Home > Personal & Spiritual Development > Discovering True Happiness – It Takes Work

Discovering True Happiness – It Takes Work

My son wearing Uncle Shelby’s glasses. (c) 2011 Shelby Hurst Photography

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” ~Aristotle

I originally wrote much of this in a reply to an earlier comment from Sharon, but after thinking about this some more, I thought that it would make a good post!

Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants to feel fulfilled, loved, and self confident. However, based on the large number of self-help books/ talk-shows, as well as escalating rates of depression and other mental ailments, people seem to be seeking happiness, but many aren’t finding it. This begs the question, is it possible to be truly happy? Is it possible to truly live a happy and fulfilled life?

I not only believe that it is possible to be truly happy, but I truly believe that our purpose in life is to be happy, and truly enjoy life; however, happiness takes work.

Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”- H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

If you look at the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s work, especially his hierarchy of needs, it seems to be human nature to continually drive towards and seek out a fulfilled (happy) state of being. According to Maslow, once we have our physiological needs (food, water, sleep, etc.) taken care of, we move onto seeking out and securing safety needs (shelter, security, etc.), then we move onto love and belonging (friends, family, sexual intimacy), then esteem (confidence, achievement, respect to and from others), and finally self-actualization (morality, creativity, and even spiritual maturity). Being truly happy requires fulfilling our external AND internal needs. Therefore, we can have all of our external needs met such as physiological and safety needs, yet if the internal needs aren’t met, we will be unhappy. Since most people today have all of their basic external needs met, it appears that most feelings of unhappiness stem from incomplete or unfulfilled internal needs (love and belonging, esteem, and ultimately self-actualization).

The key to fulfilling our internal needs, is to maturely and confidently evaluate our internal needs and desires, and make necessary changes in order to see that they are fulfilled in a positive way. Part of fulfilling our internal needs also involves purging negative influences; however, that can be very difficult to do. For example, it is hard to change or break-off relationships with toxic friends, family members, and intimate partners (love and belonging stage) so many people simply stay in toxic relationships. However, if the individual will make the courageous decision to make whatever changes are necessary, that toxic part of their life can be removed, and replaced with something positive. For the esteem stage, if people would stop seeking praise and emotional support (esteem) from external sources, and instead be self-confident, then the anxiety and depression associated with relying on external means for esteem (happiness) will be removed.

Once the external and internal needs are met the pinnacle, self-actualization, can be reached. According to some of Maslow’s later writings and lectures, the self-actualization stage really represents a state of transcendence very similar to the various enlightened states described in eastern thought. However, Maslow believed, as I also believe, that this state can’t be reached until the foundation of the lower needs are met. If the needs are not met, there is no foundation for the pinnacle (self-actualization/transcendence) to be built and remain in a steady state.

I find it interesting that all of the major spiritual traditions focus on fulfilling these basic needs (obviously they were doing this prior to the need groups being identified by Maslow). For example, becoming a part of a spiritual organization can fulfill your external needs in that they are usually more than willing to help provide your basic external needs if you are in need of help. As for the internal needs they provide community (love and belonging), uplifting messages and positive reinforcement (esteem), and spiritual transformations and experiences (Self-Actualization/Transcendance).

So in many ways happiness is a by-product of the proper refinement, fulfillment, and balancing of our external and internal needs, and this can be done solo, in a group, or within a religion tradition. Happiness may take work, but it is possible to be truly happy, we just have to be willing to put in the external and internal work necessary to realize happiness. This doesn’t mean that you will be in a constant state of bliss, but you will be happy and content with life, which naturally brings about a state of joy. There will still be the natural ups and downs of life, but the downs will be less frequent, and you will be better able to handle them.

Practical Tip: I found it tremendously helpful to write out all 5 of the needs identified by Maslow, and write out a list of how those are being fulfilled, unfulfilled or negatively impacted. Once you have made your list nurture the positive ways that your needs are being fulfilled, and start working on the unfulfilled aspects or negative influences.

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Also please check out my book, “The Path: Using the Religions of the World as a Guide to Personal and Spiritual Development.” (Click on the book cover to view on Amazon.com)

  1. May 4, 2012 at 6:46 AM

    very very well argued 🙂

  2. May 4, 2012 at 7:36 AM


    I don’t surprise you if I say here that I agree that this is a very important topic. Helping people to find Fundamental happiness is the mission that I have started a few years ago and the topic of my blog which I have started recently.

    Fulfilling needs does not cause fundamental happiness. Fundamental happiness is happiness regardless of circumstances, so it is regasrdsless of fulfilling your needs.

    That is, if we are talking about Maslow’s needs. Personally I regard those needs as an analysis which fits in western psychology. Western psychology stops where eastern psychology continues. Eastern wisdom speaks of other needs, e.g. the need for being kind. Buddhists believe that our primary need is a sort of urge, it is the urge to be kind. Fulfilling that need is called “unsealing the well”. Not unsealing the well is believed to be the cause of many human malfunctioning, including not achieving fundamental happiness and many physical and mental illnesses.

    Maslows needs are based on fear, our strongest drive to make (wrong) decisions. E.g if you take love and belonging, you can translate them into the fear of not being loved or not to love someone. One may say that Maslows needs may well be the basis of the financial and moral world crisis of now. But this is another topic.

    Fullfilling Maslows needs do however make a “pleasant” life, but create also the illusion that there is nothing more to achieve. Maslows needs talk about short term happiness, that’s why you have to continuously “work for them”. Investing in Fundamental happiness is an investment in the safest bank of the world; your spiritual being. And……with the highest interest rate there is. Also the currency does not suffer from inflation, the currency is called “Kharma”

    You quote the Dalai Lama, he will tell you that for happiness you don’t have to look for anything outside yourself. All conditions for obtaining fundamental happiness are already present in us. The Buddha (who was basically a teacher in fundamental happiness) summarized his teachings by telling us that we should do the following (in my own words):
    – be nice
    – avoid to do harmful things
    – tame our mind

    Taming your mind is said to be the most import of the three. A little course (for free) about how to work with your mind is on my website, it can safe you a lot of work when you are looking for fundamental happiness. May invite you and the readers of your blog to give it a try, it’s free and it works.

    Looking forward to your reactions and results!

    • May 4, 2012 at 8:47 AM

      I agree that true happiness goes beyond our circumstances. However, I don’t think that you can reach a true state of happiness unless your basic needs are met, which is one reason that the Buddha gave up asceticism in order to pursue the middle way, which led to his enlightenment.

      I believe that Maslow’s hierarchy provides an interesting means of evaluating your basic needs and desires in order to refine and build them to where they need to be. I don’t think western psychology and eastern practices are incompatible, they are trying to get to the same thing, but in different ways. Many eastern cultures and religions put self discovery and realization at the forefront, and until very recently there wasn’t a great deal of intellectualizing the internal changes. On the other hand, western culture historically has been much more analytical, which is why psychology is more systematic and structured in order to explore self-discovery and realization, which is evidenced by Maslow’s hierarchy.

      According to some of Maslow’s later writings and lectures, the self-realization stage really represented a state of transcendence very similar to the various states described in eastern thought. However, Maslow believed, as I also believe, that this state can’t be reached until the foundation of the lower needs are met. If the needs are not met, there is no foundation for the pinnacle (self-actualization/transcendence) to be built and remain in a steady state.

      However you are correct, that if the needs are not maturely examined and properly developed they can lead to negative influences such as fear, attachment, etc. However, the point is to properly examine these needs and fulfill them in a responsible and positive manner. Any teaching viewed in the wrong way can be taken to the extreme and become a negative influence. For example, Buddhism’s foundational teaching of “non-attachment”, can be taken to the extreme of nihilism, which is certainly not what the Buddha meant or taught.

      • May 6, 2012 at 4:40 AM

        I was watching a teaching of Sogyal Rinpoche and had to think about this interesting discussion. Indeed, as you say, teachings have to be viewed in the right way, this is of the utmost importance. It is perhaps the root of many obscurations and perceived differences of opinion. I agree that Maslows theories have their value for someone who understands a wider context. It is only that I see how much people are looking for some ultimate independent truth and when they have defined what should work for them, they follow it blindly, I see that too often happen with Maslows theories. For many people Maslows theories lead to the Epicurean attitude of “If I can scratch when I have an itch, I am happy”. I, me and myself and nothing else! So you only need some flees and a stick to scratch your back and your ultimately happy?

        By the way, I believe that when Buddha left asceticism he, he brooke with many Maslows rules. If leaving asceticism would do “the trick” , we would all be doing it, don’t you think? 😉

        It was a complete willingness for renunciation that brought him enlightenment. Also this is often wrongly interpreted. Many Buddhist students think that completely executed renunciation is the path. Sogyal Rinpoche pointed out in his teaching yesterday that it is about the WILLINGNESS, not the EXECUTION of the renunciation.

        How do I combine Maslow with the WILLINGNESS to give up all? Well, I gave up my business and I moved to the countryside to grow vegetables and to help people finding their happiness. I do need to maintain some circumstances in order not become a problem to others. So I reduced my financial needs by approximately 75% and I hope that my reserves will sustain me long enough, otherwise I will deal with that then. So instead of organizing more circumstances to make me comfortable, I reduced wanting and expectations. The advantages are that the reduction costed “only” mental energy by changing a mindset and the effect is extremely sustainable. An unexpected result is the enormous amount of gained mental emptiness which helps to tame my mind and gives me faster access to nature kind of mind (Rigpa in Tibetan)

        How do you combine Maslow with your spiritual pursuit of happiness?

  3. May 4, 2012 at 8:05 AM

    Really great post. 🙂 I agree with you, we can be truly happy.

    • May 4, 2012 at 8:29 AM

      Thank you! And thank you for commenting! It takes work, lasting happiness might take work, but it is possible, and the results are worth it!

  4. May 4, 2012 at 8:16 AM

    It is true that like a good marriage, a lovely garden and a relaxed home, creating an environment where you can be happy takes work. Though to be sublimely happy all the time sounds quite exhausting. you would have to cut yourself off from so much emotion to stay up there.. Lovely page! c

    • May 4, 2012 at 8:29 AM

      I think being happy doesn’t necessarily mean to be in a constant state of ecstasy or supreme bliss. I think being happy is being content and fulfilled with life, which naturally brings a state of joy with it. However, I don’t think it is possible to not have the natural flow of ups and downs; however, with work and practice I think the downs come less, and last for shorter period of time. Thanks for your comment!

  5. May 4, 2012 at 10:18 AM

    enter controversy, ahhhhh!: I have been unhappy most my entire life. I found God and two months ago my life forever changed. It was easy and I didn’t need another man to give me his wisdom or read endless tiresome self help books and hierarchy theories. <— (I used to do this ALL of the time) I did most of the research all myself.. I opened myself up to receive it. Folks may call it a crutch, and I feel sad for those who can't accept that it's isn't. It was and continues to be the best thing I've ever done it my life. I'm a firm believer to each their own, and normally I would never even comment on something like this or even begin to say anything like this. I felt compelled for some reason. I used to hate when people would throw God in my face.. so believe me I don't want anyone to feel like I am.. like I said I just felt compelled to do so. Everyone deserves true happiness.

    • May 4, 2012 at 11:06 AM

      No controversy with me! I firmly believe in God, although the “form” of God that I believe in is far and away not the standard form. As I mentioned in my post, I think that all spiritual traditions aid in the positive fulfillment of these needs, and they can fulfill these rather rapidly. For example, becoming a part of a spiritual organization can fulfill your external needs in that they are usually more than willing to help provide your basic external needs if you are in need of help. As for the internal needs they provide community (love and belonging), uplifting messages and positive reinforcement (esteem), and spiritual transformations and experiences (Self-Actualization/Transcendance). I’m glad that you have found what you are looking for, and thanks for commenting!

  6. May 5, 2012 at 8:35 AM

    It definitely takes work..great post..

  7. May 6, 2012 at 2:05 PM

    We are all in charge of our own happiness…great post.

  8. May 7, 2012 at 3:40 PM

    Really thought-invoking piece, Jason. Thank you for writing it.

    I have seen people who have what others would perceive of as “everything” and be miserable in their lives and within themselves.

    I have also seen people who have what others would perceive to be comparatively, little but, be very happy within themselves.

    There’s a lot of us out there (as you’ve mentioned in your entry) who are seeking out help in self-help books that are mainly written as spiritualism books. It all begs the question of whether we are seeking out Spiritualism as a form of going back to our own inner roots, drifting away from the materialism or whether we are seeking it out as a “magic solution” to our lack of happiness?

  9. May 7, 2012 at 5:11 PM

    I find myself saying, “yes!” with all my heart to your concise and spot on post!

    • May 7, 2012 at 7:26 PM

      Thank you so much! I love it when people leave positive comments, especially those (like you) whom I love to read and follow!

  10. May 9, 2012 at 8:49 AM


    I have also found that similarly to body image, we are brainwashed with a concept of ideal-happiness – yet another black/white idea to fight through life with – the ‘perfect’ way to be happy – what it looks like.

  11. May 14, 2012 at 6:26 AM

    Nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

    • May 28, 2012 at 12:22 PM

      I’m glad you liked it! Thanks for reading and commenting, and I hope you continue to visit!

  12. May 22, 2012 at 3:25 AM

    Dear Jason, I want to thank you personally for writing this in response to my question on happiness as the purpose of life. I feel so humbled and honoured that you took the question so seriously and in response I have been reflecting, reading and trying to understand the more subtle points of this very pertinent issue. As you said in your earlier post this was one of the three things you were certain of in life and that itself made me want to understand this from your point of view because I realised that as I grow older I seem to know less and need to learn more. I am currently studying the writings of the Bahai Faith and learning more the precepts of Buddhism and Hinduism. It took you eight years – let’s see how long it will take me! 😀

    I want to thank you so much for your time and effort. More than your writings which I have come to respect and admire, is what your life stands for which is apparent to me in the little things you do – your patience and gentle approach to the people, friends and strangers alike. That really says a lot about you. Thank you for your patience with me, a student of life. My warmest wishes to you and your dear famiy and looking forward to more of your writings here! Sharon

    • May 28, 2012 at 12:14 PM

      You’re very welcome, and thank you for your kind words! It really makes me feel good that others find use and inspiration from my writings! It makes my sleepless nights writing worth it! Thank you again!

  13. April 25, 2013 at 9:56 AM

    I quite often think about Maslow’s Hierarchy- it really makes a lot of sense to me. It also corresponds nicely with the energetic chakras of our bodies and their functions:


    I’m always trying to find the peak experiences of the top level without any of the others ;). Too impatient LOL!

    • May 15, 2013 at 6:52 PM

      Thank you for the link! I too think that Maslow’s Hierarchy really fits in well with many areas (social sciences, psychology, religious traditions, and philosophy).

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