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Eleven theories for how to achieve true happiness

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

The question of how to achieve true happiness has been debated for thousands of years. In this article, we’ve summarized eleven approaches to happiness, new and old, that are popular today.

How do you think about being truly happy?

You might find that your personal views on this topic are captured by one of these eleven popular theories. We hope that understanding these different theories will help you to better refine your own views of happiness and understand the perspectives that other people take towards living a good life!

For each of these theories, there are lots of different variants with subtle differences - we’ve aimed to capture some central representative ideas that many variants have in common.

We've also included some resources you can use to try and increase your happiness levels by applying these different methodologies!

Note: inclusion in this list is not the same thing as an endorsement from Clearer Thinking!

1. 🥰 Positive Psychology

A growing scientific field, positive psychology applies the tools of psychology to the question of what makes life most worth living.

“Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, hostility, worry, and irritation. It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted; it is present-oriented.”

-Sonja Lyubomirsky

How to achieve true happiness: Keep a gratitude list, cultivate positive relationships, find ways to use your strengths/virtues, do activities that get you into a flow state, savor pleasurable things in the moment, anticipate fun things in your future, reminisce about meaningful things in your past, buy more experiences and fewer things, avoid the hedonic treadmill.

Useful Clearer Thinking tools:

Other resources:

2. 🌊 Stoicism

Stoicism is an ancient school of philosophical thought, from 3rd Century BC Greece and Rome, which is now experiencing a resurgence in popularity.

“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.”

– Marcus Aurelius

How to achieve true happiness: Deeply appreciate what you have now since it all could be gone tomorrow, only try to control what you're actually able to, remember you're not entitled to anything, learn to love doing the right thing rather than the pleasant thing, seek value in all that happens. Through these practices, aim for equanimity in the face of any circumstance, no matter how bad.

Useful Clearer Thinking tools:


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3. ⛪ Christianity

(Note: We are not a Christian organization. We include this because it is a very popular approach to happiness. )

Based on biblical scripture and church traditions, many practitioners of Christianity view it as including rules and guidelines for living a good and happy life.

“The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water.”

- C.S. Lewis

How to achieve true happiness: Be humble, love God with all your heart, love your neighbor, accept Jesus Christ as your savior, worship God, pray, have faith, be thankful and take joy each day in all that God has given you, be a devoted wife/husband/father/mother/child, obey the Ten Commandments, don’t cast the first stone, avoid lust, greed, wrath, sloth, gluttony, envy, and pride, avoid hell at all costs, live for eternity in heaven with God.


4. 🧘‍♀️ Insight Meditation

Vipassanā, or insight meditation, is a Buddhist practice popular before the 10th Century AD, which gained widespread popularity in the late 20th Century, including in the USA. This practice emphasizes mindfulness meditation as a path to gaining insights into the nature of reality.

“As the fletcher whittles and makes straight his arrows, so the master directs his straying thoughts.”

- Buddha

How to achieve true happiness: Follow the eightfold path, train your concentration through meditation until it is stable and precise (e.g., practice maintaining subtle focus on the breath), use your refined concentration to carefully observe the true nature of reality, mind, and self, realize the three marks of existence (impermanence, dissatisfaction, non-self), learn to stabilize your new experience of reality, become free from craving and aversion.


Other resources:

5. 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Traditional

This set of values may strike you as a familiar blueprint to a traditionally good life.

“The great Error of our Nature is, not to know where to stop, not to be satisfied with any reasonable Acquirement; not to compound with our Condition; but to lose all we have gained by an insatiable Pursuit after more.”

- Edmund Burke

How to achieve true happiness: Work hard, marry a good person, have multiple children, spend time with family, fit into your role, remember that many others have it worse than you, don't complain, avoid vices (gambling, excessive drinking, drugs), don't waste money, achieve stability in life.

Useful Clearer Thinking tools:

6. 🚴‍♂️ Common sense

A common sense approach to happiness focuses on meeting all your needs and making sure you have stable sources of fulfillment. No surprises here!

"Philosophy is common sense with big words.”

- James Madison

How to achieve true happiness: Sleep enough, eat healthy food, exercise, spend your time with people you like, have a pet, seek work that's enjoyable/challenging/meaningful, make sure your basic needs are met, try to make enough money to achieve financial security, save for retirement, marry someone you love who treats you well, have a fun hobby.

Useful Clearer Thinking tools:

Other resources:

7. 👁 Introspection

Introspective theories say that the path to true happiness is through truly understanding yourself, healing your past trauma, and being authentic with others.

“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

- C.G. Jung

How to achieve true happiness: Use psychedelics for self-exploration, listen to and get in touch with your body, engage in self-care and self-compassion, investigate and heal your trauma, find a daily practice that works for you (e.g., meditation/yoga/prayer), be vulnerable around the people that you trust, share your true feelings, explore and have compassion for the different "parts" of yourself that are afraid of and desire different things, investigate your "true self" and be true to it, learn to pay attention to your intuition, find a way to look at the world that resonates with you.

Useful Clearer Thinking tools:


Other resources:

8. ✅ Self-help books

Books advocating techniques for self-improvement have exploded in popularity since the mid 20th Century. Each takes a different angle on how to be happy - here we have collected some common themes.

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

-Thomas Edison

How to achieve true happiness: Repeat affirmations that motivate you, form healthy daily habits, always work on becoming a better version of yourself, try new things, figure out what you really want and then plan to get it, prioritize, set ambitious goals, keep your home organized, think positive thoughts, believe you can do anything that you put your mind to, wake up early, make at least a little progress towards your goals each day, don't let fear stop you, don't give up, avoid negative people, surround yourself with people who inspire you and make you a better person.

Useful Clearer Thinking tools:


Other resources:

9. 💃 Hedonism

As an approach to life, hedonism is all about doing whatever you can to experience pleasure and avoid pain.

"Don't worry. Be happy."

- Bobby McFerrin

How to achieve true happiness: Remember that you get just one life, so you might as well enjoy it, live in the moment (don't worry about the future), dance, party, seek out cool experiences, do exactly what you feel like, ignore societal pressure, have sex, eat tasty food, do fun drugs, spend money on fun things, don’t let others tell you what to do.

Useful Clearer Thinking tools:

Other resources:

10. ❤ Altruism

An altruistic approach to happiness is about devoting yourself to helping others and making the world a better place - the theory says you can gain fulfillment through knowing that other people are better off thanks to your efforts.

"The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit."

- Nelson Henderson

How to achieve true happiness: Give to charity, volunteer your time, choose a career that lets you help others, become a part of something meaningful (e.g., a cause or movement) that is much bigger than yourself, work hard to be kind, generous, and thoughtful, think hard about how you can do good, help strangers, build communities and projects to improve the world.

Useful Clearer Thinking tools:


Other resources:

11. 🌍 Community

Finally, a number of diverse ideologies (from communitarianism to communism) emphasize community over the isolated individual. These focus on the importance of society in shaping individuals and believe that communal practices and interpersonal relationships are necessary for flourishing.

"Everything worthwhile is done with others."

― Mariame Kaba

How to achieve true happiness: Engage actively in your community, build strong relationships, be actively engaged in civic matters such as voting and town meetings, work together with others towards collective goals for the improvement your community and its members' lives, take responsibility for the wellbeing of your community and its members, participate in cultural traditions.



Which of these theories resonates most with you?

It might be challenging to decide whether and how to apply each of these different theories of happiness. An experimental approach could be useful - you could explore the resources we’ve linked above and try applying some of the techniques, and see which theories deliver on their promise of true happiness for you.

We hope that exploring these theories has helped you conceptualize your own approach to happiness. Which theories of happiness have you lived by previously? How did you choose them, or did you pick them up unconsciously from your environment? How could you tweak these theories, combine them with other schools of thought, or replace parts that are unhelpful for you? What other theories of happiness do people live by?

We also have a full podcast episode about Happiness and Hedonic Adaptation that you may like:

Click here to access other streaming options and show notes.

Note: To help fund the free decision-making tools and programs that we provide, is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program (an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to If you buy a book using the links in this article, you'll be supporting in its mission to make free tools that help the world make better decisions.

Aug 08, 2023

I agree with everything except the "self-help" book industry. Maybe that's because I find some of the self-help experts to be kind of sleazy.


Anša Vernerová
Anša Vernerová
Dec 27, 2022

Oliver Burkeman's book "Antidote" follows a very similar structure, with the chapters devoted to Stoicism, Buddhism, giving up control, understanding and letting go of the ego, embracing insecurity, embracing failure, and being mindful of our eventual death.


Vít Baisa
Vít Baisa
Feb 11, 2022

Reminds me of Derek Siver's book How to live. Highly recommended!

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