What Is the Secret to Living a Happy Life?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" by Dale Carnegie. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is happiness a feasible goal to pursue? What are some ways to cultivate happiness and bring more joy into your life?

Happiness may seem like an overly ambitious and rather vague goal to strive for. And although the feeling of intense happiness is indeed transient and fleeting, it’s possible to cultivate and maintain a generally happy mindset with these rules of happiness.

Dale Carnegie’s seven rules of happiness will help you rediscover the joys of life you may have forgotten.

7 Rules for a Happier Mindset 

The happier your everyday mindset is, the harder it will be for worry to take over as your primary emotion and the more easily you’ll gloss over small problems and irritations that could otherwise build into stressful issues. In his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie describes seven rules of happiness.

Rule #1: Attitude Is Everything

Attitude is much stronger than we often give it credit for—in fact, it’s strong enough to not only control your mental perceptions but also warp your physical perceptions. 

  • A psychiatric study found that hypnotizing men and telling them that they were very weak reduced their grip strength by 72 pounds, and telling them that they were very strong increased their grip strength by 41 pounds.

It’s important to be aware of your attitude’s power to control how you perceive the world around you because many of your problems and worries don’t stem from your actual circumstances—they stem from your perception of your circumstances. 

  • For example, Carnegie tells the story of a young man who was living a miserable life in Minnesota—he was constantly unhappy about his salary, his looks, his relationship, and his social life. He ran away to Florida, assuming that starting over in a new life would fix everything. But he discovered that he was just as miserable in Florida—the problem wasn’t his life in Minnesota, it was his attitude toward it. He went back to Minnesota with the intent to have a more positive attitude toward his life and went on to live a very happy life. 

Even if you’re aware of the importance of approaching problems with a positive attitude, it’s much harder to practice in reality. If you’re in a tough situation, you most likely won’t immediately and fully believe yourself when you say, “I’m happy with the way things have turned out.” However, even if you can’t fully control your thoughts and beliefs, you can control your actions relatively easily. This is important because how you act has a strong bearing on how you feel. Taking actions to improve your attitude toward a problem is called concern—the opposite approach to worry

  • Worry is emotionally reactive fretting and confusion around an unclear problem. You don’t try to make your attitude better in any way—you give into circling through “what ifs” and catastrophizing. 
  • Concern looks like the process of worry analysis. You understand the situation and work through it rationally and calmly. You think of the actions you could take to make your situation clearer and make yourself feel better about it. 

And, adopting a more positive attitude will help eliminate the stress and worry of others from your life. When you’re negative and anxious, you naturally draw out the negativity and anxiety of others. On the other hand, when you’re positive and hopeful, you draw out others’ most positive and hopeful sides. 

Shortform Example: Jaw Surgery

Imagine you’ve recently found out you need jaw surgery, and your jaw will be wired shut for several months during the healing process. 

  • Person A worries about the surgery–she worries about how she’ll communicate with people, what she’ll eat, possible surgical complications, and her recovery. She spends a lot of time thinking over possible problems and talking to her friends and family about them—making them anxious on her behalf. 
  • Patient B concerns herself with the surgery. She purchases a notepad in case she can’t make herself understood, reads online forums with information from other patients who have gone through the same experience, and looks forward to collecting smoothie recipes so she can eat something she enjoys. She reaches out to friends and family, inviting them over so she’ll have company during the recovery. 

By approaching a stressful surgery with a good attitude, Patient B has ensured not only that she’s informed about the experience of surgery and recovery, but also that she’s preemptively solved her communication problem and set up treats to look forward to, such as smoothie testing and visits from friends. 

Rule #2: Don’t Try to Get Even

Holding grudges and keeping enemies has tempted everyone at some point in their lives. But keeping someone as an enemy doesn’t harm them nearly as much as it harms you. Grudge-holding can clutter your mind, deteriorate your physical health with effects such as high blood pressure and insomnia, and interrupt your happiness if you feel that you can’t be happy while your enemy is also happy. 

Keep in mind that people can only worry or bother you as much as you allow them to. Stop holding grudges, and you automatically take away others’ power to occupy your thoughts or rule your emotions. There are three ways to combat your temptation to hold a grudge.

1) Forgive and Forget

The best way to keep moving forward without wasting mental energy on someone you dislike is to forgive them as soon as you can for what they did and simply refuse to think about it. If they’ve taught you a valuable lesson, take your forgiveness a courageous step further by thanking them

  • For example, Carnegie tells the story of a man who applied for a job as a correspondent in Sweden—he was fluent in Swedish, but not a native speaker. He received a very rude letter in response that not only rejected him for the job but also insulted his language skills. He was tempted to respond with an equally rude letter but realized that his critic, a native speaker, might be correct about his Swedish skills. He decided to send a letter of thanks, as the rejection set him on a path to improvement. Impressed by his humble response, his critic invited him for an interview and gave him a job.

2) Distract Yourself With a Bigger Cause

When you’re deeply involved in a cause you’re passionate about, it’s easier to ignore insults. If you feel like giving in to feelings of anger, push yourself further into your cause and commit to proving your critics wrong.  

  • Imagine you’re a teacher who’s passionate about creating teaching methods that make lessons fun and exciting. Some of your more traditional colleagues openly insult your methods, calling them a waste of time and suggesting that your students aren’t learning effectively. Instead of feeling angry or resentful about their insults, immerse yourself in your teaching vision. Their words won’t matter when you’re busy improving your methods, tracking and celebrating growth, and proving that your system works. 

3) Put Yourself in Their Shoes 

We often fall victim to the fundamental attribution error—that is, we blame others’ shortcomings or negative actions on their character, but when we fall short or behave badly, we take into account the circumstances that caused it to happen. 

  • For example, if you saw someone speeding on the highway, you’d think they’re a reckless driver. But if you were speeding on the highway, you’d justify your actions: “I’m late for an important meeting. I have to drive fast.” 

If you’d been raised in the very same environment as the person you’re holding a grudge against and were put in the same situation as them, you’d likely have acted exactly as they did. Attribute their wrongdoing to circumstance, not their character, and leave it behind you—as you’d hope they’d do for you. 

Rule #3: Expect Lack of Gratitude 

Gratitude is a cultivated practice—ingratitude is human nature. Expecting natural gratitude from others will only lead to frequent disappointment or resentment on your part. Demanding gratitude is also unfulfilling because the demand makes it into an obligation—the delivery feels insincere. It’s better to expect no gratitude at all and be delighted when you do receive it. Focus instead on the joy of giving without expecting anything in return, and expressing gratitude yourself. 

  • You might celebrate Christmas by anonymously donating toys to children whose parents can’t afford presents. 
  • You might send your friends handwritten notes every time they do you a favor, like taking you out for lunch or helping you with child care.

Besides making you and the people around you happier, your consistent and earnest expressions of gratitude will naturally cultivate a stronger sense of gratitude in others and show them how to meaningfully express it. Regular demonstrations of gratitude are especially important for parents to perform—by doing so, you raise grateful children. 

  • For example, if you receive an ugly vase, don’t let your children overhear you talking about how awful it is. Instead, say, “Look at this vase Kate gave us! She knows how much we love to pick flowers in the spring. Let’s write her a thank you note together.”

Rule #4: Count Your Blessings

If you take time to reflect on the ratio of good to bad in your life, you’ll likely find that the good far outweighs the bad. Unfortunately, we often waste what we do have by pining for the things we don’t have. Consciously attribute more of your mental energy to the good aspects of your life than the bad. Some blessings you can reflect on include:

  • The way your body functions. Are you able to see and hear? Are you able to walk?
  • Small joys in your life such as having your favorite coffee in the morning, or feeling the sun on your face. 
  • The people in your life. Your ability to spend time with them isn’t infinite—reflect on how much of a blessing it is to be with them now. 

Rule #5: Find—and Act Like—Yourself

One of the easiest ways to make yourself anxious and unhappy is to reject who you are and strive to be someone different. It’s natural to wish that you had the same looks, skills, or abilities as others—but this is a waste of time. Instead, focus on the extraordinary fact that you are the only version of yourself in the world. 

Instead of trying to become an imitation of others, put your time and energy toward finding who you are—your skills, your passions, and so on—and developing your positive aspects. 

  • For example, instead of wasting your time wishing that you were more outgoing and outdoorsy, you might embrace your introverted, homebody tendencies and discover that you have a natural knack designing cozy, stylish indoor spaces.

Rule #6: When Life Hands You Lemons, Make Lemonade

The difference between wisdom and foolishness is the way you react to setbacks or disappointments.

  • Foolishness reacts to the setback by immediately giving up, accepting defeat, and wallowing in worry and self-pity. 
  • Wisdom approaches a setback as an opportunity for learning and growth. A wise person asks themselves: What can I learn from this situation? How can I improve the situation? Is there something positive to be gained here?

Happiness doesn’t come only from comfort and pleasure. It can also come from the sense of achievement you feel after overcoming adversity—in this way, setbacks can contribute to happiness if you react to them wisely.

  • For example, Carnegie met a farmer who moved to a plot of land with poor soil that prevented anything from growing in it. Furthermore, his land was overrun by rattlesnakes. Instead of giving up on the farm, the man decided to find a way to use this setback to his advantage and improve his situation. He started canning rattlesnake meat, opened a rattlesnake farm that became a hot tourist destination, and sold rattlesnake venom to laboratories all over the country. Not only did he get the satisfaction of success, but also the satisfaction of completely turning around a near-impossible situation. 

Trying to turn a setback into a positive experience can be overwhelming or discouraging. It’s difficult to look at everything going poorly and envision how it might turn out well. When facing the task of turning a setback to your advantage, keep two thoughts in mind:

  1. You might succeed. Simply by trying, you give yourself a chance. 
  2. Even if you don’t succeed, this exercise is a great opportunity to stimulate your thinking and expand your imagination. Trying to make a negative into a positive pushes you to think in completely new, progressive, and creative ways. 

Rule #7: Find Ways to Do Good for Others 

Break through self-centered worry and self-pity by committing to doing at least one good deed for someone else every day. When you’re thinking of others and connecting with them, you’re naturally distracted from thinking about yourself and your worries. And interpersonal connections engage you more deeply with your life, preventing you from feeling anxious, restless, and bored.  

There are opportunities to connect with and be kind toward others all around you every day. Everyone you encounter—the cashier at Starbucks, the mail carrier at work, your doorman, and so on—would love to connect with someone else. Simply ask them how they’re doing and how their day is going. 

  • Another advantage of this practice is that, in addition to distracting yourself from your worries, you can make new friends and hear interesting stories. 

Recall that you can change your attitude with your actions. When you focus on being positive toward others and treating them as well as you can, some of your outward positivity naturally turns inward. 

Dale Carnegie: 7 Rules of Happiness

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Here's what you'll find in our full How to Stop Worrying and Start Living summary :

  • What worry is and how it manifests both physically and mentally
  • How to deal with worry about work, finances, and criticism
  • How to cultivate a less worried mindset

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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