We all want to live better, more fulfilling, and happier lives. Not surprisingly, here on One Big Happy Life, we’re often asked to share insights on how to live a happy life. Or, asked a different way, whether our family is genuinely as happy as we seem. Well let me assure you that our family is actually this happy! It is something that we work at every day.

Creating a happy life doesn’t happen by accident. No matter where you are right now, you can, with intention, make daily changes that add joy and happiness to your life.

I spent much of my 20s struggling with life. First, as a single teen mom and then later as a fish out of water as I tried to figure out how to navigate an Ivy law school and white shoe law firms as a girl who grew up in inner-city Brooklyn, NY. There were many happy times then, don’t get me wrong. But a lot of it felt really hard at the time. Despite that, I rarely felt chronically unhappy about my life in general because I knew that I was working towards changing things for the better, even if those changes happened very slowly.

Fast forward to my 30s and my life is very different now. I have an amazing family that I look forward to coming home to every night, a job that is meaningful and provides balance, and a burgeoning small business that excites me. Though, I still have my struggles and doubts, on the whole I am proud to say that I live a happy life and that it didn’t happen by accident.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COPOD2KEv9Q%5B/embedyt%5D

There is no one right way to live a happy life.

I’ve always had a bit of a stubborn streak that caused me to question basically everything. Of course this is a horrible trait to have when you have parents who prefer a more authoritarian parenting style. But no matter how much trouble my curious and doubtful nature got me into, I didn’t change. I just got (a little) better at hiding it.

While my parent’s weren’t fans of my inquisitiveness, it turns out that it can be a great personality trait to have when it comes to creating a happy life.

It can be really easy to fall into life tracks or routines because we are told that’s the way life should be or that there is only one way to have a successful life. There are a number of reasons why these ways of thinking are so common. One is fear. If you follow the safe path then you can be pretty certain that you will have at least a good life. And a good life is better than a bad life, right?

A second reason we aren’t encouraged to find our own definition of happiness is that it just hasn’t been that long since the world changed and regular people could in theory go out and become whatever they wanted to. Just a generation ago a person could expect to work for one company for decades before retiring comfortably with a sweet pension. That’s just not the world we live in anymore but it’s taking our societal norms a bit to catch up.

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The key to finding happiness is to actively seek it out.

These days if we don’t like something about our lives we can change it. We can start a new career, move to a different city, pursue our passions as side hustles or small businesses. But in order to take that first step, we have to be willing to believe that we can make change in our lives and ask ourselves the hard questions:

  • What do I want out of my life?
  • What is working in my life?
  • What isn’t working and what can I do to fix it?
  • What do I need to do to get to where I want to go?

All of the major, life-altering decisions that I have made in my life have started with those questions. Life has a way of settling into a comfortable routine. That’s great if you are exactly where you want to be. But most of us don’t end up exactly where we want to be without making some kind of concerted effort to get there. Not to mention that our goals change over time as we go through life.

The best way to stay ahead of that mid-life crisis is to continually check in with yourself so that we can course correct sooner rather than later. That way you can make sure that every day you are taking actions that actively bring us closer to living our ideal lives. It could be something as small as taking 30 minutes to exercise or something as large as hunting for a job in a new city. But before we can take action, we need to be able to figure out what goal we are working towards.

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Begin with the end in mind.

I come back to this second Habit of Highly Effective People over and over because it’s a good one and is often overlooked. Life gets busy. It’s hard to fit in sleep and exercise much less time to plan for the life that you want to live. But, as Steven Covey explains in his book, if you don’t begin with the end in mind then you end up wasting time on things that don’t add meaning or value to your life and don’t bring you any closer to living a life that makes you happy.

When you know what your ideal life looks like you can then start taking doing more of the things that bring you closer to your goals and less of things that don’t.

Joseph and I are constantly working on getting better at doing more of this in our lives and with our money. That’s why we use moderate frugality to help us work towards cutting our expenses in areas that give us the least joy so that we have more to spend on what matters (like family travel and creating a home that we love).

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Creating a happy life takes time, so work to cultivate happiness every day.

Achieving big goals can take a long time. It took me nine years to go from being an enlisted Marine with a high school diploma making $17,000 a year to being a lawyer and earning a six-figure salary. It will take us 15-20 years of being in the workforce to reach financial independence.

And sometimes you might have to wait for a while before you can even start making real progress on your goals. It will be at least two more years before Joseph and I can consider moving to a lower cost of living area because we are waiting for Alexis to graduate from high school. It will be at least another year and a half before we can really start taking affirmative steps to moving like searching for new jobs in a new city. 

It’s really easy to fall into the trap of being so focused on your end goals that you forget that life is the thing that happens in the spaces between your goals. That is why it is so important that you do whatever you can to fill your life with small bits of happiness every day even as you work towards making larger overall changes.

What are the daily things that bring your life joy and meaning? Are there things that you wish you were doing more of but aren’t? Focus on adding those mini-happiness sources in your life as you work towards making the bigger changes.

This is also a great way to handle the day to day frustrations that can come from things that are actively making your life unhappy but that can take some time to change. Back in December 2016, I was in a job that I hated, that had me in tears every Sunday night. I did three things to help me cope while I searched for a new job:

  1. I sent myself a daily email to my work address with one word: Deinvest.
  2. I learned how to sew and made our family coordinated Halloween costumes.
  3. I started the One Big Happy Life YouTube channel that later led to the creation of this site.

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We are all on our own unique journey.

It took a ridiculously long time for me to post about One Big Happy Life on my personal Facebook page. I loved it. I was proud of it. It made me happy. But I worried what my law school classmates who were out there doing big things making big bucks at big firms would think. Having a thriving, if small, YouTube channel is certainly not a typical marker of success.

This was just another form of the same feelings that cause us to want to Keep Up with the Joneses (or the Frugal-Joneses). And it is a surefire way to making sure that you will not live a happy life. Deriving happiness from comparison to others is fleeting at best. There will always be someone else to compare yourself to or to keep up with.

There are lots of issues with using other people’s lives as a measurement of your own success, but the biggest is that you might end up living a life that you don’t actually really want. What use is having a big house in the right neighborhood and a fancy car if you are actually a homesteader at heart? 

We only get one life. So forget about what other people are doing and just focus on your life and your path to happiness. At the end of the day and at the end of your life, that is all that will matter.