11/17/2011 01:04 pm ET | Updated Jan 17, 2012

Back to Basics: A Recipe for Happiness

Been feeling stressed lately? Overwhelmed? Perpetually tired and cranky? Maybe even tottering on the verge of a nervous breakdown? The successful call it "multi-tasking," the unsuccessful diagnosed as "A.D.D." or any number of polite or scientific terms, but the reality is: burnt out, pulled in a million directions and trying to live with pockets that have perpetual holes in them. Yet somehow, we've convinced ourselves of the virtue and normalcy of this state.

Work three jobs, or even just one ridiculous one, in spite of the dangers to your health. You must claw your way to the top by any means necessary: It is the American Dream, the rags to riches story. Work those extra hours and skip your family [insert-event-here] for the hope of a few extra dollars. Buy a bunch of stuff that only brings you happiness in the instant it is new, then is piled onto the rest of the stuff that you step over every day. We want the hot, new shit; not our needs, our wants. We want to live "comfortably" so we spend thousands each month on cars we can't afford, overpriced meals, or hundreds of channels of TV that we don't have time to watch, convinced that we can buy convenience and quality of life.

But you can't. Your quality of life or essential happiness is made simply: of your values, and how well you live up to them. As with most things, the devil is in the details.

We all value loving and spending time with our families and friends, which require physical and emotional health, food, clothing and shelter. But to get the food, clothing and shelter we must barter a skill or possession for money with someone in our network that needs or wants it. But network effects are tricky. Each person we connect with carries unique weight and influence into our decisions, and for better or worse, we align our values around the people we value and the things they need and want. We trade 40-plus hours/week for enough money "to live on." But who defines this life? Furthermore, what is "enjoying life?"

If you are in pain or in poor health, and unable to do the things you enjoy, you will not be happy unless you improve your health and heal your wounds (physical and emotional), or find things you can enjoy in your state. Yet, our networks play a huge part in shaping the things and activities we enjoy. Once you've been exposed to a new and exciting thing, you're influenced by a "higher" standard -- someone else's. But if those standards cause you to live beyond your means to the point of causing unhappiness, it is time to reassess your system of values and check to be sure your actions are pointing you toward happiness, health, and stability. Do your values line up to your means of production and capacity to meet them?

No one can answer these questions for you. This is a deeply personal experience whose outcome only you can determine. Take yourself "off the grid:" remove yourself from the networks of influence and everyone else's ideas and search your own soul for the values and priorities you alone hold dear. Take a piece of paper and write down all your obligations, then your needs, then your wants. Rate yourself on how well you're handling them all, both emotionally and in terms of fulfilling your obligation. Are you successful or struggling? Strugglers need special attention.

Are you successful at things that are easy, but struggling with things that require extra effort but that might help you achieve your long-term goals? Break your big goals up into smaller ones that you can take immediate action on. Do you find more struggle than success in your life as a whole? Look at how you spend your time everyday and prioritize. Realign your focus to the things that are the most urgent obligations and the most important needs. Let the rest go until your basic needs are met. Once your life is back on track,

  1. Stop doing things you "hate" doing. Just stop. Cold turkey. If its a job you hate, find another job first you think you'll like or start a business based on something you love, then quit. If its spending time w/a person you "hate", stop. Remove all toxicity in your life. Every single step you take toward removing things you hate from your life will bring you joy as you gradually surround yourself with things and people you love.
  2. Make a budget and an exercise plan and stick to it. Start small. Budget to make sure you have money left over each month and save, even just10 if you have to. Start taking a ten minute walk or living room dance session each day. Don't put it off "until". Do something little every day, no matter how tired you are or how badly you want to splurge.
  3. Find workable alternatives to things that you enjoy but can't afford. Trade down. Keep it simple. Make your own coffee/lunch. Get a smaller car that burns less gas. Throw house parties instead of going to the club. Join the neighborhood YMCA instead of the fancy100+/month gym that you never go to anyway. If you must browse a shopping rack, go thrifting instead of to a mall. Cook your own dinner, from ingredients that are not "instant" or "pre-" anything. Cancel your cable for Netflix. Do your own hair and nails. The time you spend will be the same, but the money will add up... in your pocket, enabling you to do more of the things you love.

Every moment of our time that passes reflects a choice, an investment, an option that we exercise. We cannot change the actions of others, but we can choose to respond within our capacity. The greatest joy in life is learning to discover that crossroads of possibility, and making empowering choices that set you up for present and future success. Once you set yourself on that path, you will find true happiness comes from within, one moment at a time.

Here's to living your best life ever!