The House-ness of your Happiness (three fundamental characteristics of happiness)

“Happiness is not something ready made.” ~Dalai Lama

Does your happiness feel stuck in neutral, spinning in the sands of monotony … no matter how hard you hit the gas?

Put another way, have you ever remodeled, repaired and re-carpeted the living room of your life only to watch the whole house sink into the mud of frustration, disappointment and boredom?

The House-ness of Happiness

Some of that frustration is born of chasing happiness down hallways or through open doors only to find it was never down that hallway or through that door.

That’s why knowing the floor plan of happiness ahead of time is so critically important. It can be the difference between taking our happiness to new levels and giving up trying to be happy altogether.

So let’s take a look behind the front door and into the livingspace called happiness.

Stylistic Features of Happiness

When you enter a house, the first thing you notice is the general style and decor of the home–it’s size and roominess, paint color, furniture, the clutter or cleanliness, whether they have carpet, hardwood floors or tile.Happiness likewise has these stylistic features. We are some combination of athletic, musical, creative and intellectual. We get excited about high octane adventure or a cerebral life of introspection. There are things we love to do and things we love to avoid doing. These are the colors of paint on the walls of our lives.

Some love to dance. Others do yoga. Some draw. Some sing. Some eat lots of chocolate. They are the way we arrange the furniture in the living room of our lives. We are passionate about writing or running or snowboarding or collecting stamps. We study history or play piano or watch birds or enter debates or do math.

The more we do the things we love, the better we feel about the life we lead. When we do them, we feel good. When we do lots of them, we feel better. Even when all we do is think about doing the things we love, our brains produce little happy chemicals that make us feel better than before thinking of them.

But just as a house is much more than the paint or the furniture or the plushness of the carpet, happiness is much more than its stylistic features as well.

Structural Features of Happiness

Beneath the paint is a wall. Below the carpet is a floor. Inside the walls are wires that provide current to vacuums and toasters. Below the floors are pipes that provide water to sinks and toilets. These are the structural elements of a home’s house-ness.

So it is with happiness. The positive nature of our thinking, the way we handle stress or tragedy, the ease with which we break into laughter. These are deeper components to our happiness. They are the substance on which the paint of our preferences is applied.

But just as walls are more difficult to move than furniture, the structural elements of happiness are trickier to reshape as well.

It is, after all, easier to set aside time to read poetry or go hiking than to structurally revamp the way we fundamentally interpret events around us, as pessimists or optimists.

The structural elements of happiness (or unhappiness) are where therapists spend much of their time.

Just as walls and plumming are mostly noticed only when they produce strange colors or smells, anxiety, insecurity and depression are just a few of the reasons we may also notice the walls, ceilings and floors our unhappiness.

Foundational Features of Happiness

But there is a deeper aspect to our happiness that is a bit trickier to identify or measure.

You see, if someone changed the blinds in the living room or replaced the Posturepedic mattress with a waterbed, we’ll quickly know it. If we move a wall or change the front door, we’ll see it and experience it in short order.

But the foundation below the house, under the dirt, that which secures it, and keeps it from sinking, that’s as much a part of the house-ness of a home as any wall or door ever pretended to be. As a matter of fact, we can get by just fine without many of our walls. There’s even a lucrative industry for people skilled at knocking the right ones down to “open up” living spaces.

But not so without foundations. Without foundations, houses sink into the dirt their built on, walls misalign, paint cracks and structural integrity is compromised. Without foundations of happiness, our lives tend to do the same thing.

We’re even told the security of a building in harsh climatic conditions depends on the depth and strength of the concrete slab at its foundation.

Happiness has its own foundational characteristics. And like the concrete slab beneath our home, these foundational principles and qualities determine how high and enduring our happiness can be built up as well.

What’s at the Foundation of Happiness?

So watching romantic vampire movies may be my stylistic pleasure (which lasts only as long as bad acting can be tolerated). The degree to which I find meaning and purpose in my life is the structure on which I can splash the paint of movie preferences.

But below the wall, holding everything else up, is my character. My values. The principles of virtue and decency that allows me to look into the mirror and generally like who I see in it. It is the deeper, foundational part of my identity.

(I’ve dealt with the specifics of that foundation here. Click over to see how specific foundational qualities affects how happy we ultimately become.)


When we ignore foundations, we limit happiness to just the first few floors of potential. We build into the structure a degree of instability and softness that quickly shows when life’s storms become particularly painful and challenging.

But the potential for our happiness is much grander than a mere few floors and more resilient and sturdy than the grass huts that define the more fleeting brand of happiness.

By focusing on foundational character traits, we begin to add floors and whole wings to the house until our lives start to feel much more like skyscrapers and mansions than huts or houses.

What you do at the foundation, then, will determine how high and large and grand you ultimately build a happy life.

PS: I’ve recently been introduced to a documentary about a family on a year-long, around-the-world quest to find meaning in service. It’s a family who understands the foundational elements of happiness. I get no affiliate kick-back whatsoever. I just want you to click over and watch the trailer here. You can check out their website here. It’s truly an amazing story!

Your Turn …

What’s at the foundation of your happiness?