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Can We Really Make Ourselves Happy? Try These Ideas

Happiness isn't a static condition. It's an active commitment.

Key points

  • Happiness is less a gift of temperament or circumstance than it is an ongoing commitment to the character of one’s life.
  • Four patterns of such commitment are play, work, communion, and ritual. Each supports self-development in its own way.
  • Play and work honor people’s efforts to shape the world in self-chosen ways. Each provides a distinctive sequence of emotions.
  • Communion and ritual celebrate the role of otherness in shaping experience. They provide distinctive emotions and combat despair.

Many years ago—I think I was ten or eleven—I remember being sick to my stomach and throwing up. Shortly thereafter, I started to sing, softly but purposefully.

My mother, ever attendant, heard me and asked why I was doing this. I told her I was trying to feel better.

Not surprisingly, she found this response both amusing and endearing and would remind me of the incident from time to time. Usually, we’d laugh about it together. Still, I never renounced my belief that people should be proactive about their own misery. Even those with a doleful personality like mine can try to feel better.

I often begin these posts with the acknowledgment that many kinds of psychological discomfort exceed the boundaries of self-help. Certain persistent dispositions require professional care. There is a place for drug-based therapies. Always, the love of family and friends is important. I repeat that message here.

Instead, I focus on lower-level and more transient forms of malaise—matters of mood, situational stress, and habits of personality. Can we get the better of our own, sometimes self-abetted, difficulties?

Like my ten-year-old self, I maintain that mood alteration is worth a try. Some readers will remember from school psychology’s “facial feedback” hypothesis, which claims that producing positive facial expressions—like an exaggerated smile—biochemically manufactures an enhanced mood. For a moment or two, “putting on a happy face” or “whistling a happy tune” breaks the spell. So does “keeping oneself busy,” if that means not thinking about the sources of our discontent. Similarly, most of us have told ourselves to “snap out of it” or “pull yourself together.” Historically, these are strategies humans have used; readers may decide if they remain pertinent today.

Whatever the value of the above approach, I explore here more situational, and activity-based, forms of intervention. My argument is that certain behaviors, conducted well, promote distinctive “positive” emotions, that is, forms of self-awareness that both feel good and support our relationship with others. I’m referring here to play, work, communion, and ritual. Each supports personhood in its own way.

Play: The curiosity-fun-exhilaration-gratification sequence

I think most would agree that people play to refresh or recreate themselves. Ideally, play is an opportunity to do what we want, when we want. Tiring of the affair, we quit. In between, we implement self-borne strategies to address a series of challenges. The fun of play comes from seeing how well we can do under these shifting, and often unpredictable, circumstances. Challenges that are too hard generate anxiety; neither do we care for those that are too easy (and thus, boring). But those that are “just right” let us immerse ourselves. Indeed, we commonly forget the world and its troubles.

The emotions of play follow a certain trajectory. There is an anticipation of the game at hand; call this “curiosity.” That means not only the specific challenges to come but how we will fare in them. The event begun, there is a second stage: feelings of exploration I call “fun.” Players inevitably sense that something new is occurring, even if it’s just a new deal of cards or turn at-bat. That fun alternates with feelings of resolution, I call “exhilaration.” This is the sense of being pleasurably completed or spent, finished with one round and ready to begin the next. Finally, there is the pleasure of self-reflection at event’s end. Call this “gratification,” the assessment that we have prosecuted our own desires in the world.

I won’t argue that play is always successful in the above terms—who hasn’t left a game dissatisfied with their performance? But players are ever optimistic, and that counters the despair that sometimes pervades everyday life. Play energizes; players look ahead.

Work: The confidence-interest-satisfaction-pride sequence

People commonly think of work as behavior that is obligatory, protracted, and unpleasant. Remember the “curse” of Adam and Eve in Biblical tradition. Images of demanding bosses, unreasonable rules, and tight schedules come to mind. Rare is the person who enjoys school “homework,” cleaning the toilet, or taking the car for repairs.

Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock
Source: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock

More broadly, however, work is behavior that establishes and maintains clear directions for our lives. Although I am a play scholar, I would never argue that play’s engaging moments are enough to make a fulfilling existence. Indeed, people need longer-term commitments to objectives that have enduring benefits for themselves and their loved ones. Older generations would tell a moping person to “get up and get to work.” Again, the reader may decide if that ascetic spirit remains pertinent.

My interest here is the emotional sequence of work. I believe work, especially when personally chosen and managed, makes us feel better about ourselves. Value the player’s commitment to exploration; honor, too, the worker’s commitment to accomplishment.

Ideally then, doing jobs or tasks reinforces feelings of “confidence,” the belief that we can take on projects with enduring consequences. That confidence helps us take on new, more complicated challenges. So motivated, workers initially experience feelings of intrigue or “interest.” What are the dimensions of the problem at hand? How can we address them? What tools do we need? Those concerns are followed by the feelings of completion we call “satisfaction.” One stage of the job may be over; another beckons. At the event’s end, we survey all that has been done. A successful job makes us feel “pride.”

Doubtless, work varies in its difficulty, importance, and possibilities for self-expression. But “a job well done” is still a source of pride—and a sign of life under control.

Communion: The hope-delight-joy-blessedness sequence

Play and work are behaviors that emphasize the role of the individual in manufacturing their own satisfaction. A different pattern of self-healing is found in communion, where people look to otherness for support. Think of going to a concert, family reunion, or club. Take a walk through a park or sit by a lake. All these activities make plain that there is a great world beyond one’s own concerns—and that this transcending world is a source of some of life’s most important comforts and inspirations.

The motivating disposition of communion is “hope.” We want (but cannot guarantee) our upcoming visit to some destination—perhaps a movie theatre, party, or beach—to be a wonderful affair. Like children at Christmas, we anticipate. Ideally, the feelings that follow are those of “delight,” a series of pleasant surprises regarding that environment, the people we encounter there, and their various offerings. Beyond these excitements are the restorative feelings of “joy,” pauses that allow us to treasure the quality of our relationships. In that light, consider how you feel when you reconnect with a loved one after a long absence or serious illness. Ideally, moments such as these make you acknowledge “blessedness,” the sense that you are fortunate to have others contributing to your life.

Ritual: The faith-enchantment-rapture-reverence sequence

It is one thing to appreciate the realms of order that stand beyond us; it is another to look to them as anchors for our lives and guides for living. That latter quest is the purpose of ritual. Sometimes, those guides are ordinary affairs: cultural practices we acknowledge or personal habits we’ve built over a lifetime. But rituals can also be profound, even sacred endeavors. These ceremonies are frameworks for behavior that allow us to be creative in smaller, focused ways. They give identity solid foundations. They secure our status in social situations and assist our movements in those settings.

The motivating disposition of ritual is trust or “faith.” Belief in established realms of order gives us the confidence to go places and do things. It defines who we are to others. To encounter the power of ritual is, initially, to have a sense of “enchantment,” to feel the power of resources beyond our control. That awareness leads to an experience of “rapture,” of being carried up and away—of having new powers of vision and control. When ritual transports one, perhaps in ways thought impossible before, it reinforces a sense of respect, even reverence. The great patterns of the world are not simply that; they are also foundations of human communication. Those who mourn their disability and isolation should know there are communally shared beliefs and practices that can give them strength.

I would be the first to acknowledge that the idealized benefits of play, work, communion, and ritual I’ve outlined here do not always come to the fore. All four behaviors can manifest themselves as foolish, even dangerous commitments. But in their best forms, they move us from sorrowful preoccupation. Happiness, I believe, is not a static condition. It is a commitment to building worthy relationships with the world. Life’s principal challenge is to be active in ways that honor those connections.


Henricks, T. (2022). Anatomies of Modern Discontent: Visions from the Human Sciences. London and New York: Routledge.

Henricks, T. (2015). Play and the Human Condition. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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