5 Secrets for a Happy Life
What is the key to successful living? Here, 5 secrets for leading a full and meaningful life
Studies have found that a person’s outlook on life may not only improve longevity but quality of life. Optimists, in fact, are said to experience a higher level of both physical and mental functioning than their pessimist counterparts. And people who perceive themselves to be happy are less likely to become ill, researchers say.
So what is the key to successful living? Author John Izzo set out to answer that very question in his book The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die.
Named the best self-help book of 2008 by the Independent Publisher’s Association, it is based on a five-hour Biography Channel TV series in which Dr. Izzo interviewed 230 people from age 60-106 asking them to reflect back on what they had learned about life.
Interviewees ranged from a town barber to CEOs, from aboriginal chiefs to Holocaust survivors. All were considered by others to be ‘wise elder’ and to have something important to teach about how to live well and be happy. Among them, Dr. Izzo says, they represent over 18,000 years of life experience.
We asked Dr. Izzo about what he learned from his research. In other words, what must we discover about life before we die?
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5 secrets to lasting happiness
Q. Good advice to be sure, but life can be terribly busy. With so many voices, expectations and responsibilities crowding our daily lives, how to know if we’re following our heart?
A. It’s true we all have this unelected board of directors that we carry around with us: the voice of our parents, society, and others telling us what it means to be successful. But many of the people I interviewed said that each one of us has an inner voice inside of us that is reliable but that we have to create space to hear it.
One of the simplest ways to hear the inner voice is to build reflection into your life and ask three simple questions: Did the last week or month of my life feel like how I want to be living my life? Am I doing what I really want to do with my life — have I heeded my calling? Is this who I really am?
Q. What if our financial or other responsibilities put up a roadblock for making the changes we want?
A. This is an important question because many people say that they should have done something else with their life but felt trapped. My book is filled with examples of people who did not let that get in the way. What I say is start small — maybe you can’t just turn your whole life over but you can integrate some of the things that you want into your life. Sometimes even doing some of what is most true to you fills the soul. Don’t let the perfect get in the way.
Q. I think this resonates with many of us who are looking for more meaning in our personal lives and careers. Yet to move beyond the familiar requires a fair amount of courage. How to overcome the ingrained fear of failing — or of making a huge mistake?
A. One of the most striking things about these interviews is that so few people regretted their failures. What they regretted was not having tried or having left a dream in the closet. Leaving no regrets is not possible, but knowing that you pursued your life as far as you could is possible.
It’s about dancing even though you fear looking silly, writing a book even if you aren’t sure anyone will publish it; it’s about loving even if you have been hurt, and living as if you’ve only got one shot at it.
A woman in her 70s told me that whenever she had a step she was afraid of taking she would imagine the worst that could happen and ask herself if she could handle it. Then she’d imagine the best that could happen if she took the step. After she made the decision, she would focus only on the best that could happen. Most of us do the opposite — we think briefly about the best thing that could happen and obsess about the worst thing. The principle is simple: You don’t want your last words to be “I wish I had.”
Q. I was inspired by how the focus of this secret is not on receiving, but giving love, and in fact “becoming love”.
A. Yes, many people told me the secret to happiness is not to get love but to be a loving person, which they said is a choice. They told me to love fully, forgive even when it’s hard, make people a priority, and that when you choose to love it comes back to you in the form of happiness. We live in a society where we are always told the secret is to have others love or admire you but these people kept telling me it’s the other way around.
Q. Did any of your interviewees speak of ways to handle loss and love’s disappointments or hurts?
A. Yes, we are afraid to love and be vulnerable. A woman in her sixties told me her biggest regret was that she went through a divorce when she was in her 40s and never opened up to love again. I wish there was a simple formula, but what I can tell you is that those who opened up and took the chance did not regret it. Those who held back wished they had opened up. They also talked to me about anger and forgiveness. Many people said that they wished they had let hurts go and they wished they had not gotten angry with someone they loved over things that did not really matter.
Q. For people who are either living in the past – remembering the ‘good ole days’ or regretting a mistake — or the future (“I’ll be happy as soon as…”), what is your best advice for embracing the moment and learning how to be happy with what you have, in the here and now?
A. You hit the nail on the head. What these people told me is you can’t change the past so be gentle with yourself. It’s only a mistake if you keep doing it. They said happiness is not out there in anything you don’t have right now — not in an accomplishment, or a person, or on the weekend.
There are some simple ways to train your mind to be in the moment and to cultivate contentment. The first step is to practice gratitude. Start and end your day going over what you are grateful for. Then train your mind to be in the moment. Whenever you find yourself worrying about the future, gently bring yourself back to the present moment. Whenever you find yourself thinking, “I will be happy when…” tell yourself, “I can choose happiness now.” In the book, there is an entire section on how to do this.
Q. Most of us know how gratifying it can be — at times surprisingly so — to be of service to others, even in the smallest way. Yet we seem to get locked into our daily routines, tasks and to-do lists. What is your best advice on changing habits?
A. To change habits is the hardest part for many people. We may know all these secrets, but we don’t know how to live them. A man in his seventies told me, “It’s not enough to know. When you know you have to go.” That’s why I spent an entire chapter on how to live the secrets.
My simplest suggestion is to take a small wallet/pocket sized card and write down on it what you most want to keep in your awareness—such as live in the moment, be a giver, be true to self, or whatever most calls to you. Carry that card around with you wherever you go for 3-4 months. Our research shows that if you carry a card with you, the mind shifts you in that direction moment to moment.
Dr. John Izzo is the best-selling author of four books including The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die and Second Innocence. He hosted a five-hour Biography and PBS special on The Five Secrets. He has spoken to over one million people on creating successful lives and socially responsible companies.