Suzanne along shore in Nova ScotiaHappiness is the new black. The topic is showing up everywhere, from NPR interviews to the latest AARP magazine cover story. What makes us happy and why? It’s the question du jour. So how about we get to the bottom of all this happiness talk—and get in on being happier too!

I know, I know. We would-be-enlightened ones aren’t supposed to be so interested in happiness; equanimity is the thing and, on a rare day, as I point out in my book, there’s bliss. There’s also the question of what we mean by happiness anyway. It’s so subjective that even the self-proclaimed happiness experts are unscientifically vague when it comes to defining the word.

Like pornography though, I guess you know happiness when you see it, or, in this case, feel it—yourself. So I stop, I check. Am I “happy” right now? Sort of. I am glad the sun is out and that I can watch the goose couple make its way languidly across the pond from where I sit. Most of all, I notice I’m relieved, if maybe not quite happy, to be writing again, one thing I do that brings me present, my heart and mind engaged in expressing themselves—for my sake and, I hope, for yours.

Does happiness happen whenever we’re fully present and engaged? Are self-expression and service part of the equation? Is that what happiness is? Presence? Engagement? Self-expression? Service? What do you think? I’m not yet sure, but if so, we’d do well to get the skinny on what draws us in and what draws us out, setting the engaged stage for us to smile. Interestingly, most of those qualities I mention don’t show up in happiness studies. That may be because experts didn’t think to ask about qualities of being like presence and engagement (more on that later.)

What we do hear from the experts is that, except for the first $75,000 (for an American family of four), money doesn’t buy happiness. Extra bucks don’t up our happiness ante. Not surprisingly to me, the wealthiest people I know seem unhappy (a “rich” conversation for another time).

If money doesn’t do it, what do happiness studies say does? Good health and marriage are supposed to help. But plenty of singles (especially women) report being very happy, while some people with severe handicaps say they’re happy too. I might add that those of us graced with good health and life partners often take them for granted, until we no longer can. Living somewhere lovely, having upbeat friends and regular attendance at church, temple or mosque also top happiness factor lists, which go on and on.

But observing myself and hundreds of students and clients over decades, I’ve come to the stark conclusion that many if not most of us aren’t nearly as happy as we say and like to think we are—not to mention want to be. Nor do we understand what really brings us joy. Sure, we can tick off a bunch of things we think make us happy (and sometimes do, for a minute or two). Then, like lottery winners everywhere, our good fortune gets old, and we may even blow it.

So here’s the bottom line, kids. From the spiritual perspective I hold dear, those ambitious lists of reasons people give for their happiness (or lack thereof) merely scratch the surface, and may even obfuscate this basic truth: external conditions can only get us so far on the happiness scale, because happiness is an inside job. Nothing outside can make us happy. And as long as we think something can, we’ll be distracted and stuck short of the deep, abiding joy we seek and deserve. Not least, we’ll deprive those around us, and the world at large, of ourselves at our glorious best.

Unless and until we get wildly happy with and within ourselves, from deep inside out, no amount of money, gorgeous surroundings or fabulous friends—not even all-out unconditional love from a marvelous mate—will make us glad enough. I know because I am remarkably blessed with just such things. And still to this day, I don’t enjoy my many blessings nearly as much as I’m sure I can and as I long to do. That’s because only I can make me happy, by being happy, with my own dear self, first and last. And it seems I am not quite there!

That raises the next big question, which I hope to explore next time: What can we do to get so happy with ourselves that we can enjoy the gifts an abundant life bestows on us? I suspect the answer may bring us back to the ideas of presence and engagement. Meanwhile, I urge you to shed some light, with your own observations and questions about the all-important matter of happiness and how you know to spark it.

One thing I know I am happy for is you, here, inspiring me to write. And thank you for spreading the word!

About the Author: Suzanne Grenager

A seasoned writer and mentor with a gift for helping people see and be their most authentic, empowered Self.


  1. Vicki Fox March 19, 2013 at 7:27 am - Reply

    Once again, Suzanne, such a rich and interesting topic to explore. For me, happiness is connection – connection to nature, good friends, good causes. Though as I ponder your question, it truly is connection to myself, small and Big Self. I agree with you that it is presence and engagement. Throw into the recipe, a huge dose of self-love; for me, the hardest ingredient. I am beginning to throw more and more of a pinch of this ingredient in the happiness recipe. Growing and nurturing self-love makes a huge difference in how I view others and the world. And, of course, gratitude needs to be sprinkled liberally on all that occurs for the longer I live, often what seems like misfortune or disappointment turns out to be an opportunity for a new beginning which serves me better as I go forward. I’d love to ponder this longer, but the realities of getting on with my day intervene. Thank you for a well written, thoughtful piece. Enjoy the day. Wishing you much happiness!

    • Suzanne Grenager March 19, 2013 at 3:26 pm - Reply

      Thank you, sweetie! Your very words make me happy, affirming as they are of what I am coming to understand of happiness. Connection, and especially the connection with ourselves, is as you suggest paramount. We talk about “enjoying ourselves,” and mean we’re enjoying what we’re doing. But that expression–enjoy ourselves–I suddenly realized says it all.

      We must enjoy OURSELVES before and during our enjoyment of whatever we are up to. And we can’t enjoy ourselves unless we love ourselves. After all, who enjoys what they don’t love? So I am thrilled to hear you are adding deep self-love to your happiness mix. But please make it more than a pinch–why not a ton? I support you in loving the wonderful woman you are more than I can adequately express. Thank you for bringing your recipe–connection, presence, engagement, gratitude and all–to our table. All blessings to you always.

  2. Jenna March 19, 2013 at 7:56 am - Reply

    Finding happiness is life’s greatest question next to the grandiose “What’s the meaning of it all?” Thank you for bringing happiness into my awareness this morning, Suzanne – awareness is so often the vehicle of change. Happiness is a close cousin to joy. Without dissecting and analyzing and pulling words and thoughts apart, they are more like soul sisters. I was once asked “How do you know when you are happy?” I know I’m happy when my heart smiles. When I feel my heart smile, I remember what made me smile and seek more of that. Simple, but not necessarily easy. You are a blessing, Suzanne – thank you for your continual presence and light in my life, this community, and the world.

    • Suzanne Grenager March 21, 2013 at 9:31 am - Reply

      Jenna: Your heartfelt words touch my heart and make me glad beyond words. Bless you, sister, for so beautifully acknowledging my intention to share the light of love with wonderful women like you–a sacred privilege. I also really appreciate your choice of words about how to recognize happiness. “When my heart smiles” says it perfectly, describing a *felt sense* that I will forever use as my new joy barometer. I just checked in, and you may be happy to know that my heart is smiling right now. I dearly hope yours is too!

      PS And how right you are that we can’t change what we aren’t yet aware of!

  3. Vicki Fox March 19, 2013 at 9:13 am - Reply


    I shared earlier this morning. I wish I saw this quote before I wrote my comment. Then I thought I can still share the quote. It speaks volumes for me:
    All those who are unhappy in the world are so as a result of their
    desire for their own happiness. All those who are happy in the world are so as a result of their desire for the happiness of others. – Shantideva

    • Suzanne Grenager March 19, 2013 at 3:33 pm - Reply

      Lovely! A perfect PS to your earlier comment. Striving for our own happiness, without desiring the happiness of others, can never satisfy us. Why? Because we are deeply intertwined, ALL of us, at the level of heart, where happiness lives. To work for myself alone immediately separates me from my deepest self and the realization of our unity, the source of real happiness. This separation from our true selves and others, from God even, may explain why the richest people I know aren’t happy and seem lonely and apart. Does it make sense?

  4. tlew March 19, 2013 at 8:52 pm - Reply

    Thank you for providing me continued “food for thought”……actually not simply a morsel, but an entire buffett! Your comment about not counting our blessings as much as we should is always on my mind and in my heart. I have had a rich life, and even amongst all the gifts that I have been given, I search within my soul for the truth of my being. I am getting closer to a greater understanding as I continue to explore my deeper faith as well as the spirit that lies within. To me happiness is being mindful in my daily practice, to take in all the world has to give without judgement, simply bask in the gifts of the day…knowing that the gifts may not be what I planned nor even what I want, but if I continue to open my heart and mind along with practicing gratitude I find that happiness warms my heart.
    Praises to you for your continued wisdom and guidance!

    • Suzanne Grenager March 21, 2013 at 9:49 am - Reply

      An “entire buffet?” I love it! And thank you for offering us one in return, dear Terry. Being mindful, receptive, non-judgmental, grateful — and “basking in the gifts of the day.” Not to mention “searching for the truth of (your) being! Wow!

      That is a practice for sainthood, girl. Truly, you inspire me, especially because from the little I know of you, you are walking that *wonderful* — literally wonder-full — talk of yours. And your phrase “happiness warms my heart” brings to mind Jenna’s comment here that she knows she is happy when her “heart smiles.”

      Thank you all for helping me remember that being as glad as we can be, for the sake of all souls, ourselves most definitely included — is all about tuning in to and fine-tuning our heartstrings in the direction of the light. Praises to you, too, for your wisdom and guidance!

  5. Sheila Kelly March 20, 2013 at 8:32 pm - Reply

    I love the phrase, “Happiness is new new black.” Very clever and catchy, Ms. Suzanne. A Course in Miracles says something to the effect that words are just symbols of symbols, twice removed from reality (reality beingTruth, Oneness, Love… ). However, Course itself is a very wordy tome so it, too, relies on words even as it acknowledges their limitations. I don’t seem to have any words to add about happiness but discovered that March 20th is International Happiness Day. Yes, there’s a website for that…

    • Suzanne Grenager March 21, 2013 at 9:59 am - Reply

      “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God.” Lots written about that one so I’ll leave it almost at that for now. Thanks for reminding us that happiness is “only” a word and that to speak it is not necessarily to feel it. Glad you enjoyed *my* way with words, Sheila, and I am always glad to receive yours. So fun to know that I was on the happiness track at just about the right time of year. A belated “Happy Happiness Day” to you, and to us all!

  6. Angel Pricer March 22, 2013 at 11:49 am - Reply

    Thank you for another inviting exercise in expression, Suzanne!

    This post, and the accompanying variety of comments, inspired me to dig a little deeper into the history of my own happiness. When I first read it a few days ago I started to comment, but instead tucked the words into my heart and let them sprout as I was cleaning my grandma’s house. I haven’t thought much about happiness lately, though sometimes am tickled by its appearance when I’m not looking.

    Quietly, all alone, I worked to create a fresh, clean environment for my grandma to enjoy when she got home from work. I thought about how much it means to her, how
    difficult it is for her to accept such a gift, and how happy I am to be able to
    provide it. Infusing the shadowy, cob-webbed corners with light, it occurred to me that happiness has a scale of expression all its own, just as each woman here has expressed.

    I can remember many times feeling like I wanted to be happy, like I didn’t deserve to be happy, that others were happier than I was. There have also been moments of ecstatic, breathtaking happiness and pure elation for no apparent reason. Now, there is an underlying sense of warm, abiding contentment that fills my life, one that fills every nook and cranny, even the ones that I used to deem undesirable.

    I know I can’t make anyone else happy, and no longer do I bother trying to ‘do good deeds’ for others. Now, the actions, words, smiles are simply part and parcel of a day in the life of Angel, and that’s a difference in me that is extended to the world
    with no strings attached.

    Thank you again, Suzanne, and fellow blog followers, for providing an enriching environment to explore the scale of happiness!



    • Suzanne Grenager March 22, 2013 at 5:24 pm - Reply

      Dear Angel, thank you so much for once again opening your heart and sharing your rich experience, this time about happiness. But i’m a little confused when you say you no longer bother doing good deeds for others. Your inspiring account of doing a very good deed indeed suggests otherwise! But perhaps you mean that cleaning your grandmother’s house is something you want to do — because it makes *you* happy — rather than something you are doing to try to make her happy.( Please set me straight if I am missing the point. 🙂

      Not least, I am delighted to hear you’re experiencing deep, abiding contentment throughout your life and, I gather, your being. Wow! Good for you, girl! Though I am moving in that direction — with as much intention as I can muster — I am not, as I wrote in my post, quite there, which is to say quite HERE. So bless you for showing up to inspire us with your good intentions and good cheer.

      • Angel Pricer March 23, 2013 at 11:37 am - Reply

        {smiles} Suzanne, as I read your take on the good deeds, an image occurred to me. Have you ever misplaced an item and, after ceaselessly searching all the places you think it might be its location
        continues to elude you? Then, once you’ve given up the search you find the item turns up when you least expect it.

        Happiness, or for that matter, anything we seek, is much like that item.
        That’s not to say that seeking isn’t valid, for I’ve come to realize the quest (for anything) itself is equally as important as giving up the quest.

        As for grandma’s house, it was the Christmas season, and as I envisioned the people closest to me, images began to arise. I wasn’t making a gift list, or even asking what to give; I was reveling in appreciation for the family that I love. In grandma’s case, I saw myself vacuuming in her living room and felt good about that image. So, I told her a clean house would be her Christmas gift. It took a while to deliver, what with winter illnesses and weather, yet the time just happened to be right on the first day of spring. I felt a joyous sense of perfection it that!

        I didn’t really think about making grandma happy (though she was) or about cleaning her home because I would feel happy (though I did). Happiness wasn’t the motivator, but an experienced byproduct of responding to life’s subtle prompts.

        It all starts with the quest, and every point along the path is a step toward giving it up.

        This has been great, Suzanne, and provided much material for further editorial reflection. Thanks again!


        • Suzanne Grenager March 24, 2013 at 2:09 pm - Reply

          You are welcome, Angel. I love — and embrace — your concept of happiness being a “byproduct of responding to life’s subtle prompts.” Another way of saying that, I think, is that when we dance with the universe, engaging one step at a time with what is (and what calls us), we’re in harmony with the Source, including the happiness we seek. Thank *you.*

  7. karen latvala March 25, 2013 at 4:23 pm - Reply

    Suzanne, I’m late coming to this discussion, but enjoyed all the comments. Love that quote from Shantideva via Vicki about happiness comes from a desire for happiness of others. I truly agree. And from having gratitude for all we have experienced each day. I actually prefer the term “joy” as the inner state of happiness and well-being. We can maintain joy through all life’s ups and downs.

    From a more intellectual perspective (borrowed from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication book), having our basic needs met allows us to look beyond our self-centered view, and some of those basic needs are: autonomy, celebration, integrity, interdependence, physical nurturance, play, and spiritual communion.

    So that’s another place to look. How many of these “needs” are fulfilled in my life? If they aren’t, maybe there’s something about my life that I need to change–and taking responsibility for changing, growing, and becoming happy is an inner job, as you said!

    • Suzanne Grenager March 25, 2013 at 7:52 pm - Reply

      I, too, prefer the word “joy” to “happiness” and I very much appreciate your thoughtful explanation of joy as a state that is less dependent on external affairs. I also find the idea of meeting our basic needs as an avenue to being able to serve others a very useful one. And I LOVE Rosenberg’s delineation of what those needs are. Wow! What a great list! I strongly suspect you are right in your implication that if we fulfill those remarkable needs, we’ll be rife with a joy that will naturally flow over and out into the world around us, lighting the way for all. Thanksfor coming to this discussion — it’s never to late for your voice, Karen!

  8. Peg May 4, 2013 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    I love that you are sharing your wisdom in a blog. It is SO important to be willing to speak what we have been learning in the schoolroom of our lives. Not only so others may hear but so WE can hear our own voices so often silenced in the oppression of our conditioning.

    • Suzanne Grenager May 6, 2013 at 9:58 am - Reply

      A very powerful comment, Peg! I am inspired, and honored, to have your experienced, richly nuanced voice as part of our blog conversation. How terribly right you are that we need to find ways to speak and hear our own voices in order to overcome the old, conditioned voices in our head. Thanks so much for reminding me — and all of us — that to speak up loud and clear is to overcome oppression. YES! I am so glad *you* spoke up and, if and when you are moved, would love to hear more from you here!

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