about what we do for others.  


The Science of Positive Psychology

When I started this website, I wanted to share simple ways for people to find joy.  And it seems that wisdom and common sense guide us in the right direction.  Yet, it is also reassuring that research seems to give us proof that these methods actually work and matter. Finding happiness, or what some might call "contentment" or "joy," gives a central focus to the way we live on a daily basis.  If we begin to live more intentional lives, we see ways we can reconnect with ourselves and others.  We may start to see that happiness is more about giving, rather than receiving. But the way we define happiness also matters.

As a result of the society's interest in what determines social well-being, new theories of happiness continue to develop and grow.  Martin Seligman, 'the father of Positive Psychology' studies, proposed a  new theory of 'well-being' to explain what makes people 'flourish' in life.

Yet, as Martin Seligman suggests in his book, "Flourish," happiness is not a fleeting emotion characterized by always being in a cheerful mood, but something so much greater-he goes on to say that "well-being is a construct, and happiness is a thing."  He explains that the goal of positive psychology in the well-being theory is to increase the amount of flourishing in life.

In the prologue, Seligman asserts, "The content itself - happiness, flow, meaning, love, gratitude, accomplishment, growth, better relationships - constitutes human flourishing. Learning that you can have more of these things is life changing. Glimpsing the vision of a flourshing human future is life changing."  The aim of his book is to increase well-being through explaining his theory, and thus enable you to flourish.

So where can be happiness found? 

Positive Psychology: 5 Things that Make Us Flourish

 In his book "Flourish," he suggests 5 key areas of importance to well-being:

1.Positive Emotions


3.Positive Relationships



These reflections on what truly makes people happy are important.  They give us direction into how to live our lives. 

Similarly, in his TED talk, "The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance" Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor discusses that happiness is not something found in the external world, but rather, is cultivated by brain processes which can be changed through behavior. He explains,

We need to reverse the formula for happiness and successes.. . . [we] follow a formula for success which is this: If I work harder I’ll be more successful, if I’m more successful then I’ll be happier. . . our brains work the opposite order. . .”  
— Shawn Achor, Harvard Psychologist

Achor's research suggests that simple behaviors actually make us happy;  Here is a list of examples of such behaviors referred to in his research: 

1. Expressing Gratitude Daily

2. Journaling about Positive Experiences

3. Doing Excercise

4. Practicing Mediation

5. Extending random acts of kindness to others.  

(Shawn Achor, TED talk, 2015)

Most researchers in the field of psychology suggest evidence that our daily behavior greatly influences our level of happiness in life. These seemingly small changes to our daily routines, over time, seem to have a profound impact on our level of joy in life.

According to an interview with Christopher Peterson at University of Michigan, there is no magic bullet when it comes to happiness.  Rather joy is based on simple, repeated acts.  Peterson dedicated his life to the study of this field.  He said, 

Research suggests that practicing gratitude helps us live a more joyful life.

Research suggests that practicing gratitude helps us live a more joyful life.

“People are always looking for the short-cuts. . .the seven easy steps. .  the magic formula, and I don’t think there are such things, not if you have to want to have a life worth living.”  He continues, “You have to work at it; do volunteer work, and if you can’t do volunteer work, pick up your neighbor’s newspaper and put it on their porch. Just really small things, if you do them over and over you will build the connections with other people. . . . .”
— Christopher Peterson

In this interview, Peterson went on to explain that in his twenties he was painfully shy, but he decided to force himself out of his shell-and this change made him happier, as he increased his connections with people.  Peterson also believed that creativity was correlated with happiness.  Other things like smiling, he said, were a "marker" of how people lived their life.  According to Peterson, positive psychology focuses on identifying your strengths, passions, and cultural institutions that aide in well-being. He also said that we grow as a result of life suffering and struggles.  Peterson went on to say that "happiness is a product of our pursuits . . that make life worth living."  In conclusion he explained, positive psychology can be summed up as follows:  "Other people matter."  He suggested we can find life meaning in purpose in things outside ourselves, like spirituality, religion, family, friends, or ideas greater than ourselves.

What about Money & Happiness?   

Will more money make us happier?  There is a great deal of research on this topic as well.  In the Pursuit of Happiness: Characteristics of Happy People, Dr. R. Murali Krishna, says, 

Happiness is not for sale.  Discussion of money and happiness span the history of mankind.  It would seem that wealth does not confer happiness.  In a 1957 study, about 35 percent of the population identified themselves happy.  Today, 30 percent of Americans call themselves happy.  This is despite a doubling in average family earning and despite the explosion in comforts, access to information and luxuries. . . .  After basic needs are met, wealth loses much of its power to create contentment or happiness.
— - Dr.R Murali Krishna, MD, DLFAPA, Excerpted from The Pursuit of Happinesss: Characteristics of Happy People, World of Psychology.

In fact, a Princeton study by Noble-prize winning, psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton, suggests that beyond a salary of $70,000, additional money does not show additional gains in happiness.  The study brings to light some issues related to how people view money.

One such person was CEO Dan Price who decided to raise all his employees incomes to $70,000, and cut his pay from $1 million a year to $70,000 (Cohen, One Company's New Minimum Wage: 70,000 per year, NY Times, 2015).  In the NYT article, Cohen describes himself as a capitalist and business leader who saw the problems income inequality created for his employees and realized he had an opportunity to effect change head-on.  It is evident that Price was driven by something greater than himself when making this change.

Picture by  FireflySixtySeven . from wikipedia commons.

Picture by FireflySixtySeven. from wikipedia commons.

So when we talk about happiness and life fulfillment, the pursuit of money doesn't fit the bill of true joy.  While money is necessary to meet our physical needs, which we can not underestimate, it does not give our life meaning.  Money can't buy watching a sunset, or the feeling you get after a run.  Money can't buy the sense of accomplishment for a job well-done, or the feeling of joy after helping someone out.  As the Beattles said to the world, money can't buy love.  

Like many things, money is a resource to use wisely that meets our hierarchy of needs, but it is not the source of happiness.  The theory of 'hierarchy of needs', by Maslow, suggests that once the basic physiological needs and safety are met, people are motivated to furfill the needs of love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.  If you look at the top three levels of the pyramid, it is easy to see that while money may make this pursuit somewhat easier, it will not solve the pursuit or really address the fundamental core of these issues related to happiness.  Simply stated, once our basic needs our met, happiness can not be found in money.  



The Longest Study on Happiness


One can not talk about happiness without considering the longest study of happiness - the Harvard Study of Adult Development currently directed by Dr. Robert Waldinger.  The study began in 1938 and considers the lives of 724 men (JFK being one of them). It implies that the quality & depth of close relationships were the greatest predictor not only of emotional health, but physical health as well.  In this study, loneliness seemed to negatively affect health. Dr. Waldinger, who is also a Zen priest, says that ". . .giving people are full, undivided attention is probably the most valuable thing we have to offer. . . over time it can really make a difference."  (From an interview on CBS this morning).  

Without these connections would our happiness be meaningless?  In "Braving the Wilderness," Brene Brown, a researcher on loneliness, concludes that happiness is intimately interwined with human connection.  She says, 

We need to hold hands with strangers. We need reminders – collective joy and pain – reminders that we are inextricably connected to each other.
— Brene Brown


Connections to a greater purpose and to others, make a lasting impact on day to day life - and ultimately lead to a life of joy. By changing our perceptions and the way we interact with the world, small things cascade into lasting life changes. We appreciate the little moments by stopping to fully enjoy them.  We seek the opportunity to pursue things that matter to our heart and soul and affect change in the world. And maybe most important - we realize that we are human - as Brene Brown suggests in the quote above, not because we exist as an island, but because of our connection to each other. 





Living this idea intentionally has been perhaps one of my greatest teachings in my own life.  I have explored living with more and living with less, in my blog, and in my own social experiment. I have found that the greatest contentment in life does not come from things, but from living a good life, from doing the right thing, and from connecting to people and helping others.  

Perhaps the greatest thing we can do in life is not seek happiness for ourselves, but to make the world better.  As I continue to learn, I will to write on Joymailed about finding happiness and joy.  Please share your own ideas and impressions with me below.  Thank you for connecting and sharing your own story. 


"Aristotle's Ethics," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, updated 2018.  

Matt Stefon, Encyclopedia Britannica

Andreas FollesdalReidar Maliks "Kantian Theory and Human Rights"

Shawn Achor, Ted Talk, "The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance" 

University of Michigan News Service, Christopher Peterson, Interview, published October 18, 2011 (Part 1).  

Martin E. P. Seligman, "Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being"

Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton, "High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being"

Dr. R. Murali Krishna, "The Pursuit of Happiness: Characteristics of Happy People," Pysch Central. For more on Dr. Murali Krishna see

Robert Waldinger, "Harvard Study of Adult Development," Media at

Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone




A Letter to My Children

Bucket List: Write a letter to my children

I completed a bucket list related to family, personal and inner goals the last 3 years of my life, which I documented in a prior blog, MrsBucketList  In this post, I share a letter of what I hope my children know deep in their heart.  I think every caregiver/parent should write a letter like this to leave their children - it would be a great gift.  I was inspired by Lt. Col. Weber in "Letter to My Sons," who I talked about in my prior blog. My wisdom is a greatest gift I hope to leave them. 

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 10.31.26 PM.png

Dear Kids,

I thought about writing this letter for a while now.  Maybe I am not old enough yet to fully express all the things I know I will learn as time goes on.  Yet, life is short, and I wanted to impart on you the knowledge and wisdom that experience brings.  My hope is that you will one day read this letter and learn from the lessons I have experienced in the past 38 years.  I have made my share of mistakes, and you will make mistakes too, but that is a good thing. So my hope for this letter is not that you avoid mistakes, but rather take from it wisdom and clarity for your own life.

Here are some things I hope you know deep down inside - 

1. My deepest hope is that you will do all you can each day to live to the fullest.  Mistakes are ok, everyone makes them.  It is what you learn that is important, so focus on the lesson, not on the mistake. Perhaps in this way, you can achieve a new level of understanding.  Take the lessons I have taught you, and experience something new and different than me.  Learn in your own way.  Don't be sad or mad about the learning - just go with it- life is your greatest friend and teacher.  

2. Live a life beyond what I could imagine for you, don't listen to the expectations placed on you by the world.  Do what makes you happy.  Don't worry about expectations - you know what is best for you - inside you there is a voice - just listen to it.  If you can't hear it, sometimes we just have to be still, sometimes the quieter we are, the more we can hear it.

3. Growing up is not always easy.  You will find some of the deepest pain will come when you are young.  The depth of feeling will feel like a bottomless ocean when you are young.  This is because everything is new, but over the years you will learn ways to cope and not just survive these challenges, but you will become stronger.  Don't do it alone-ask for help when you need it.  Through these challenges, love yourself.  Use strategies of self-love - self compassion - and self-acceptance.  The love you have for yourself, is the seed of the gift of love you can give others.  Never forget that you are whole exactly as you are-there is nothing you need to do.

4. Find things that awake your joy for life - writing, music, art, laughter, expression, dancing, sports, traveling and do them.  These outlets will make life worth living.  Also, find ways to know yourself more deeply - yoga, mediation, stillness, or practices that look inward.  A lot of times the answers we seek, are inside of us, if we are still enough to listen.  

5. Help others and better the small worlds around you. These small worlds are perhaps the most important ones you will touch, never take them for granted.  Even if you touch one life in this world with your own kindness, that is enough.  One life can change the world.  Remember what Helen Keller said,

I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.- Helen Keller

6. What goes on in the bigger world around you is important too. Stand up for what you believe, and never be afraid to be the one who defends the weak, or speaks out when everyone would rather be silent. You will regret more what you did not say, than what you say in defense of what is right and true. 

7.Never let anyone demean you or put you down.  From the moment I held each one of you-I could feel your divinity – the special place in life and purpose you each have-is something I saw when I first looked into your eyes as one day old infants. And with that, our connection as mother and child is special. I can feel the divinity in each of you - and I can see it in your eyes, never let anything come between your bright light that your presence has on the world. Let your brightness shine so it can drive out the darkness in the world.  Don't let your light be dimmed.

8.Always keep learning. My life began as a daughter to an immigrant family who came to the US in search of a better life. I lived with a loving mother, who went to school to become a nurse. She instilled in me a core belief, one I hope you carry with you to a new generation, the belief that education was the greatest way to surpass society’s constraints. She believed that an education could never be taken away from you and was the one sure way to change your life. She was the first in her family to attend college. I believe that learning opens new worlds to you - every type of learning you do - about yourself, about the world, about things you care about - can be used to know yourself better, and make the world better too.  

9.I was raised by my grandparents, who filled my younger years with so much love.  Their longing for Cuba taught me to love something I had never seen or experienced.  It taught me that culture is a beautiful way to experience the world of many different people. Explore all you can of this love, it will teach you many things and open you to new experiences and people. 

10.Life is not meant to be suffering, but joy, love, and peace. You can speak out about the things that hurt you, and no one has the right to hurt you.  Life is meant to be joyful-so surround yourself with people who make you happy.

11. There is nothing you can not overcome.  You have the tools and more importantly, the love inside you to get through any challenge that life brings your way.  You will do many great things in life.  But remember this, the deepest sense of accomplishment and pride you will feel, is already inside of you. I saw it the day you were born. When your dad and I held you for the first time, I imagined for you all the amazing things you would experience. Never let anything take away the sense of wonder I felt for you.  You were already amazing the day you were born - you don't have to do anything to earn that - anything you do to be great is icing on the cake.  You are a beautiful soul.  And I love you for everything you have already become - it is enough and I am proud of you.

12. Be bold. Set goals and don’t let pain stop you. Pain gets easier. But work through it and keep trying. Don’t give up.  Be consistent when you want something, it may seem small at first, but step by step, it will pay off. Think of how an artist craves a sculpture out of ice, piece by piece chipping away, that is how success comes.  And if success doesn't come, that is ok too, take what you learned to the next experience and be happy to have had it.

I know these are things you’ve heard before. But really believe them. Take them to heart and follow your dreams. I am still working on them, so don’t be mad at yourself for the down days. You’ll have more good days than bad. Persist through the hard days, and never lose hope.  Some dreams will make you dream bigger - it may seem like the dream is lost - but it is only just beginning.  You can't see life backwards - you life in forwards, but one day it will all make sense.

I imagine that is what my mother would tell me now. She died of pancreatic cancer very suddenly.  For years, I wondered what she would have wanted and lived a life locked by these expectations I made for myself, instead of being happy - I stopped living and was sad. The loss was so hard. But it took me years to realize she would have wanted me to live and be happy. Live each day. She still reminds me that she is with me. Before she died she told me before she got sick, “Even when I am not present physically, I will always be with you.”  And she is right, because I carry her in my heart always. It took me long time to figure that out - people keep living through their love.  Love never dies.  That is why they say love is eternal.

 When I am gone one day, when I am 100 years old like a turtle, I want you to keep living - keep dreaming - and keep wishing.  Remember what I told you about magic - we are the ones that make it real - the same is true of life - we can make it magic if we try.  Celebrate it.  Don't miss a holiday or a birthday - make it special - because life really is special.

So let me summarize (because you know mommy is a writer and I like to : ) 

Go live the life you dream. Let nothing stop you. Do not be afraid of anything. This world is meant to teach you. One day you will realize that each day is worth giving it your all. Be brave and speak out when you see injustice.  Live the fullest life you can and tell me all about it. I’ll be here to listen, always.  Remember nothing born of love is ever lost.  We will be forever connected to each other, for the universe is bigger than we can ever imagine.  Let yourself feel small when you look at the night sky and think how amazing this world is-never forget that sense of awe – that very sense of wonder is inside of you.

Live in the present.  Now.  This moment is precious.  You are precious, right now, just as you are.  Today is everything. So never let fear come in the way of living.  And remember I am always, always with you - never doubt it.  My love is so immense that the world can not contain it, like the stars in the sky are countless.  Love each other.

I love you always,