What I’ve Learned About Happiness

Written by Charles Ngo
Written by Charles Ngo

We’re going through a mental health crisis.
According to a 2016 study, 17% of millennials suffer from depression. 14% of them suffer from anxiety.
That study is from several years ago.
What do you think is going to happen to those numbers due to the Pandemic?

  • Ten million people have filed for unemployment in American in the past two weeks.
  • 43% of small businesses may shut down permanently if they don’t get enough help.
  • Countless people will have to deal with the death of a loved one from the virus. They won’t be able to give them a proper funeral because of stay of home orders.
  • Social distancing means that people are not getting enough sunlight, exercise, or seeing their loved ones.

Depression and suicide rates are expected to increase. This is a tragedy.
I’ve been studying happiness for the past decade and using myself as a Guinea Pig.
I’m going to share with you some big ideas about happiness, and some of the systems that I’ve implemented in my own life.
A quick disclaimer:
Happiness is complex, and this article NOT meant to be a one size fits all solution. If you’re depressed and in a horrible situation, then I encourage you to seek some professional help. My heart goes out to you. 

Five Big Ideas About Happiness

Let’s talk about some big picture ideas before we drilled down into the details.

Progress is Happiness

I lived in Thailand and Vietnam for several years (2010-2013). It had always been my goal after reading The Four Hour Workweek. But after living there, I found myself becoming increasingly unhappy.
I couldn’t figure out why. I wanted this dream.
Long story short, I realized that it was because I wasn’t making progress. I wasn’t learning anymore.
It was hard for me to stay driven in that environment. I just wanted to travel and party all the time.
It wasn’t until I moved back to America and set some goals for myself that I felt alive again.
You have to be honest with yourself.
Maybe you’re living the life that your parents wanted, but it isn’t what you want. What do YOU want?
Progress is scary because failure’s a part of it. I see people lie to themselves all the time. They stick to what’s comfortable and try to convince themselves that this is what they wanted.
When we make progress, we show ourselves that we’re more powerful than what we believed.
There’s who you are now.
There’s who you genuinely want to be.
Happiness is about bridging that gap.

Does Money Equal Happiness?

I remember one weekend when I was 19 years old. It was a normal weekend. I went out to eat with my friends and I paid for my gas. I spent money like normal.
I logged into my bank account the following Wednesday. I miscalculated how much money was in my bank account, and the overdraft charges came. That $1 energy drink became $33 with overdraft charges. My bank balance was $-600 when I was only making $60 a week at the gas station.
My chest started hurting, and I had trouble breathing. The room started spinning. I had my first, and only anxiety attack.
I know what it’s like to be stressed out because of money. It fucking sucks.
Money does not directly bring happiness. However, having money can prevent some unhappiness from happening. Money gives you options.
Imagine if I was a server who just lost his job. I’d probably have to get a job as a Uber Driver or DoorDash driver. I’d then be exposing myself to the Coronavirus on a daily basis. I’d be stressed out waiting for the stimulus check to come in, while my Landlord is harassing me for rent I can’t afford.
Just typing this out is stressing me out.
The pandemic is exposing the class divide in this world.
Be cautious of anyone that keeps saying “Money doesn’t bring happiness” or “Money doesn’t matter” is virtue signaling.
They’re playing a different type of status game. They’re competing with “I’m better than you because I don’t care about money.”

Happiness isn’t a Destination

Society has taught us that happiness is a destination.
You spend 14 years studying to get good grades.
Good grades lead to a good university.
A good university leads to a good job.
Working hard at your job leads to a promotion.
The promotion pays you enough to afford the cars, vacations, and houses you’ve always dreamed of.
Now you’re happy.
Life doesn’t work that way.
Think about the last time you bought a Phone. Do you remember how excited you were? I was pumped for two weeks when the iPhone X came out. And I was happy for a few days once I got my hands on it.

Peak experiences can cause an explosion of happiness, but we tend to revert back to where we were before.

But then my happiness levels went back to normal.
This has happened with every other peak experience in my life.
I had all those significant goals in my life that I ended up achieving such as quitting my job and hitting some financial milestones.
Do you know what happened?
There’s an explosion of happiness for a few days, and then everything goes back to normal. I adapted.
I had the most significant ah-ha moment when I read the book “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Anchor. He says that we have it backward.

You should focus on being happy first, and that happiness creates an advantage to help you achieve your goals.
Being a happier person can improve your productivity by 10-12%, according to research.
Being a happier person makes you more attractive. A person that’s always bitching about life isn’t pleasant to be around.
Once again, focus on being happier. That will lead to more success.

Your Relationships are the 80/20 of Happiness

There are hundreds of lever points you can improve to be happier. The biggest ones all revolve around the relationships in your life.
Relationships with your friends, your partner, and your family.
Have you ever been in a toxic relationship?
It doesn’t matter if you’re winning at all other aspects of your life – that relationship will drag you down.
One point that I want to bring up is that it’s ok to end relationships with people. We understand this when it comes to love. If you and your partner don’t work out, then you should end it. You and they will be happier with other people.
Why doesn’t this apply to friendships and even family?
John could’ve been an amazing friend to you in high school. But now it has been 20 years since and you two don’t “click” anymore. You two don’t have that much in common anymore. In fact, you’re finding that he’s negative all the time. The only thing holding the friendship together is the memories of the past.
This is where I use Zero Based Decision Making.
Ask yourself this, “If I met John today, would we become friends?” This clears your mind of the sunk costs that could be weighing you down.
What if you’re in a situation where it’s difficult to cut ties? The most difficult is with parents.
A few years ago I asked if a friend was going home to see his parents for the Holidays. He said no. He hasn’t seen or spoken to his parents in several years.
I couldn’t imagine this. I come from a culture that preaches that family is everything.
Friend:It’s easy to say that family is everything when you come from a good family. But what if you weren’t as lucky. What if your family was manipulative, toxic, and narcissistic? Why would you force a relationship with people when your happiness is 10x better without them?”
Someone else’s happiness is not your responsibility. You should help people, but don’t help to the point where it causes your own suffering. 

Relationships also apply to Social Media.
Social media has us more connected than ever. I took a 4-year break from Facebook, and I’ve recently started using it again.
Every time I logged in it was like my newsfeed was full of landmines:

  • The people who didn’t take the Pandemic seriously and were spreading misinformation
  • Conspiracy theories. Bill Gates caused the Pandemic? What the fuck?
  • The Flexers. Every status is them bragging about how amazing their life is instead of actually enjoying it.
  • People constantly trying to sell me something.

Every time I logged into Facebook for a few minutes, I’d leave unhappier!
So I spent some time curating my Facebook a few months ago:

  • I unfriended people.
  • I blocked some people
  • I enjoy being friends with some people, but I don’t enjoy their updates. I hide them from my newsfeed.
  • I muted some people from messaging me.
  • If all that sounds like ton of work, you can get rid of the Newsfeed completely with a Chrome extension

Don’t let Zuckerberg’s engineers have so much power over your mind.

You a Happiness Set Point

Our happiness changes on a day to day basis, but it tends to stay around a certain range called the setpoint.

We all have a “default” level of happiness. This is called the set point.
Your happiness can change on a day to day basis, but it typically hovers around a certain range.
What determines your happiness set point? It’s a combination of genetics, circumstances, and actions.
One theory on happiness that I’ve read is that:

  • 50% of your happiness is genetic and due to the complex chemical interactions in your brain. Seratonin, dopamine, etc.
  • 10% is due to your circumstances such as your job, house, relationship.
  • 40% is in your control. These are your daily actions.
One theory states that our happiness set point is 50% genetic, 10% circumstances, and 40% of our actions

My hypothesis is that focusing on the right daily actions means you can increase your overall happiness.
The next section will go into what these “actions” are.

Systemizing Habits for Happiness

Working out once isn’t going to change your life. Working out 3 times a week for ten years will.

Reading a book once isn’t going to change your life.
Reading a book a week for a year will.
I can tell you what actions will cause you to become happier. The actions are useless if you only do them once.
You need to turn these actions into a predictable system.

You CAN improve your happiness set point by implementing actions and systems.

The simplest way is to create weekly and daily routines.

  • Every morning I write my 3 most important outcomes for the day. I also write 3 things that I’m grateful for. I challenge myself to never reuse the same gratitude.I discovered today that I’m grateful for 2-factor authentication. I’d hate for anything I have to be hacked. I’m grateful for the computer geniuses who thought of this and created it!
  • I go outside for a walk. It’s my way of getting sunlight in.
  • I meditate for 20 minutes every morning. I set a timer using my Amazon echo. I have used apps in the past, but I don’t like turning my phone on in the morning.


  • I go outside for a walk again. I love taking walks.
  • I try to practice mindful eating during lunch. Not everyone’s lucky enough to have lunch. It’s amazing how many people worked to produce this lunch.


  • I exercise. It used to be Brazilian Jiujitsu before social distancing. But now I’m doing mobility exercises at home.
  • I have an extensive evening routine to help me get better sleep. I had horrible sleep the other night and I was cranky the entire day.
  • At the end of the day, I rate my happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. I spend a few minutes reflecting on why I gave the score.
  • I cook every night. Everyone needs a form of creative output. Mine is cooking.


  • We go to the local park every Sunday to get some nature time in.
  • I nurture relationships. I see my family. I call and send memes to friends to stay in touch.
  • Plan. I love planning. I plan the upcoming week. I try to predict surprises.

Quarterly Routines:

  • I donate money to causes that I care about.
  • I declutter.
  • I take a 2 day trip by myself somewhere local to do some quarterly planning. I take a break from electronics and spend time in nature.

These are some of the routines that I’ve created for myself.
It’s simple.
Figure out what makes you happy. Create a system to do more of it.
Figure out what makes you unhappy. Create systems to do less of it.

Your Happiness is Everything

At one point in my life, money was the primary metric I used to keep track of the “score” in my life. I felt that the more money I made, the happier I would be.
Eventually, I realized that the two aren’t as correlated as I thought. Instead, I started optimizing for happiness instead.
I love the Marie Kondo philosophy of asking if something sparks joy.
Someone wants to have a coffee meeting with me. Does it spark joy? No. Then I don’t do it.
Someone wants me to speak at their event. They’re offering to pay me. Does it spark joy? No. Then I don’t do it.
Some of you out there probably have Superman Complex. It’s where you feel responsible for someone else’s happiness. You see that someone else isn’t doing too well and you take it upon yourself to “fix it.”
I know that feeling all too well (Why do you think I’m still blogging, It’s me helping people at scale)
I remember watching a safety video on an airplane. If there’s an incident, you need to put the mask on yourself first before you help others.
If you want to help others, then focus on yourself. Be a model first. You can’t force someone to change before they’re ready.
Photo by Oliver Sjöström from Pexels

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