How To Help Other People Make You Happier

Can you enlist the people in your life to help you be happier? Yes! Sort of! If you're looking for happiness tips or relationship advice, tap through for suggestions on how to make your needs and expectations known - lovingly. #happinesstips #selfhelp #selfdevelopment #fullfillment

It’s August 29th, 2004 and things are NOT going as planned. I wake up: zero ‘Happy Birthday!” texts. I open my email: three pieces of spam and one email from a colleague asking me to teach his Friday evening class.

I push through the glass doors of the school where I teach and my co-workers barely glance up from their grading. My work BFF pulls me aside for a quick gossip about our boss and points out I have a marker stain on my shirt. I head into my kindergarten class hoping this is some sort of elaborate ruse: A setup to lower my expectations before everyone jumps out and yells ‘Surpriiiiiise!’

Friends, there was no surprise party. My 26th birthday was commemorated with a voicemail from my parents and two belated emails from high school friends.

After I spent a few days sulking and eating my feelings, I realized there was exactly one person to blame for The Sad Birthday Debacle Of ’04.


Had I told anyone my birthday was coming up? I had not.

Had I given my roommate or my friends a head’s up that my birthday was a big deal to me and one of my love languages is ‘fuss-making’? Nope.

Had I done anything to make it easier for my friends to show me they loved me? No. If anything, I’d made it oddly hard. I’d created one of those “If you don’t know, then I’m not telling you” scenarios.

What if we made it easier for our friends and family to make us happy? What if we helped people make us happier?

Of course, a giant preamble: Really, you’re the only person who’s responsible for your happiness

In a perfect world, the people who love us add to our lives. They help us be our best selves. They’re interested in knowing what makes us happy. Once they have that information, they want to do things that will add more happiness to our lives.

That said, your best friend is busy. Your partner has hobbies. Your family members have lots of things on their proverbial plates. They all love you and want you to be happy! They do not necessarily have time to make your happiness a priority in their lives!

So let’s do our very best to hold two truths in our big, clever minds and hearts simultaneously:
1. People probably won’t know how to make us happy unless we tell them.
2. Even if they know how to make us happy, the people in our lives are not required to spend their time and energy making us happy every minute of every day.

Yes? Yes.

Now that we’ve established that, let’s talk about how we can help people make us happier.

Make Happiness Lists and share them with each other

Could you die with embarrassment at the thought of listing out your happy-making things and sharing them? Being honest about what brings you joy can be surprisingly vulnerable, especially if it’s different than what makes all your friends or family happy.

I know it seems cringe-y and awkward. If you’re partnered up with a dude, he might balk at the thought of putting his inner workings on paper.

Do it anyway. If you don’t know what makes you happy, read this. If you get stuck after listing five things, read this.

You can’t add more happiness to your life if you don’t know what makes you happy. You can’t help your partner, best friend, or sibling add more happiness to their lives if they don’t tell you what makes them happy.

Once you’ve written out your Happiness List, just swap ‘em and read. You’ll probably be amazed by what you discover!

When a happy-making opportunity is coming up, TELL PEOPLE WHAT YOU WANT THEM TO DO

When my friends Jordan and Aaron started talking about marriage, Jordan outlined very, very clearly the type of proposal she wanted. She wanted a ‘production,’ something public, something that involved their friends. BUT NO JUMBOTRON.

Aaron listened. He planned for months, even creating a Slack channel to keep all his accomplices organized! This was the end result.

Let this be a lesson to us all: You won’t get what you want if you don’t tell us you want it. Click To TweetIf your birthday is coming up and it makes you happy when people make a fuss over it: make sure people know that.

If thoughtful, meaningful presents make you a million times happier than gift cards: make sure your family members know that.

If waking up to a clean kitchen makes you happy: make sure the people you share a space with know that.

Sidenote you probably don’t need: Obviously, we don’t want to be jerks about this. Let’s not yell when we get roses instead of peonies. Let’s not expect our disorganized BFF to make us happy by planning our birthday party. Let’s keep our requests and expectations realistic and humane.

Communicate these things in a charming(ish), non-demanding way

Less “Uh, if you love me you’ll plan a surprise birthday party for me, OKAY????”

More “Hey, babe. You know I’m a total birthday nerd and it’s a really special day for me. It makes me so happy to have a fuss made over it. I’d really love it if you could plan a weekend away for us. Do you need me to give you any ideas for destinations or do you want to handle the whole thing?”

Not so much “If you give me a gift card I’ll throw it in the trash and set your car on fire.”

Maybe more like “Hey fam! It’s getting closer to the holidays! Let’s talk about gifts! I so enjoy getting real, actual gifts – it makes me so happy to open a package you wrapped to find something you put thought into! I 100% do not care about price point. It can be handmade.

You can buy me something from the Dollar General that references an inside joke! I care not! I just want to open a package and find something awesome/funny/thoughtful inside! And tell me what type of gift you want! Do you prefer gift cards? Handmade stuff? Experiences? Help me give you something you’d love!”

People respond better if we end these requests with a question about how we can help them and how we can return the happy-making favor. Bonus: now you know more about what makes the people in your life happy! And you can give Uncle Bob the Cabella’s gift card that makes his heart sing!

Now, do things you know make other people happy

Your partner is more likely to plan the weekend away that makes you happy if you go on the bike rides that make them happy.

Your brother is more likely to attend your birthday party if you go to his soccer game.

Your best friend is more likely to keep those Skype dates if you send her postcards.

This is not to suggest of course that we keep a running tally of all the times we’ve made our best friends happy (17) and all the times they’ve made us happy (23).

But if you consistently do things to make someone happy – and they know you’re doing it because you’ve actually discussed what makes each of you happy – they’re a lot more likely to reciprocate.

Again, don’t expect everyone to do things that make you happy all the time

Once we’ve told people what makes us happy, it’s easy to take offense when they do something they ‘know’ won’t make us happy. “But! But! I told you I don’t like gift cards! I told you I like actual gifts! AND YET YOU GAVE ME A GIFT CARD WHY DO YOU HATE ME.”

When we’ve made our expectations and needs clear it can feel like people are intentionally hurting us when they don’t give us what we want/need. I know you know this but I’m telling you anyway: it’s very rare that the people in our lives are trying to hurt us. As some famous philosopher/Pinterest reminds us:

Don’t ascribe to malice what can be plainly explained by incompetence. Click To Tweet

Making our needs and expectations known won’t make life perfect or a never-ending highlight real of joy. But it will get us a lot closer.

But I want to hear from you! Have you ever spelled out what makes you happy to the people in your life? If you did – how’d that go? Give us your tips (or tell us how you phrased it!) so we can try it in our own lives!

P.S. How to diversify your happiness + How to deal with people disappoint 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 by Stephanie Liverani // cc

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  1. Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

    Love your posts as always. Happiness is always in your own hands, but yes, to help others make you happy, communication is the key! That’s true for every social situation!

  2. Annie

    oh man, that proposal video is epic! my eyes are crying!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      So sweet, right?

  3. Lindsay

    yes! this aligns with one of my top rules for life: ask for what you want, and don’t get mad when you don’t get what you want, but you didn’t ask for it.

    a few years ago i asked my husband to surprise me for my birthday. it didn’t have to be a huge surprise, just something fun to do that i didn’t know about. he took me to a baseball game, and halfway through the first inning a bunch of our friends showed up! some friends thought it was weird that i asked for that so specifically. but it was awesome!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I think that’s awesome, Lindsay! And you’re right, if you don’t ask for it, you’re not going to get it!

  4. Anna

    Mother’s Day / Father’s Day are occasions where we blatantly ask each other for what we want. Is it time with the kids? Time without the kids? Jewelry (I adore the silver necklace with the fingerprint charms of my kids – that I asked for)? An activity?

    Especially in relationships, it’s so much easier to have the celebrations and gifts you want if you express what you want directly. And if you love surprises: SAY THAT TOO.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yessss! I know so many people who think a gesture ‘counts less’ if they had to ask for it, but I think it actually ‘counts more.’ What’s so special about someone sort of guessing what you want?

  5. Jenn

    This this this!

    It’s also important to note…if you are consistently clear about your expectations and people don’t meet them…maybe re-evaluate the relationship/dynamic? Case in point: I am a birthday lover, guy I was dating at the time (who incidentally had his birthday on the eve of mine) was not. We’d been together a year.

    I asked what his perfect birthday would look like. When he did not ask about my expectations I highlighted that I was a birthday nerd and would love a meal at X nice restaurant. He smiled and made the reservation. His birthday was a success, it even illicited a best birthday ever. Mine? He showed up in sweats because he was tired from his birthday and canceled the dinner reservation with plans to celebrate sometime soon.

    A birthday and a breakup. But! It was a brilliant lesson in expectations and clarity

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yesssss! I couldn’t agree more, Jenn. Good for you for believing him when he showed you who he was!

  6. Deb

    I love all your happiness posts 🙂

  7. Jane B.

    Sarah — Jordan and Aaron’s proposal video was simply EPIC ! ! ! ! ! Thank you SO much for sharing it with all of us. Wow. That guy is a keeper! She was wholehearted in asking for what she wanted! Bravo, you two. I hope you have the happiest of married life together forever. Oh, man, so well done.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Wasn’t it so fun!?

  8. Rachel

    It’s great to see an email from your blog in my inbox. There’s some actual fun reading that i can look forward to! Thank you =)

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