Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

What Makes Us Happy?

Someone from a far off land wrote me and asked me what made me happy. This seems like an easy enough question to answer, but I quickly realized that many things one may think are states of happiness are really something else entirely.  Ego, flattery, even one too many vodka tonics confuse our minds.  Is feeling powerful happiness?  Is being liked happiness?  Or is happiness a state all in itself that requires no external stimulation?  I certainly do not have the answer but tried to uncover different variables that either alluded to the desirable state…or conversely, took us further away from it.


We all like to be liked.  It makes us feel good and helps validate our existence.  For women, this often comes in the form of appreciation for our external physique.  Yes, yes of course we like to be appreciated our brains but I challenge any woman that doesn’t admit that she needs to feel gorgeous from time to time.  If we didn’t there wouldn’t be a multi billion dollar beauty industry.  When at a party dressed to the nines, we blush when men tell us we are beautiful and smile as other women gush at our couture mini dress that we starved ourselves for a week to fit into.  However, many compliments seem too superficial to give us lasting happiness.  Are they needed to help us define our place in the world?  And is receiving praise worth forgoing the happiness that that 2 am donut could have provided us?  Or does flattery really get us nowhere?


They say another dot com bubble is starting in Silicon Valley.  I was just at an Ad tech networking event where the air was ripe with deal transactions, money slinging, and inflated egos. Everyone thinks their idea could be the next facebook.  Entrepreneurs and VCs are riding one large adrenaline wave, no different than the surfer that sees a 10-footer headed his direction.  It’s either sink or….paddle as hard as you can to catch it!  Is this energy and excitement happiness?  Or does it distract us and make us cancel on simplicity in order to feed our ravenous egos? They say that the happiest people live in developing nations farming potatoes NOT in a rich nations making FarmVille apps.  And even if the rush of the ride is exhilarating, what happens when it crashes?  Can we separate happiness from our ego and monetary success?


My friend and I recently drove back from Lake Tahoe through Napa and couldn’t stop gawking at the beauty that surrounded us. Indie rock beats blared from the speakers the golden sun lit up downy hills.  We felt as if we were in paradise. If someone had asked me if I was happy I would have incredulously said yes.  However, had the weather and music been altered I would have answered differently. If the sun turned to heavy rainfall and the music changed to honky tonk country western music I would have claimed sheer misery. (no offence to country music fans).  Environment can make us happy, but it is at its whim, not our own.


When I asked many of my friends what made them happy most cited human connection.  Connection can mean a variety of things.  Sometimes it is relating to someone else over a warm cup of coffee.  Other times it is helping someone else solve a problem.  And more often than not it is sharing a fine meal fueled with hearty wine and non-stop laughter. What is it about other people that make us feel good?  Sometimes they help us explain our meager existence on this planet. Other times they give us validation that our idiosyncrasies are ok and our humor isn’t (that) bad.  And lastly they give us a reason to love-which is happiness manifested in its highest form. However I would argue that we cannot be solely reliant on other people for pleasurable emotions.  Any self help book will tell you must be happy with yourself before you can give in a relationship.  This implies that connection may augment our happiness, but we still need to create its foundation first ourselves. Sigh.


There is an amazing sense of satisfaction with a job well done.  There is a sense of joy when it’s your own creation.  I remember my father proudly scanning his 3 acre yard that he had landscaped into flowered terraces with his bare hands.  I also remember my mother lovingly baking cakes out of recipes she invented in her farmhouse kitchen.  The mathematician and the musician both feel the same elation when their formula finally rings true.  When we create we give value to the world and find a purpose to our existence.  I do not know why this makes us happy….as a happy go lucky writer just finishing another blog post, I can only acknowledge that it does.

Of course I still do not have a finite answer for happiness!  With the exception of falling in love (which is its own magical elixir), there were two times in my life I felt the universe united to bring me joy.

My Happiness Recollections

One was on my roadtrip across the United States.  I interviewed a different woman daily about her life path and then wrote her story in the best prose I could muster in a 1 hour pit stop at a roadside café.  I was madly in love with the written word and how I could craft something meaningful out of someone else’s mouth.  It was the ultimate blend of connection and creation and environment.

The second time I was in an Ashram in India. I woke at 5 am to chant for two hours. I ate bean mush, wore a ragged t-shirt, and slept on a mat.  To most people it sounded like a prison camp yet I was giddily content.  For the first time in my life I felt no judgment, no stress, and no ticking time bomb of what I had to have done by when.  I had time to think and time to not think and time to notice the earth around me and write poems in its praise.  I had time to converse with other ashram attendants from all over the world about random philosophies like….”what is happiness.”  And most importantly I felt free to enjoy the present moment.

And now I challenge you to the same question.  What makes you happy? And why?

It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.”-Dale Carnegie

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