The Core Components of a Happy Life
There are three core components to a coherent life, without which it’s difficult, if not impossible, to achieve happiness. These components are order, affiliation, and meaning. Each of these components is important in its own right, but it’s the combination of the three that determines where you fall on the continuum of coherence.
Imagine living in a land where there were no rules, no laws, no customs, no rituals, no agreed-upon ways of relating to other people, no responsibilities, no expectations, and no consequences for your actions. That would be the land of chaos! Now, imagine how unhappy you would be.
To be happy, there has to be some rhyme or reason to everyday life, which means order. Order not only tells you how to behave and what to expect today, it tells you what tomorrow will be like.
The concept of civilization implies a sense of order. Some cultures operate under the so-called rule of law, which means that citizens learn to behave in certain prescribed ways that have legal consequences. Other cultures operate under the rule of force, which means the citizens live seemingly ordered lives out of fear. In either case, removing those rules inevitably leads to chaos.
How ordered is your life? Are you clear about what your world expects from you today? Can you tell what you’ll be doing tomorrow? Do you have a plan for today that you’ll follow no matter what? How many times during the course of your day do you answer specific questions by saying “I’m not sure,” “We’ll see,” or “It depends”? Is every day of your life a mystery?
If your life is more chaos than order, set down some rules you can live by (Do onto others as you would have them do unto you), be clear what it is you expect from yourself today and tomorrow, and don’t just be satisfied with living “one day at a time” – that sounds good, but it’s not too practical.
Humans are happiest when they are attached to and connected with the lives of others. (The opposite is to be alienated.) Affiliation is a positive thing; alienation is negative. Much of your sense of coherence comes from being a member of a family, a social or civic organization, a workforce, a political party, a religious community, and the like. It gives you a feeling of belonging and shared identity.
Affiliation is a vital part of the definition of who you are and what your life stands for. When someone meets you for the first time and asks, “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m _____. And who are you?”, you answer by saying, “I’m _____. I just moved here from _____. I work at _____,” or, “I’m _____, the host’s brother-in-law,” or “Nice to meet you. I’m _____. I just moved in next door.”
If someone asked you “Who are you?”, what would you say? If you’re not sure, it’s time you started filling in the blanks. Align yourself with some group at work, for example, they guys who play golf on Saturday or the bowling team. Join a volunteer organization where you can feel a part of a group effort – for example, Habitat for Humanity.
Make a concerted effort to reconnect with your family of origin — most likely, they’ll welcome you back with open arms. Organize a small group to eat together every Friday night — something you (and they) can look forward to. The possibilities are endless.
Viktor Frankl’s wonderful book Man’s Search for Meaning (Washington Square Press) makes a cogent argument for how a person can only achieve happiness through a life with purpose. That sense of purpose, he suggests, can come from one of three sources:
Some type of creative or constructive work or deed
Intimate, loving relationships
Rising above some tragic life circumstance (in Frankl’s case, the horrors of life in a German concentration camp)
A life that includes none of these three elements is, according to Frankl, empty and meaningless. And it is a life rife with unhappiness in the form of depression, violence, and addiction.
How have you managed to find meaning in your life? Today is a good day to start creating your meaning in life. Here’s how: Find an activity where you can forget about yourself and focus more on the needs of others — for example, becoming involved in the Big Brother/Big Sister program and doing what you can to enhance the life of a child.
Find an activity that has more to do with your character — compassionate, entertaining — than your profession or career — psychologist, electrician. Think of someone you admire and start doing some of those things they do. Look around for things that everyone agrees should be done, but no one wants to do — and, you be the one to do them.