The Six Course Meal of Happiness

Start with a provocative title.  And mention food to get attention.

The subject is happiness. Is there a recipe for it? Probably, but this isn’t about cooking up a batch of it. Happiness is one of the most studied human conditions, but what is it?  I pulled up a variety of TED Talks because there are a ton of great ideas and perspectives about happiness. So, why write about this? Aside from love, it’s the most desired emotional state, and perhaps the most temperament emotion.

I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve counseled a lot of people who didn’t seem to be happy.  Happiness is a slippery thing in the sense it is hard to describe it, and each person interprets what it is differently.  There are 7.7 billion people on this planet and each one views happiness somewhat uniquely based on their own life and what is important to them.

Experts tend to agree that happiness is not something you have to pursue or chase down.  Happiness is also a state of mind, not a thing.  It is not a vacation or a sports car or a new set of boobs.

When someone asks if you are happy, how do you answer? Yes, no, sometimes, mostly, on alternate days of the week?   I don’t like being asked the question because it is rarely a one-word answer.  Life is very complicated.  If someone is happy, they generally want to tell you what’s going on.  If someone is unhappy, usually they need to talk about what’s not going well.

The person who thinks that winning the lottery will solve all of their problems is sadly mistaken.  There are studies of lottery winners and they don’t end up happier than the general population.

What does makes a happy life? If happiness is in your head, what makes it so?  Your brain computes a mass of data and provides your body with a happiness report.  What are the inputs that make up the data read by your brain?  Some are obvious, others not so much, but all represent ingredients in our overall feeling of happiness.  Are the ingredients the same for everyone even though we value different things?  Without making the list a city block long, I’ve condensed what I believe are the most critical “needs” and listed it as a formula, even though it is really not meant to be.

Purpose + Love + Health + Needs Met + Safety + Respect = Happiness

Each of these six ingredients don’t have to be the same size or have the same level of priority, but I pail-b-across.pngbelieve a person needs them all. Imagine that these items are buckets (buckets are always the “go to” example), they can be different sized buckets, and some of them leak.  The work is in refilling the buckets to reach the level you need, and keeping it filled.  It is not quite like keeping a bunch of plates spinning on sticks, but it does require some effort. To have all six ingredients in the needed portions makes one splendid meal.

Here is my take on what we need for happiness.


Why are you here? Purpose drives a person to get out of bed every day. Some people Figure-21-Maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-Whats-Your-Motivation-Maslows-Hierarchy-of-minthrive on challenge more than others, but we all need and benefit from learning and growth. As humans we are driven to survive and to thrive. We want to care for our families and to help others. A part of us also seeks to express ourselves, artistically or in creative skills; and to pursue what defines us and provides satisfaction.

Purpose is directly related to the concept of self actualization, as represented by Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.  According to the hierarchy, self actualization is the top layer of Maslow’s pyramid, which is arranged in layers from the most immediate (bottom) based on priority of basic need.  As I was researching this blog, Maslow’s theories kept popping up in articles and videos. His work is very influential with psychologists, social scientists and management consultants.

After satisfying one’s physical and emotional needs, humans will explore the need to reach their full potential.  Maslow seems to imply that needs are addressed in an order from most basic and physical first, and then others higher on the chart.  I believe that people can be working on self actualization concurrent to physical or other needs.  Maybe if we are hunter/gatherers and we are one step ahead of a predator, self actualization is not our most pressing need.  I would say, our purpose and sense of self is evident in our most basic pursuits, in our relationships and social responsibilities.

If I am a parent, and my job is to get my children to school in a war-torn country, I’m not thinking about realizing my artistic skills, but I am focused on my role in protecting my family and being the most effective provider I can.  I have re-channeled my actualization, but it’s likely I’m very in touch with my purpose and capabilities. Many people have a directed spiritual purpose, a belief in service, a connection to their Creator. For me, this is part of self-actualization, and another reason the one can be at concurrent levels of Maslow’s pyramid.


Pretty self explanatory. Or, maybe it isn’t.  Love comes in many forms, including love of self.  Surprisingly (or not), many people struggle with a healthy perspective of self.  One type of love that is more humanity-based is love of others, a self-sacrificing love for the good of others.  This love is a foundation for many religions, the spiritual relationship with their Creator, and to love thy neighbor as thyself.  Love is having healthy, caring relationships with others.


Being healthy prolongs our life and the quality of our existence. When we are young and vibrant, we often take our health for granted. We more easily recover from illness and when we do unhealthy things. It is easier to maintain our desired weight and to excel at physical activities. Our minds are sharper, it is easier to learn and we seem to retain information. Health also consists of our mental perspective, healthy interactive relationships, managing worry and stress, and having contact with animals and nature.

Does health add to happiness?  Those who enjoy sports and physical activity would likely think so.  Does lack of health take away from happiness? Pain, lack of freedom, the high cost of medical care and prescriptions, and shortened life would tend to support this.

Needs Met

Our basic needs are like food, housing, transportation, communication, decent clothing, insurance and education. This includes having money for health insurance and medical expenses, now and in the future.  My basic needs do not include a yacht, a Porsche or expensive vacations.  I prefer to have money to enhance my life by having retirement savings, and enjoying some recreational and artistic opportunities. I consider it a need to be able to assist others and support causes that improve life. Beyond that, extra money goes for the house or retirement. My hobbies and interests are not expensive. I could live a lot more affluent with more money but it wouldn’t provide greater meaning, unless I used the money to help change the lives of others.

Studies show that having a lot of excess money does not increase the sense of happiness.  People who have their basic needs met, and those with a lot of money have the same level of happiness.  Strange, but true.


Reducing the hazards and dangers in your life is related to happiness. I don’t live in a war zone but millions do. My water and food are generally safe to drink and consume. I do not smoke or engage in unhealthy activities. The area I live in is low in crime. Many are trapped in dangerous areas or with people who engage in dangerous lifestyles. I want to be able to safely drive my car down the road without aggressive and threatening drivers. I want to go into a mall or place of worship without fear of being gunned down. It doesn’t matter what country you live in, parents worry about the safety of their children.  Imagine if I had to escape violence or starvation by immigrating to another country.  All parents want their children to grow up free and have opportunities to better themselves.  Safety frees me from worry and fear. That’s worth something.


Respect is how we view ourselves and how others behave towards us. We all want respect and human dignity. That should be a right. We do not want to be discriminated against because of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability or national origin. Many of us take for granted what others fight to have, that’s why it is on the list.  We live in a very divisive time, we label each other and every interaction can feel like a grudge match. Respect is how we treat one another, and it matters.

Respect may be related to belonging and self esteem from Maslow’s hierarchy. Feeling respected and accepted allows us to express ourselves, pursue our ambitions, and strive toward self actualization.  Live without respect and see how that feels.


Outgoing Mail 

Each life needs varying quantities of these ingredients for happiness. Can you sacrifice one ingredient and still be happy?  Happiness is not an all or nothing circumstance. I may be lacking in one of these factors but I can have a bigger bucket of something else, if that ranks as a greater need.  For example, my health may be suffering but my family circumstances are the most important to me, and they are very strong, so I’m very content with my life. Or, I struggle to have enough resources to live comfortably but my health is very solid and emotionally I am quite satisfied.  Or, I don’t have a significant other in my life but I have amazing friends, awesome hobbies and I have fewer other needs.

Your happiness and mine do not have to be same. I might need more of one thing than you because it is more critical to what I feel is important to my life.  And that need may change over time.  Life happens, and what we need, and how much of it we need, can change.  Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, “If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.”  True enough.

Happiness may involve keeping your buckets in balance, keeping them filled, and right-sizing them in the first place.

One of the videos I watched criticized the notion that happiness was about accepting what you have (another happiness theory) and not worrying about what you don’t have.  Accepting your place in life and circumstances is not always the best solution, because it does not account for change or being able to attain what you don’t have, but need.  We grow, we gain, we shed, and we re-prioritize.  Accepting what you have can be subject to change.

hqdefaultIs it important to understand our own degree of happiness? Maybe not.  However, to understand might provide an opportunity to do something positive with what we learn.  And to re-balance your buckets.

Imagine Samuel L. Jackson asking, “Hey, motherf***er, what’s in your bucket?”  Bon appétit!

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