Some people still think they will attain happiness through achieving goals or obtaining material things, but science suggests this is not the case. Psychologist Stanislava Puač Jovanović explains why happiness is an inside job and shares a three-step plan to develop your inner joy.


Most of us realise that happiness is an inside job on one of two typical occasions. The first is when you get everything you thought you ever wanted... and then you find yourself still unable to find exhilaration in life. The other is when you lose everything you thought you could not do without... and then find out you have to find another way to feel good.


I have experienced both such events, and each time I realised: happiness really is an inside job. After all, I cannot let external circumstances dictate how I will feel all of my life, can I?




This article will explain why happiness comes from within and support this claim with scientific findings. We will also look into techniques and tools that will help you develop the ability to be happy with what you have at any given moment. 


Why happiness is an inside job

Taking the phrase quite literally, there are two components to the claim that happiness is an inside job we need to think about. Firstly, that happiness happens inside of us. Secondly, that is a job — in other words, not something that happens naturally to us, but something we need to work at. Let us explore both elements. 


Inside vs outside

We all recognize that happiness is an internal experience, a feeling that runs through our being. Still, we mostly expect it to come as a result of external circumstances.


Unfortunately, there are many myths surrounding happiness. Sonia Lyubomirsky, a researcher in the field, summarised seven detrimental beliefs we usually hold about the feeling that do us no good. They mostly revolve around a conviction expressed as: “I will be happy when…” (something happens). The “when” is then filled with our individual aspirations – when we find the right partner, have three children, get the perfect job, have a certain amount of money in the bank, live out of our hobbies, travel the world, and so on and so on. 


inside-job-happiness.jpgHappiness is an inside job: showing gratitude helps shutterstock/Anatoliy Karlyuk 


The pursuit, theoretically, may never be completed. To simplify things crudely, this is the reason why in Buddhism, yearning is seen as the cause of suffering. 


I have experienced the manifestation of this truth more than once in my life. 


The latest incident happened recently. I finally realised a goal I had set for myself three years ago – to invest in real estate. It was a modest investment by all means, but it was enough in my mind. I had been working myself to oblivion for three years to gather enough money and buy a property; a small house in the countryside for my daughter and me to enjoy some time in nature every now and then. 


“We seem to overlook that we are in control of how we feel; that happiness is an inside job. We need to dedicate some effort to achieving and preserving happiness.”


I kept promising myself that once I achieved this goal I would take it easy with work and start enjoying my life a bit more. I will be happily relaxed, knowing that we have everything we need. No more sleepless nights and stressful days filled with fatigue. 


And then, I caught myself doing something that made it clear to me that happiness is an inside job. I began thinking about starting (and investing more money into) a glamping business at the property I bought! In translation — I cannot just be satisfied about what I finally had achieved, I needed to do more. I may not be satisfied with where I am. I need to relinquish my right to sleep, leisure — and happiness — until I achieve the next goal. 



So, inevitably, one thing comes to mind. No, I will not be happy with the next thing either. Happiness is an inside job. We choose to be pleased with something or be miserable about this or that. 


If this were not the case, we would see massive differences in happiness based on various external factors such as age, marital and socioeconomic status, education, religion or competencies. But we do not. Even though consistent and assumably causal, the differences revolve between 10% and 15%.




So, there must be some other reason why some people (and nations) are happy regardless of what they have, where and how they live. Indeed, some individuals and cultures seem to know how to maintain peace and contentment regardless of what is happening in their lives and how much they have. 


And the reason? Those people understand that happiness is an inside job. One cannot rely on good luck or attainments to be joyful. We need to do the work inside.


Job vs passivity

A detailed look into 15 nations’ beliefs about happiness revealed that people across the world believe that happiness is fragile. We consider it fleeting. When happy, we feel that this may easily turn into a less favourable state. 


This culture-wide conviction reflects our passivity in the face of emotions. We seem to overlook that we are in control of how we feel, that happiness is an inside job. In other words, we need to dedicate some effort to achieving and preserving happiness. We cannot just wait for something or someone to make us jovial.


But how to do the work? If happiness is an inside job, what are the tools of the trade?


How to become happier with what you already have

Now that we have understood that happiness is an inside job, we need to speak about how to work towards it more. At the basis of every tool I suggest here is one tenet — proactivity. Instinctively, most of us merely go with the flow of events and emotions. Nonetheless, proactive emotion regulation is a key to maintaining resilience in the face of adversities. 


We give you a few techniques to try in order to learn how to enact the “happiness is an inside job” principle in practice. Before we delve into four practical options, we will look into a concept at their core. Happiness is an inside job primarily dependent on learning and re-learning how we perceive others, ourselves, and our prospects in life. In other words, to become happy regardless of what destiny throws on our path, we need to learn to be optimistic.


Nothing speaks of the fact that happiness is an inside job as the concept of learned optimism. It is a notion found in positive psychology postulated by its founding father, Martin Seligman. 


“When we develop gratefulness, our long-term well-being significantly improves, as has been confirmed by scientific research. So, learn to acknowledge the good in your life and keep counting your blessings.”


In essence, learned optimism means acquiring a conviction that we can change our attitudes and behaviours towards life events. And we can decide to have control over how we feel. According to the American Psychological Association’s dictionary, learned optimism is:


an explanatory style that attributes causes for negative events to factors that are external, unstable, and specific: That is, problems are believed to be caused by other people or situational factors, the causes are seen as fleeting in nature, and they are localised to one or a few situations in one’s life.


Nonetheless, Seligman also warns about the perils of extreme and unrealistic optimism. The techniques to develop a healthy (and healing) dose of optimism are:


1. Being grateful for your blessings

Gratefulness means being appreciative of what is valuable and meaningful to yourself. We all have many things to express gratitude for in life on a daily basis. Are you reasonably healthy? Are your loved ones safe? Do you have a roof over your head? Have you already experienced many beautiful moments in your life so far? 


RELATED: The attitude of gratitude – six reasons why it can change your life


And those are merely the basics. Those of us – particularly in the Western world – tend to forget to recognise how blessed and well off we are. Indeed, our natural response is to usually focus on what we do not have, rather than what we do. On the other hand, when we develop gratefulness, our long-term well-being significantly improves, as has been confirmed by scientific research. So, learn to acknowledge the good in your life and keep counting your blessings. 


2. Helping others who are in a greater need than yourself

When you accept the principle that happiness is an inside job, you develop agency. In order to further expand the learned optimism in you, you should think of helping those in need. Volunteering and contributing will be vastly beneficial and make you realise two things:


Helping those in need is a great find inner happiness


Firstly, there are so many people out there who are struggling far more than you, but they keep fighting. This will make it even easier to notice how fortunate you are.


Secondly, it will give you a sense of power to do some good in the world. This feeling will expand into many areas of your life, including your control over your perceptions and emotions. 


3. Challenging and addressing the utility of your negative thoughts and beliefs

We are all heavily burdened by our automatic negative thoughts. We rarely even notice them, but they dictate how we feel about life. So, do the work. Observe your immediate reactions to stressors. Then, challenge them.


If your automatic reaction to failure is a thought: “I’ll never be successful at this”, ask yourself what you gain from thinking that way? How do you feel? And how do you want to feel? Are there no alternative explanations for the situation? Yes, there are. 


RELATED: Changing perspective and gaining happiness


So, start noticing the potential utility of your pessimism and harsh self-criticism (is it a part of you protecting you from disappointment, for example?). Then make a conscious decision to select another way of looking at things. With repetition, your new set of beliefs and mental habits will set in and help you be happier. 


Takeaway: Happiness starts from within

Life is filled with both ups and downs. We will be endowed with fortune and ill luck. We all know this. However, if we are constantly for a godsend to feel good, we might be in for an uphill battle. 


Instead, we have a choice. The choice to think of happiness as an inside job — and do the work. Not just the work of tending to your needs, taking care of yourself physically and psychologically, and building healthy relationships. You need to commit to being proactive about your emotions. The key to finding your bliss lies within you. Take control. Be happy. •

Main image: shutterstock/Daisy Daisy | The fine art of being: learn, practise, share

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Written by Stanislava Puač Jovanović

bert.jpgStanislava Puač Jovanović has a master’s degree in psychology and works as a freelance writer and researcher in this area. Her primary focus is on questions relating to mental health, stress-management, self-development and well-being.




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