Four rules for a meaningful, fulfilled life

My mom has 4 rules for a meaningful, fulfilled life: A happiness expert says she ‘loves’ them

Published Sun, May 14 20238:30 AM EDT


As long as I can remember, I’ve known the secret to happiness — or, at least, my mom’s four rules for a happy life.

It’s generational: My Nonni originally gave the first three rules to my mom when my mom was 6 years old. “Children have so little power in their lives,” Nonni later told her daughter. “I wanted you to feel like you had some over yours.”

My mom added the fourth rule and passed them to me and my sister:

Do what makes you happy.

You can do anything in this world that you really want to do.

You don’t have to do anything in this world that you don’t really want to do.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you must.

You may either be nodding in agreement or already trying to poke holes. You don’t have to do anything in this world that you don’t really want to do? Tell that to the Internal Revenue Service when you stop filing your taxes.

I’ll tackle that argument momentarily. First, I want a happiness expert’s opinion: Is my mom on the right track?

“I love these rules,” says Stephanie Harrison, founder of happiness and well-being startup The New Happy. “They sound like excellent pieces of wisdom that could be used to guide somebody, in a number of different ways, to finding more meaning and fulfillment.”

Do what makes you happy

The first rule is simple, if not always easy: Recognize what brings you contentment and fulfillment, and seek those things out. “When in doubt, return to them,” my mom says. “This is the most important rule.”

This doesn’t mean drop everything and become a hedonist. Nobody is constantly happy, and if that’s your goal, the ordinary ups-and-downs of life might leave you disappointed and self-doubting.

Think about movie characters who throw themselves into their work, or buy up mansions or sports cars, hoping that wealth and influence alone will finally make them happy. It never works.

Rather, the rule echoes the psychological concept of “prioritizing positivity,” says Harrison. If you build activities and interactions into your day that engage you — help improve your relationships, give you a sense of personal growth, create tiny sparks of delight — you’ll come out happier on the other end.

If your job doesn’t make you happy, for example, figure out which work tasks feel the most meaningful to you and lean into them. Or, in the words of every sports coach I’ve ever had, focus on the process, not the outcome.

“Make note of the small moments that bring you joy and fulfillment,” Harrison says. “And then once you look at that list, you can start to think, ‘OK, how can I craft these more frequently into my day?'”

You can do anything in this world that you really want to do

This rule has an unspoken second half: as long as you’re willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

When I was 5, I wanted to become a professional baseball player. Chasing that dream now, figuring out how to go from desk job to peak athlete, would require me to abandon my career, hobbies and friends, spend a ton of money that I don’t have, and dedicate an incomprehensible level of effort to an unprecedented task.

It’s obviously not happening. Still, if I really, really wanted to, it might technically be possible.

“You are never too young or too old,” my mom says. “Sometimes, you will lack some combination of knowledge, experience, funding and time — but if it’s important enough to you, you can get those things. Never forget this.”

In psychological terms, this ties into the concept of self-efficacy, says Harrison — that if you don’t believe you can do something, you’ll probably struggle.

You can build self-efficacy in two ways, she adds: proving that you’re capable of something by going out and trying it, and being motivated by people who believe in you.

My mom believes in you.

You don’t have to do anything in this world that you don’t really want to do

This rule also has an unspoken second half: as long as you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions.

Will ignoring that tedious assignment from your boss keep you from getting a promotion? Will staying home because you don’t want to get dressed and attend that party harm your relationships with your friends?

“If not paying your taxes is so important to you that you’re willing to go to jail over it, then no, you don’t have to pay your taxes,” my mom says. “I’m not advocating that you commit any crimes, mind you.”

Basically, this rule is about the importance of setting boundaries. If you find something that won’t make you happy — not now, not ever — return to rule No. 1.

“Part of living a good life, in my opinion, is about identifying what you don’t want to do, because then you can focus on the things that do really matter,” Harrison says. “There is a great deal of happiness to be found in accepting the reality that you’re just one human being, and you can’t do everything. The idea that you can is often the source of a lot of stress and anxiety.”

“In the grand scheme of things, there are only two things in this world that you absolutely have to do,” my mom adds. “Breathe in. And breathe out.”

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you must

Ah, my favorite — and the one I’ve struggled with the most.

My fatal flaw is biting off more than I can chew. In high school, I excitedly took on a gigantic course load and heaping of extracurriculars that drove me to a mental breakdown. In college, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, I repeated the pattern.

I swore I’d never let myself burn out again. Then, my entry-level job overloaded me past the point of sanity — while I took on more responsibility at a local nonprofit, and even joined a band. What were you doing, young Cameron?

Opportunities can be fun. Some doors are meant to be opened and exuberantly run through. “But if and when you find yourself overwhelmed or fatigued, allow yourself to say no,” says my mom. “Even if it’s something you know you are good at. Even if it’s something that nobody can do as well as you can.”

For a recovering do-everything-a-holic, this is life-saving advice. My only remaining question: Are these four rules missing anything?

“Oh gosh, I can’t mess with your mom’s rules,” Harrison says, laughing. “The only thing I would potentially consider adding is: Do it with the people you love.”

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