How To Figure Out What Makes You Happy (so you can do more of it)

What makes you happy? It's a simple question but a lot of us don't really know the answer - or maybe we're doing things that made us happy 10 years ago, but don't do much for us now. Tap through for 5 steps that will help you find out EXACTLY what makes you happy, right now. #happiness #selfcare #selfdevelopment #motivation #happytips

Let me begin by acknowledging that the internet probably doesn’t need another post about how to be happier.

(If you do need one, here are 101 ways to cheer yourself up.)

You’re smart. I bet you already own this book. I bet you’ve read eleventy listicles about exercise and journaling and self-care. You’ve read all the happiness tips from The Well-Intentioned Internet People.

But, uh, what if you don’t actually know what makes you happy?

What if you’ve done all the things that seem to make other people happy and they just don’t do much for you?

Dude, welcome to the club.

Most of us have vague ideas of what makes us happy. Maybe we’re reasonably happy on a day-to-day basis but we’ve never really put much thought into where those feelings come from or what, specifically, about an experience is making us happy.

When you can pinpoint what makes you happy, you can add more of it to your life. Simple as that. Click To Tweet

Finding your happiness is an art, not a science but here are five things I’ve done to help me figure where my happiness is coming from.

1. Wipe your happiness slate clean

If you’re a human who is alive, the society you grew up in has Ideas about what happiness looks like. These Ideas have permeated our lives since the moment we could understand shapes and colors; they’ve wormed their way into our soft, sweet subconsciouses.

On some level, most of us believe we will be happier when:

  • We are thinner than we are now
  •  We earn more money
  • We live in a bigger, prettier, better-located home
  • We have more friends
  • We’re in a committed romantic relationship

And maybe some of those things really will make us happier! Supportive relationships and aerobic activity have been shown to reduce depression. I imagine moving into a space with more natural light and a shorter commute wouldn’t hurt anything, either.

But for the sake of this experiment let’s do our very, very best to let go of preconceived notions about what makes us happy. Let’s forget what our families and friends believe happiness looks like. Let’s view this as a grand experiment with totally unknown results. Who knows what we’ll discover!

P.S. Don’t get down on yourself for “buying into cultural expectations of happiness.” We all do it. We’re not robots. For pete’s sake, Oprah’s been trying to diet her way to happiness for two decades. 

2. Start taking detailed notes when you feel really happy 

You know those moments of “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is”? Those moments when you’d lift your face to the sky and grin (but you don’t because it feels awkward), make note of those moments. Open up the ‘notes’ app on your phone and type in what, exactly, you were doing.

Yes, I know this is dorky. And, yes, I know you’re thinking “I should do that!” And then you’re not going to, in fact, do it.

Do it. I think you’ll be really surprised by what actually makes you happy.

Here’s an actual screenshot of my list. You’ll note that it’s oddly specific because I’ve found that the devil (and happiness, apparently) is in the details.

what makes you happy

  • Reading fiction in the morning feels luxurious. Reading non-fiction in the morning feels like homework.
  • Being in nature in a group feels noisy and vaguely annoying, like I need to keep everyone on the path and make sure no one brings ticks into the car. Being in nature alone feels holy.
  • Having a good pedicure makes me feel fresh and clean, put together and happy. Having a fresh manicure feels like “meh.”
  • Watching TV alone feels like I’m wasting time or confusing self-care with self-indulgence. Having a weekly, group TV-watching date feels like a fun, easy way to catch up with my friends and treat myself.

3. Lovingly dissect those happy moments so you can make more of ‘em

Let’s say I feel down-to-my-bones happy every time I find myself drinking Friday afternoon cocktails on a patio with my ladies. I could, of course, say “Okay! Cocktails every Friday with my friends for the rest of my liiiiiife!!!”

But I suspect there’s more to it than that.

Do I love these Friday afternoon drinks because …

It feels good to catch up with my friends?
I love doing things at a time of day/week/month when most people are at work?
Eating and drinking outside is The Actual Best?
Being able to buy a $13 cocktail makes me feel successful and accomplished?
All of the above?

If I need all those factors in place to feel truly thrilled, then yes! I should fill my Fridays with patio drinks! But if I realize that it’s the friendship and connection that’s filling me up, I can get those any day of the week, in any location as long as a buddy is present.

4. Remember what made you happy as a child

If you’re still not quite sure what floats your boat, think about the things you loved as a kid.

What made us happy before we were worried about what was cool? What did we like when we weren’t concerned about the expense or difficulty? What did we love before we worried about being ‘good enough’?

What did we enjoy that doesn’t even fit under the ‘hobby’ heading? Rolling down hills? Finger painting? Dressing the dog in outfits?

If it made you happy then, it’ll probably make you happy now. Why don’t you give it a try and find out?

5. Remind yourself “This makes me happy”

Many of the things that make me happy are, to be honest, a hassle (and by ‘hassle’ I mean “require me to put on real clothes, google something, and leave the house”). Intellectually, I know taking a day trip to Hudson, working in a new coffee shop, and then hanging out on the sandbar will make me really happy … but it is just SO MUCH EASIER to keep working at home in my yoga pants.

Here’s how I remember what makes me happy:

  • I wrote a list of the things that make me happy – big and little, easy and difficult – and posted that list next to my computer. Whenever my mind wanders, whenever I’m feeling blue, I can look to the right of my computer screen and remember that reading a chapter of this book while cuddling the dog will make me happy.
  • When I’m in the middle of doing something that makes me happy I actually say to myself, “This makes me happy.”

I’m eating chocolate mousse at a supper club in rural South Dakota? “This makes me happy.”

I’m hiking around a lake on a sunny Tuesday afternoon? “This makes me happy.”

I just bought an amazing chair on Craigslist for $50? “This makes me happy.

Reciting this little phrase helps cement these happy-making habits in my brain and life. It helps me feel proud for taking steps to have the life I want. It reminds me that the hassle of happy – the planning, the boundary pushing, the saving and scheduling – is totally worth it.

Do you know what makes you happy? If you really think about it and dissect it, are you surprised by anything that lights you up?

P.S. 101 ways to cheer yourself up + Life has big plans for you.

P.P.S. Did you know I have a (free) private Facebook group dedicated solely to the topics of money and happiness? And the stuff we talk about has helped members change jobs, save thousands of dollars, and fight less with their partners? Join us!

photo credit: susan feldt // cc

Welcome to Yes & Yes!

Want to spend your time, money, and energy on purpose? I'll show you how.

You might also like…

How Much Happiness Is “Enough”? + 4 Things To Consider

How Much Happiness Is “Enough”? + 4 Things To Consider

I’m walking in the direction of a brass band; I can hear the horns from two blocks away. It’s golden hour and the sun is filtering through the big oaks that line the streets of my neighborhood. My little dog and I are trotting in the direction of “Under The Bridge,”...

read more


  1. Caroline

    I swear everywhere I turn, Anne of Green Gables is there. I think it might be time for me to get my L.M. Mongomery-loving self back into that world.

    Thanks for this post- great advice, as always.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      IT IS SO GOOD. One of my goals for this summer is to read everything L.M. Montgomery ever wrote. She wrote 20+ books!

      • Kylee

        Have you read A Tangled Web? It’s my favorite of her books!

        • Sarah

          Not yet! I’m re-sending the Emily books right now 🙂

          • Cait

            The Blue Castle is straight up on my desert island book list. SO GOOD.

          • Ali

            I bought The Blue Castle for my kindle earlier this week because of this comment. I just finished it. AND I LOVED IT. I think A Tangled Web will be next.

            I don’t know how I made it 27 years without realizing L.M. Montgomery wrote more than the Anne series! Thank you so much!

          • Sarah Von Bargen

            Ooooh! Awesome! I have one more book left in the Emily series and then I’m going to read The Blue Castle!

        • Kim

          OMG I love this article. And even though I don’t have Twitter, I love your tweets. They’re like bumper stickers that condense little bits of wisdom lol.

  2. Stephanie

    “Those moments when you’d lift your face to the sky and grin (but you don’t because it feels awkward), make note of those moments. Open up the ‘notes’ app on your phone and type in what, exactly, you were doing. ”

    I laugh because I do both of those, though the ‘notes’ consist of taking a picture and instagramming it.

    But I totally life my face to the sky and grin like a look. I’m usually on a walk. It’s fantastic and I don’t really care if I look weird. 🙂

    • darcie

      SAME! Instagram is my personal diary of reminders, personal achievements, and happiness moments. Scrolling through always makes me go, “OH, YEAH! THAT RULED!”

      • Sarah Von Bargen

        Yes! I don’t actually like TAKING photos (because I always get all up in my head about angle/light/etc) but looking through the photos I’ve taken makes me happy 🙂

      • Michele

        This is hands down the best article/blog I’ve ever read on the topic! Thanks so much!

        • Anonymous


  3. sarah may

    Loved the step on remembering who you were as a child and what made you happy then. I’m a firm believer the world rips who we are away from us in those teen and early adult years. Then we spend a lot of energy trying to figure out who we are when if we just look at who we were as kids we would find our talents and what makes us happy in life.

  4. Kate

    Man, I love this! I spent high school thinking I needed big things to make me happy – a new city, an exciting job, and I’ve spent university learning that I’m apparently a boring old lady who likes simple things. I like hiking with my dog and buying slurpees when it’s hot out. I like cooking dinner with my boyfriend and walking in the sunshine. I like listening to baseball games while I fold laundry. I like sleeping in on Sunday and drinking tea on the porch. I like drinking beers and playing board games with my friends. I like thrift shopping with my friends and I love eating cheeseburgers.

    I might not be as interesting as my teenage self dreamed of being, but I am infinitely happier. It’s honestly a bit of a relief to find out the little things that make you happy because it’s so much easier to plan a life for myself that includes all of these things.

    • Maa

      Kate, what you’ve wrote is just beautiful!

  5. Beth

    What stood out to me the most was what you said at the end about making yourself actually do the things that make you happy. I’m so guilty of choosing the lazy option over the thing that I know will actually make me happier. Working from home, I find it even more true. It’s so easy for me to just get consumed by work and feel like I don’t have time to leave (or don’t want to take the energy to). But getting out of the house – be it at a coffee shop or going on a run – is key to my happiness. It’s worth the effort!

  6. scar

    Oh yes I love this. I discovered that working out what makes me happy has been much easier since working for myself, because I’ve ended up stripping life back to its basics out of necessity, and then only layering in the things I actually care about.

    Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to more consciously build a routine around the things I enjoy doing and which are also in some way useful, so this post has come at a great time! 🙂

  7. Marie

    This is brilliant, thank you

  8. Alison

    Oh my gosh I love this post. I will do this today. Thanks for cutting through some of the you-know-what and getting to the meat of how to think about happiness! I love your personal list.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      So glad you found it helpful! I swear making that list has been a game-changer for me!

      • Micheal

        I think it would be really challenging in helping me realize what makes me happy .. have been able to read so much from google but it hasn’t been so helpful . I’m starting to feel depressed and very unhappy cause I don’t even know things to do that could make me happy ! I have a messed up background .. so think I need your help Sarah !

  9. Sam

    I think another thing to keep in mind is just your individuality overall. So many people get caught up with work-life balance and worrying about it or worrying about public perception etc. When honestly, if working 16 hour days makes you happy, do it. If doing something that others might deem weird or whatever (within reason, don’t break any laws), screw it, just do it. You’re winning so long as you’re happy in my opinion. Thanks Sarah.

  10. Marisa

    This is the best advice. To actually take notes about when you are happy! I feel like we all get a bit confused about what makes us happy because we are always being sold “happiness” by advertisers. Such a great post!

  11. Ella

    Seeing emails in my inbox from you makes me happy! Your posts are always such GREAT content and you do such a beautiful job of using your mailing list to inspire. Go Sarah!

    Starting that list on my phone now!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Oh thanks so much, Ella! <3

  12. Kamina

    Thanks for this insight, Sarah!

    Two other categories I find helpful:

    1. Things I think make me happy, but which I actually hate:
    – Going out for dinner (I like cooking and I hate waiting for food. This activity makes no sense)
    – Shopping, especially with my girlfriends
    – Going to the movies (I paid $16 and I’m not allowed to talk or pee for two hours. Whaaat)
    – Hiking

    2. Things I hate doing, the results of which make me really happy
    – Cleaning
    – Studying, learning or practising a new skill
    – Painting my nails/waxing my eyebrows/straightening my hair
    – Crossing stressful tasks off my to-do list

    Things in the second category are great for when I’m feeling like crap anyway, because I’m already not enjoying myself but these are guaranteed to make me feel better.

    I’m going to go and write a new list of activities that make me happy right now. x

    • Sarah Von Bargen


      That is so, so smart! I’m going to start a ‘things that I think make me happy but don’t’ list, too!

    • Blair

      Brilliant! Great points. I need these lists!

    • Stephen

      we named our daughter Kamina, you are the first other one I have seen! Great name – how did you get it?

    • Maa

      Great categories, especially second one! Thanks for the tip!

  13. Sandra, Italy

    Sarah, I’d never heard of The Happiness Project but after your post I bought it and there’s so much great STUFF in it!!!! Thanks for the tip!!! Oh and of course I LOVE your blog!!! ❤

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Isn’t it great!? It’s one of the few books I re-read regularly!

  14. Alanna

    What a brilliant post — love this and sharing it with everyone I know. I wrote my “What Makes Me Happy” list as I was reading this, and surprised to find that the best things in (my) life are FREE :). Also, it helps me realign my yearly goals to include the items on my list. Love this post!!

  15. Katie @ Resilient

    Love it! I made a list of dozens of random little things that made me happy years ago and even now just re-reading my list can bring a smile to my face. Sometimes it’s about the little things in life. 🙂

  16. Brigi

    After all; in order to reach happiness …., put effort !!!
    Happiness doesn’t fall from heaven… We have to support and be willing to reach such a feeling…, which of course will last for a moment though…. ;-)…. We wouldn’t value it otherwise!!! :))

  17. Shannon

    Great post!

  18. Antaram

    I think money make me happy because I can buy things what I like, go places where I want to go and do things what I want to do.

  19. Kendall

    I reread this post whenever you link to it–such wonderful, wonderful advice. Something that makes me happy (that I don’t do enough) is playing cards with friends or family. I spent my afternoon with my roommates, some happy hour snacks/drinks, and a deck of cards, and coupled with this post it was such a good reminder that I should be doing that more often.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yay! That makes me so happy!

  20. Elizabeth

    Idk why but cool dry breezes when it’s warm make me happy. Walking down a colorfully lit street right after sunset. Listening to 50s and 60s music live. Jazz. Complimenting a stranger and actually receiving a genuine one back. Getting hugs that aren’t forced. The thrill of starting a new book, finishing it, and finding out there’s a sequel. Leading a group of people successfully. Laughing with someone and neither of you can stop, that feeling

  21. Denise

    thing is.. i really don’t know what makes me happy. nothing makes me happy. i wasn’t even happy when i was a kid either.

    • Karen

      Me too

  22. Beverly

    Thank you! Reading this helped a lot. I’m so exhausted from working super hard for way too long, that all my usual happy things suddenly seem like a lot of work. But your suggestion of remembering what made you happy as a child helped a lot.

    At first I couldn’t remember. But then things started to come. The biggest was rolly things: bikes, skateboards, roller skates. Easy travel. Speed. Wind in my hair. Sun on my face. So I can’t believe it (and I certainly didn’t see this coming,) but I ordered a Razor scooter! I ‘m so sick of being in the car. I’m going to use it to get around town or just for joy rides. It arrives next week and I am super excited! Again, many thanks for this post!

  23. Mike | PositiveThinkingMind

    I love this! I made a list a couple years ago and reading this article helped me remember my list. I smiled and decided to make a new list. Walking on the beach during sunset, or a trail in the woods. Thanks for this!

  24. Anonymous

    This is really enlightening. It is true it can be challenging to identify true happiness. Money, friends and even family do not necessarily make one happy. I will try to note the moments that draw real happiness henceforth. Thanks for the article.

  25. Manish Dhakane

    Great advice! Thanks for those helpful advices. Now I can be happy always 🙂

  26. Arizona

    “You know those moments of “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is”?” Well, that kills it right there. I can’t remember the last time I even had such a moment.

Pin It on Pinterest