The Pursuit of Happiness, Vol. 2

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People in Bhutan are happier than you. Because, there? That's always the goal. They choose it.
People in Bhutan are happier than you. Because, there? That’s always the goal. They choose it.

There is a small country in South Asia—Bhutan—where the government measures its success based on the collective happiness of its population.

The Bhutanese government has officially dubbed the measurement the Gross National Happiness Index.

Economics. Education. Health care. Crime.

These are all factors in much the same way most of the developed nations evaluate the state of things. Bhutan simply frames things differently. Bhutan’s government exists to create an environment for its citizens where they can pursue happiness. Not temporary measures to feel good. Not drugs. Not sex. Not alcohol. Not amusement parks. Not quick-hit entertainment. Not fake happy.

But, real happy. Long-term contentment.

The Gross National Happiness Index measures:

1. Psychological wellbeing

2. Health

3. Time use

4. Education

5. Cultural diversity and resilience

6. Good governance

7. Community vitality

8. Ecological diversity and resilience

9. Living standards

I didn’t know about this small country (less than one million people) with big ideas. A complete paradigm shift in the way we measure what’s really important.

Not money.

Not material things.

Not status.

Not fame.

Not “success” in the way western culture tends to superficially define it.

Just… happy.

Wisdom: A Byproduct of Experience

I’m not wise. I’m not.

But compared to my high school and college years? Yeesh. I’m like a Master Jedi now.

It never dawned on me until after my wife left and I had so much time alone to evaluate who I was and who I wanted to be.

I’ve been chasing this dream of having stuff for so long. Chasing this idea that if I just had enough money, I’d eliminate all of my problems.

And I was lying to myself. And everyone chasing the dime is lying to themselves, too.

I knew it before last night. But last night really drove home this point for me.

While most of the country was tuned into the Academy Awards, I was watching a documentary I’d found on Netflix called “Happy.”

This film taught me about Bhutan. And it reinforced something I had already heard, but didn’t believe until now.

A person with an appalling lack of income—someone without the money to have their basic needs met—can increase their happiness quotient by a lot simply by coming into a salary or a pile of money that will allow those fundamental needs to be met: Food, clothing, shelter, safety, health care, transportation, general comfort, etc.

But once your basic needs are met? There just isn’t much to be gained from increasing your financial place in the world. Not from a “happiness” standpoint.

The research data suggested that there is an enormous amount of happiness to be gained between annual earnings of $0 and $50,000. But that there was very little change between someone making $50,000 versus someone making $50 million.

I would have never believed that 10—even, five—years ago.

But I do now. I believe it strongly.

Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whitney Houston. Kurt Cobain. Junior Seau. Judy Garland. Heath Ledger.

And we can go forever.

People who had what so many of us think we want. And they were absolutely miserable. So miserable, that they felt the only choice was ending their lives or doing enough drugs to make the pain of the real world go away.

According to the film, 50 percent of an individual’s ability to be truly happy comes from their genetic makeup. I thought that seemed pretty unlucky, if true. That people are genetically predisposed to feel sad.

And I instantly counted my blessings because I believe I’m genetically predisposed to feel happy as I have most of my life. I just never appreciated it like I do now after having gone through my worst few years.

An additional 10 percent comes from all of the stuff most people spend all of their time chasing: The money and the sex and the fun and the fame and the experiences and the stuff.

Wait. What about the other 40 percent?

According to the researchers from Baylor University consulted in this particular documentary? Intentions.

Our intentions make up 40 percent of our ability to feel or actually be happy.

The filmmakers zipped around the world capturing images and interviewing people in impoverished conditions in Asia and Africa and in poor regions of the United States.

And a lot of these people were VERY happy.

I thought it was a pretty effective film, and I’m glad I watched it. It provided some data to back up what I’d already been thinking about for several months now.

This idea that I no longer am interested in chasing the large bank account and big house. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t want those things. They’re just no longer on my list of goals.

All I want in this life is to feel true happiness and contentment. And I’d like to live a life where I can help other people achieve that, too.

I don’t want to make this about feelings. I just don’t have the vocabulary to word this differently.

But what really matters besides our health and happiness?

I submit: Nothing.

How to Feel Happy

Choose it.

Deliberately be happy. That’s the choice we’re faced with. Choosing to be happy, or choosing to not be.

Bad shit will happen. It will. But when our happiness muscle is fully flexed, our ability to show resiliency and bounce back will be on full display.

The chemical compound most responsible for our feelings of happiness is a substance called dopamine. Stimulants like cocaine, amphetamine and methamphetamine amplify the effects of dopamine.

Our brain’s ability to create dopamine decreases naturally as we age. Which might explain why so many of us miss being kids. We were LITERALLY happier then.

Researchers recommend engaging in healthy activities that increase dopamine levels in our body.

It’s all the stuff you already know about:

  • Regular exercise.
  • Being spiritually connected.
  • Having active relationships with friends and family.
  • Community involvement.
  • Acts of kindness.
  • Achievement, in all its various forms.

These are the things you need to focus on if you want to feel happy.

It begins with gratitude.

It ends with living for something greater than yourself.

And being connected every step of the way.

Somebody stop me if you think I’ve got this wrong.

But what matters more than this? Big-picture faith questions, aside. What, here on Earth, matters more than achieving long-term contentment?

I’m trying very hard to take a look at my life and make better choices that can lead me to this place. This state of being where I’m not just running around chasing the next short-term good time, only to feel shitty and unfulfilled the rest of the time.

I want what these truly happy people have.

And I want that for you, too.


Because we’re going to get there.

67 thoughts on “The Pursuit of Happiness, Vol. 2”

  1. Sweet post as per normal…I do take exception on Seau as he was trying to have the world study his concussed noggin….hence why he shot himself where he did. I guess his dopamine was fame and Sundays.

    1. Yes. Sadly. Fame and Sundays, indeed. Perhaps he’s an outlier on this list. I don’t put enough thought into this stuff sometimes.

  2. Matt, does this mean that I have to sell my imaginary Ferrari and my imaginary Hawaiian estate?

  3. I just added that “Happy” documentary to my Netflix list yesterday, what a coincidence. You should watch one called “One Day On Earth” as well. It’s a beautiful documentary with no agenda other than to show us ourselves.

    With all of the complicated measures we take in our lives to get places we think we want to be, the pursuit of happiness is always an assumption, an underlying intention. Sometimes that intention gets lost in the act of living. The points you’re making here are so valuable. I hope someone, or many someones, reads this and can take away from it the idea of choosing happiness. I’ve mentioned it over on my blog as something I’m currently trying to do. It is a constant choice. Choose to be happy. Everyday, make that conscious choice. Some days it won’t be a clear decision but all you can do is try.

    Great post Matt, and a great reminder to myself to continue to work on things. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much for saying so.

      I do think this idea has merit. And by merit, I really mean this is probably the most-important idea in our lives.

      I spent so many years just living. Some of this came by accident. But now it doesn’t. Now I have to choose it. And maybe work for it.

      And I need to constantly remind myself that the effort is worth it.

      The alternative is a whole bunch of disappointment and discontentment.

      And I choose hope.

  4. I just love this post, Matt!

    Actually I just took up my practice of a gratitude list, again. That means I start the day by listing at least eight blessings, breakthroughs and benefits I have experienced. That reminds me of how rich I really am. And it gives my day a positive direction. 🙂

    I had heard about Buthan, before. I don’t know how exactly this shows up in the everyday-life of the people. But it surely sounds like a wonderful approach and like something I call “New Energy”.

    Will look into the ovie, also! Great tip, thanks!

    Much love,

    (P.S.: Sorry about the long absence. I had to take care of some health stuff and couldn’t keep up with the blogging world. 😉 )

    1. You do not owe me any of your time and attention, Steffi! I’m the WORST blog friend ever.

      I hope you’re feeling better.

      A gratitude list is a really good practice. That documentary specifically mentioned how much people doing that had increased brain activity and dopamine levels.

      Good things.

      1. I knew there would be a scientific explanation for this if somebody would just look for it!

        I’m still in recovery but getting better each day, thank you. 🙂 (I know I don’t “owe” any of my time to anybody – and nor do you… I just felt it would be nice to let you know.)

        1. It was nice. Very nice. Thank you for saying so because the place is better when you’re a part of it. 🙂

    1. You’re absolutely right. That is profound. And I love it.

      Thank you so much for sharing. Happy Monday to you, too. 🙂

  5. Incredibly, this feeds right into what I was feeling (and wrote in my announcement post) yesterday. When you let the money matter, it does. When you choose to love, enjoy and embrace love, invite love in and pour it into everything, Happiness or Joy are very quick to follow. Yet, I still learned something here, Matt, as I always do from you. The material stuff isn’t what makes my husband happy.He likes it a lot, and it helps him feel safe and comfortable, but even when he can’t buy more… He just chooses to be happy. 🙂 Thank you for that.

    1. Thank you for checking in.

      One of my real-life friends texted me this morning because of your announcement post.

      That made me chuckle. Hope you’re well, lady. 🙂

  6. I ain’t gonna stop you Matt! Go! You’ve sparked!

    There’s something about taking the effects of our life experiences, which builds up something uncomfortable, that we then turn over and over with the intention of not sliding back and retreating from, it leaves the gas on and then we ignite it, and do two things, burn down our bullshit and light up the world.

    But you know this.

    The Nice Note Lady (as good as a nice lunch lady but without the tater tots)

  7. What a great post.
    I have tried very hard not to be materialistic and to teach my children that other things are more important in life than possessions etc.
    Last year I decided I had been miserable and unhappy In my long marriage for too long. My husband’s argument against separating was that we will be poor, or at least less well off. Which is more important feeling free, happier and less well off or staying in a loveless marriage with lots of stuff?
    I chose freedom.

    1. While I hate very much to see families break apart, I totally understand that sometime it truly is for the best.

      I’m so glad you liked this and think about these things. I really believe it’s the key to sustainable contentment with our lives.


    – I know it might be cheesy to share a link, but this is a group of really amazing people who I came across when contemplating very similar things. It’s a pretty simple site, very concise message, they’re selling t-shirts hoping people will wear them everywhere / submit pictures / etc and spread the word!! … and using the money from the shirts to fund positive community events. Really just a wonderful family trying to promote a grass roots positive effort in the world. Check ’em out!

    1. I promise to. I hope others will too. Please always feel free to share anything you want here. I really appreciate your time and interest.

    1. Giggling is one if the best things in the entire world. So it makes complete sense that you like it so much.

  9. I think the material things can bring a measure of happiness but they don’t provide lasting happiness. People like to chase things they think will make them happy but I don’t think there’s some magic happy item that will provide lasting happiness. I think it’s something you have to choose to be.

    I’ve learned over the years that it’s something to you actually become like when someone is generally mad or whatever, happiness becomes a habit if you practice it long enough. By practice I mean by doing the things that produce happiness and well being like taking care of yourself, being kind to others, having control of the way you react to things and being thankful.

  10. This is great – thanks to Christopher S. Malone for sending me here. I have recently embarked on the Happiness Project book by Gretchen Ruben so this post was very timely for me. I’m focusing on being happier in the life I am currently living and not trying to make my life into something else. Not all of us can escape, travel or leave our responsibilities. So it can seem more difficult to change your current situation. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Well, I know who you are and I’m mega-flattered you found my little piece of the internet. Thank you for taking a minute to check it out.

      The Happiness Project. That sounds like a worthy read. So, thank you also for sharing that.

      Appreciate your time, Daile. Very much.

  11. Awesome post!! Thanks for sharing! Im always so interested in how others see life and what they perceive happiness to be- what it consists of. Great read 🙂


    1. Hi Anastasia. Thank you so much for taking a minute to check it out.

      I think this is an extraordinarily important topic that people don’t think about enough. I’m so glad you liked it.

  12. I like to live a life of gratitude. Starting each day by saying thanks and then saying it all day long, by choosing to be happy, by faking the smile when I need to – because my body can’t tell when the smile is fake and it helps release the happy chemicals! Living with intent and purpose and gratitude is amazing and I love that you are stating your intentions to live a life of being happy!

  13. There is a saying, “if you need more stuff/things in your life, try giving some away”
    Giving to goodwill/ the salvos is so gratifying. And I’m not talking money. Just things that you don’t use. You would be surprised how good you feel once you get rid of junk cluttering your life. Simple but effective. 🙂
    Good luck in finding happiness. It’s a hard journey at times but as a happy person myself, being grateful for everything you have is the first step. 🙂

  14. Wonderful post Matt. Healthy dopamine levels are definitely a big key but I believe intention underpins that as well. I find making meaningful connections, even in the smallest way, and allowing the love inside me to touch me first before funneling it outwards…

  15. I first heard about the Happiness Project on a documentary with Michael J Fox who travelled to Bhutan to study it up close. They really know what’s what over there. We are so far behind!

    1. It’s disappointing, isn’t it? That’s cook that you know about this. Such a neat place, that must be.

      1. I think it’s safe to say the more we own, the less we have. A simpler life is the first step to greater happiness. I know this from viewing things from the opposite less happy end: so, from the people of Bhutan, let me present to you the people of New York City! 🙂

  16. Matt, I work in a very grumpy industry where I meet unhappy people every day all day long. I am convinced happiness is absolutely a choice, but also a learned behavior. There are some people in this world that have burned a really deep “unhappy” groove in their brain and don’t know how else to exist. No matter what happens, they are going to be generally unhappy. Oh sure, they can jump out of the groove and act happy from time to time, but quickly fall back into their unhappy selves. They have learned how to live like this.

    You and I are cut from the same cloth. I am a happy dude for the most part. I could chose to be shitty. I could chose unhappiness. But I don’t. Frankly, it sounds tiring.

    I don’t live in the real Bhutan, but I sorta have my own little mini Bhutan going on. It works.

    Cool post. Fun discussion.

    Are you ever going to write a crappy post?

    1. I wrote about popping once!

      You seriously like every post? C’mon. I bet you think something sucks. It’s okay to say so!

      One key takeaway from that documentary was the fact that our genetic makeup is, as a percentage, the largest influencer on our ability to experience feelings of happiness.

      So I want to give people the benefit of the doubt. But yes. Generally? We’ve created a culture (in the US) where it’s all about accumulating as many resources as possible. And very few of them have any sustainable value.

      And I just can’t figure out why it took me so long to ask the question: Why do I want to spend what precious little time I have on this planet, trying to grab, grab, grab as much as I can before dying totally unfulfilled and regretful?

      I don’t want to live that way. I hope other people will make the same choice.

  17. Ugh, I wrote this really long reply and it all got lost. I am unhappy. 😉 Okay, so let me see if my feeble mind can recall what I had said – – I too watched this documentary a few months back and internalized the deep meaningful feelings it brought to me for several weeks but then a funny thing began to happen. It all slowly dissipated and I was once again immersed fully in the “Keep Up With The Jones” world of rat race.

    WILL IT EVER BE ENOUGH? I THINK NOT! (Until we get off the hamster wheel!)

    I used to think that peer pressure was only something we experienced in high school but I now know that the company we surround ourselves with has a great impact on our needs, particularly our need for approval, belonging and/or blending in. Maybe some people can have these kinds of friends (the ones who prioritize flash over substance) and still stand strong and march to the beat of their own drum, but I’m not there yet. I cave in to the common denominator around me.

    Therefore as I turn a new number (in 9 days, I will be 50!) my plan is to surround myself with the kind of individuals who are trying to pursue the same path I am, which means we’ll be taking the same word “meaning” but changing the last syllable to “ful” instead of “less.” Meaningless to Meaningful.

    Remind me Matt – – did this Happy documentary delve into any statistics on people who had lots of money but donated it to others to help them meet their own basic needs? Did that up their Happiness quotient at all?

    Well, I think that’s all I had written. But strangely, the comment box was a lot larger last time, (before I hit some stupid key or button) and filled with far more wisdom, I suspect. Still, I believe I have enough words in this space to meet my (and hopefully your?) basic needs of happiness. 😉

    1. If you have lots of money, I would beg you not to give all of it away to other people. Hard to do good in this world without resources.

      And it’s hard to have fun (important!) when you can’t afford to do anything.

      I think 15% is the right number for charitable giving. And, no, the documentary doesn’t specifically cover giving money away, but it did measure brain activity and dopamine levels in people who practiced gratitude and performing acts of kindness.

      As you can guess, the generous, unselfish, loving people were the happiest.

      Happy almost-birthday, Stephanie!

  18. Bhutan is the only country I have ever “liked” on my FB page. =) I read a fascinating book a few years ago by a journalist who was looking for the happiest country on Earth and he went to several different ones including Bhutan. One thing that has always stayed with me was he was interviewing the president of Bhutan and at some point in the interview there was a mosquito and without even commenting the president got up and sort of shooed it out the window, whereas the response from most of us non Bhutanians would have just been to whack it out of existence. That kind of fundamental respect for all life seems so wonderful to me. I remember thinking “I want to go there- at least for a visit!” What a unique and happy place it does seem to be. Can’t wait to watch the documentary. Great post!

    1. Thank you, K. I don’t share their affinity for Mosquitoes. But. The point about respecting life is not lost on me.

  19. I have thought about these issues for a long time and you address them well. You mention how chasing amounts over $50,000 does not buy us extra happiness. However, can we be happy earning under that? I have watched the movie ‘the pursuit of happiness’ many times trying to find the answer to that question. The character Will Smith plays obviously had good values (care for his son etc) when he was poor, but was he happy? That exhilaration when he moved out of the soup kitchens into what he called ‘happiness’ right at the end of the film (when he secured a well-paid job) cannot be dis-credited, although maybe it was the increase in his self-esteem rather than the money that gave him the happiness. So I see there are two sides to this, and even though people try and say ‘money is not important’, we still need an income level to provide for our basic or comfortable needs.

    1. I totally agree.

      I want to make 10 times more than I do now.

      And I’ll probably never get there.

      But if I do?

      I now know it’s not going to be the difference between whether I’m happy or not.

      I’m not going to stop trying to make more money.

      But it’s never going to be my No. 1 goal ever again.

      Every time I’ve successfully met my financial goals? I wasn’t happier. Not even one time.

    1. Thank you so much for taking a minute to read and sharing your story with us. Please have a good weekend!

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