Do you know what *actually* makes you happy?

I asked myself what made me happiest every single day for the past 200 days and I learned that I have no idea what actually makes me happy.

What makes you happy? It seems like such a straightforward question. So straightforward that we don’t really put much thought into it. Because the answer is obvious right? Well, at least for me, the answer is not obvious at all. And the question definitely deserves more thought.

But first, here’s a little background on why I’m even thinking about this question in the first place. 203 days ago, I embarked on a challenge to answer 11 (now 12) questions every single day. I wanted to reflect on my days so that I could better learn from them. The flagship question and what I thought would be the most pivotal for my experience is “What is one thing that I learned today?” However, almost ⅔ of the way into this challenge I’m realizing that it’s impact on me is much more nuanced. Questions about gratitude, presence, and excuses have forced me to face things I was avoiding and consequently sped up my personal growth. And for a while, I glossed over questions like, “What made me happiest today?”. To be honest, I don’t even remember my original reason for including this question in the set in the first place. Since I collected questions long before I ever began this challenge, I must have had some reason in mind.

Even after explicitly asking myself what makes me happiest day after day, I never thought about what connections, patterns, or revelations might exist in those answers. In fact, it was only this past month that I even noticed anything off balance in the first place. When I say off balance I simply mean that my answers to the question were almost never what I would say if you asked me what makes me happiest.

I want to do a full (and completely unscientific) analysis on all 365 of my answers when the challenge ends so I’ll leave the details out for now. Instead, I want to focus on the broader picture of what it might mean that we don’t know what makes us happy. Or maybe you all do and I’m just the crazy one. But something makes me think that we all just think we know what makes us happy, but if we had to sit down and make a list and test out whether those things actually made us happiest, we might find some surprising results.

Indulge me. Say I’m right. Say we don’t know what makes us happy. What does this mean? Well for starters, I would argue that our society doesn’t have a culture around discussing things that make us happy. I’m not saying it’s banned, or even frowned upon; it just doesn’t really happen. Even though I distinctly recall some “rebellious” kids citing happy as what they wanted to be when they grew up, no one ever drilled in and asked them what that meant.

I used to think that having complete control of my time was the definition of happiness. No meetings. No obligations. Nothing except what I wanted to do. But then on the rare weekends when I actually had a completely free schedule, I found myself bored. And often shockingly, way less happy than I had been during the week when I was super busy. Growing up, the whole time I was in school, I felt this way. The entire week I was running around super busy between school and the five million extracurriculars I was forced into. All I wanted was free time. But every single weekend without fail, I would find myself bored and unsure how to entertain myself. Of course, there were fun times hanging out with my friends or reading a book but I also remember the absolutely ridiculous amount of time I spent being bored.

I think this repeated sense of boredom was directly tied to not knowing what makes me happy. The more I learn the more I am able to direct my free time towards things that actually make me happy. So back to the point. What makes me happy?

It turns out that what makes me happiest is frequently hanging out and having real conversations with my friends. You might be thinking ok grace I know that humans are social beings but that’s just not true for me I’m an introvert. But I thought the exact same thing. I was never the type of person to have a lot of friends, instead favoring very few but very close friends. And while I always had these important people in my life, I never realized how big of a role they play in my happiness. And it’s funny because when we’re feeling blue, it’s often hard to pin it down to one exact cause. But the more I learn about myself, the more I realize that I do have control and it is somewhat systematic. If I go too many days without seeing anyone, my mood will start dipping day-to-day but I won’t notice any specific reason until maybe a week later when I look back on my answers. But before I was doing this challenge, I had literally no way of noticing such things. Another big one is sleep. Sleep makes me SO happy. And I feel like this is something that everyone realizes as they get older, but staying up super late for literally no reason is not cool. Sleep is cool. Because you know what happens when you’re well rested? This totally ridiculous thing where you actually feel good. And when you feel good you tend to be pretty happy. Crazy right?

The other weird thing that makes me happy is working hard. I used to think working was something we had to do to make a living and we all just try to make the best of it. It was a huge mental shock when I discovered that I actually like working. One of my favorite quotes from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is, “…when men are employ’d , they are best content’d; for on the days they worked they were good natur’d and cheerful, and, with good consciousness of having done a good day’s work, they spent the evening jollily; but on our idle days they were mutinous and quarrelsome…”. I swear I literally never thought that work could ever be enjoyable until I read this quote. And that’s when I realized that on the days that I am the happiest, I am usually really productive. Because I like working? And to think, this whole time I thought I was lazy. That being said there are definitely some things that I like to work on more than other things, but either way getting things done and crossing them off my to-do list feels good.

Ok so what else did I not expect to see over and over again on my list of what makes me happiest? Being uncomfortable. Now at first glance this might not make sense, how can being uncomfortable be enjoyable. And I’ll give you that it’s maybe not the most pleasant feeling the whole time, especially at the decision point where I actually push myself to do whatever it is that scares me. But then actually doing it? Amazing. One of the biggest things I learned from living abroad for a semester was that I need to make myself uncomfortable more often. Because back at college in the US, I was SO comfortable without even realizing it.

Another thing that shocked me was how ridiculously happy my routines make me. Before I started this 365 day challenge I was prone to falling out of my habits as soon as I got, well, bored of them. I knew they were good for me and that I should do them, but I just couldn’t stick to them after a certain point. But then suddenly, after way too much reflection, I realized that doing them makes me happy. When I have the time, I now indulge in a super long morning routine. I used to try to rush through it as fast as possible, eager to start my “real” day. Until I realized that my routine is part of my day. In fact, it contains so many things that make me happy and that I love. And as soon as I realized that I actually enjoy the act of doing my routine, it became so much easier to do it every day. Like almost effortless. Even flossing yes.

The last big thing that I learned was that being present makes me happy. Similar to morning routines, we all know that there are many logical reasons that we should be present. But for some reason, or maybe this is just my brain, but logic isn’t always that convincing. As soon as I realized that I actually enjoy my days more when I’m not distracted, it became so much easier to get off my phone and stay present. That being said, I’m still very distracted at times, but as soon as I notice, it’s easier to guide my mind back to the present knowing that I will feel better upon doing so. In high school, whenever I was bored in class I would scroll through Pinterest. I thought this was “fun” and what I wanted to do and better than just sitting in class. But now I’m realizing that all of this mindlessness plaguing my high school and most of my college experience was the root cause of so much perceived unhappiness. So even if I’m just in meetings or at the DMV, being present helps me feel so much happier.

After noticing all of these trends in what actually makes me happy, I was hit with the real banger. That I could do all of these things every single day if I set my mind to it. There was no reason that I couldn’t set up every single day for happiness. I don’t know why I never thought of this before, but I was dumbfounded. I could wake up every single day, do my morning routine, work hard, do something uncomfortable, and hang out with my friends all the while staying present. This realization was a game-changer. It further reinforced my desire to live in day-tight compartments, in the present moment, happy. Because being happy really can be an everyday thing. We don’t have to wait around for it.