When I was in college in Missoula, my favorite philosophy professor, Albert Borgmann, offered this bit of advice for a happy life: find a place that you love, with people you love, doing work that you love.
These three factors of happiness can also be simplified as place, people, and purpose. Often when life is going poorly, we can sit down and look at these three for a few moments and quickly see that one or more is causing the problems. When all three are in balance, we’re very likely to be living our best life.
By the age of 20, and often much sooner, you will likely have a good sense of the kinds of places that make you happy. For me, it was anywhere with views of mountains, near or far, with trees around and sounds and smells of nature. As a teenager in Helena, Montana, I regularly hiked the trails on the south edge of town and drove my cars into the surrounding woods and mountains in all directions.
When I was 15, my family took a trip to France and Italy. In Paris I experienced my first agoraphobia: fear of crowded places. I managed to get out a bit, but found myself feeling closed in and anxious any time I was outside of the hotel room. When we rented a car and headed out of the city toward the Alps, a tremendous weight lifted from my shoulders.
Ever since then, I’ve known that my “place” is in more lightly populated areas. I’ve learned to tolerate big cities, but long periods of time in one will still drain my energy away. Meanwhile, even short trips into the mountains for a day of hiking and picnicking or an overnight car-camping trip can rejuvenate me.
Even at 40 though, I’m still learning. We bought a house last year in a cute neighborhood in Missoula that looked promising. But, in the middle of the flat valley with tall trees all around, I’ve found myself missing big views. I daydream about building a 3-story deck on the back of the house so I can wander up and watch sunsets or just look out over part of the city.
Finding the right place that feeds your heart and allows you the space and energy to work hard and create freely will make a world of difference in all aspects of your life.
Whether you are an extrovert who gets energy from being around people or an introvert who needs more time alone, having the right people around you is key to lasting and meaningful happiness. This can mean cutting ties with old friends who have drifted in interests or who otherwise simply draw time and energy out of you. Cutting people off can be difficult but it can be incredibly freeing, and it doesn’t need to be a forever-decision. Be kind. People who care for you will accept no for an answer.
Or it can mean simply re-drawing your boundaries with them. Perhaps you used to go out for food and drinks with a good friend every Friday night, but now you have an exciting new hobby that takes up a lot of your time on the weekends. You can let your friend know and tell them that you still want to hang out once a month.
A foundational Buddhist teaching is the fact that we are always changing. So are others. While it is valuable to maintain relationships over time and wonderful to keep ties with people from our childhood and early adulthood, it is also okay if we grow into people who get along better with new friends and colleagues.
Purpose may be the most important of these three. But one will certainly struggle with purpose if they are in the wrong place or around the wrong people. One of the 20th century’s most brilliant psychologists, Victor Frankl, was a concentration-camp survivor. He observed in the camp that as long as those imprisoned there maintained a sense of purpose for their lives—a memory of loved ones, a plan for life once free, etc—they were much more likely to survive the horrors inflicted upon them. However, those who gave up hope and lost their sense of meaning and purpose tended to meet their demise quickly.
Much less dramatic examples can be found throughout our lives. Studies have shown that, for men in particular, the risk of a heart attack goes up dramatically in the first year after retiring. We put much of our sense of purpose for ourselves into our job, when it ends, a piece of us can end with it. This is often conscious, but sometimes completely unconscious. Greater self-awareness in this time of transition can help to identify feelings of loss or grief and attend to them kindly and wisely.
And long before retirement, a touch of self-awareness will help us to see what activities bring us the greatest sense of joy and flow. Flow is the state where our interests and ability are pushed right to their edge in a challenging scenario.
Purpose can also be found when we see ourselves serving or helping others. This can come in a wide variety of ways. In fact, most things we can think of as a job exist because they are helping someone. If we can tap into that fact and take joy in the happiness or ease that we bring others, we can find a sense of purpose in it.
It’s important to know, too, that our paid work might not align with our purpose. Sometimes we have to do work that simply pays the bills so that we have money and time to do other things that are in tune with our purpose in life. As with place and people, our life circumstances will be ever-changing, as will the activities that most deeply tap into our sense of purpose. We should check in with ourselves from time to time to see what might need to change in order to more fully and deeply live our happiest life.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. Justin is the official blog writer for Sunflower Counseling MT in Missoula, Butte, Kalispell, Billings, and surrounding areas. He lives in Missoula with his family.