8 Secrets for a Happy Life from History’s Greatest Philosophers

Everlasting lessons from some of the world’s greatest minds

What is happiness? I know this is a question you’ve asked yourself before. Why? Because it’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves before; we all want to live a happy life, it’s a natural desire that all humans have since the beginning of time. But your answer to this burning question will be different to mine, and in fact, to anyone else’s.

This overwhelming range of opinions surrounding such a transcendental question lingered in the minds of some of the wisest philosophers in history, and there’s a lot to be learned from their reflections.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not entirely convinced that you’ve found your answer, or you’re at least curious to affirm your thoughts. So here are 8 thought-provoking quotes that will help bring you one step closer to defining your happiness; which perspective aligns best with yours?


“There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path.” — Buddha Gautama, 400 B.C., Nepal & India

I have spent my life planning; planning the steps I had to take to reach a particular goal. I convinced myself that, once I achieved a particular goal, I would be happy. It makes sense; if my desire is to achieve something, surely once I do, I’ll be proud to have done so, or at least I’ll be satisfied. Right? Wrong.

The sense of failure we feel when we don’t achieve our goals is massively more pronounced than the sense of success we feel when we do. Success becomes a mere threshold for our happiness. We can’t be happy until we achieve it, but when we do, we feel as though we’ve only just surpassed the minimum limit. We might feel a momentary sense of relief, pride, and joy. But, we quickly move on to the next goal and start to map out a new path towards happiness.

It’s great to set goals and work towards them, but unless we learn to find happiness along the way, we’ll be pushing the objective away from us, as opposed to pulling it towards us.


“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” — Socrates, 400 BC., Greece

This quote immediately reminded me of my Dad. It’s something he lives by, and a phrase he’s repeated to me time and time again. When I was younger, it was usually in the context of “learn to travel light, I can’t handle this spectacle at the airport every time”; but recently, I’ve come to realize the real weight that this phrase bears, and the power it holds to change the course of your life.

We have a tendency, socially, to view careers as vertical trajectories; ladders that we need to climb if we want to achieve more success, more money, more power, or higher status. But what for?

Just yesterday, I had dinner in a luxurious villa. A huge, beautiful house in a wealthy neighborhood on the north coast of Spain. The owner is a friend of my parents; in short, he worked hard and made a fortune. And, with this fortune, he designed this house; beautifully decorated with art that probably mirrors the cost of the villa itself, a home cinema, a huge pool, a built-in library (one with a ladder on which to glide from book to book), a games room…

As you can probably imagine, I had a lot of fun. But, the novelty wore off quite quickly. I had fun because of the great company, the insightful conversations, the copious amount of hummus I ate, and the great wine. Honestly, these are the things that brought me the most joy. And you don’t need to be a rich CEO or a Partner at a top law firm to enjoy these things. Beauty and joy can be found in the small things in life.


“The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depends upon himself, and not upon other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily.”— Plato, 370 B.C., Greece

This quote is deeper than it seems. It can be interpreted to mean that we should all do what we want to do; to chase our own dreams and create happiness for ourselves. Your definition of happiness is unique to you; everyone else has a different plan and a different idea of happiness. So you can’t rely on someone else to make you happy. Whether it’s a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a boss, a friend, a parent, an investor…

But it goes one step further. Whatever it is that we’re doing in life, we’ll be faced with things we don’t want to do, inevitable external problems that we have to overcome. And it’s during these times in particular, that our internal happiness will depend upon ourselves. It’s how we interpret these external forces that counts, and how we chose to allow them to influence us.

I’m sure there are times that you’ve said something you wish you hadn’t; a time when you’ve snapped in anger at a partner, a parent, or a friend. It’s probably something you felt you couldn’t control at the time; a natural reaction to something they said or did that you found displeasing.

Changing your reaction to your surrounding isn’t easy to control. It requires a lot of self-awareness. It requires that you truly stop to think about why you’re feeling the way that you’re feeling — Was it the external factor? Or could it be your own perception?


“Happiness depends on ourselves.”— Aristotle, 350 B.C., Greece

Aristotle followed Plato’s path. He believed that every individual pursues happiness and that happiness lies in self-realization. Some are happy earning money; others, receiving awards and titles; others traveling. Each individual possesses a unique reason for happiness, and in order to find our own, we need to look within ourselves; we need to practice self-reflection.

But there’s a catch. Identifying what truly makes you happy can be petrifying. Why? Because you might realize that you’ve been on the wrong course for a while. What if your efforts have been in vain? What if you’ve done all of this for nothing? It’s a hard thing to admit. What if you need to start over? It’s petrifying.

I was one of the people who came to this realization this year; that I was on the wrong path. And it was tough. Deep down I already knew, I just hadn’t admitted it to myself. But once I realized, I couldn’t ignore it — there’s a better way to live for me. So, I took action; I changed course, and for the first time in a long time, I’m excited for what the future holds.


“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so, wants nothing.”— Seneca, 65 AD, Italy

Seneca was a stoic philosopher, who firmly believed in what psychologists now call the “locus of control”; the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces (that they can’t influence), have control over the outcome of events in their lives.

For example, when receiving exam results, those people with a strong internal locus of control will praise or blame themselves and their abilities, as they believe the outcome derives primarily from their own actions. Contrarily, people with a strong external locus of control would tend to praise or blame external factors, such as the teacher or the exam.

Seneca believed that to find true happiness, we should focus on developing a strong internal locus of control; to consider ourselves as the actors, and not bystanders of our lives. You’re more powerful than you think.


“Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.” — Soren Kierkegaard, 19th-century philosopher, Denmark

Maybe the answer is, that there is no answer. The concept of happiness might not exist, so it can’t be defined or explained. It’s an emotion to be lived; differently, and uniquely be each of us. It’s not something we should chase, or worry about, because it’s something that’s already inside of us, whether we can feel it or not. And maybe the only way to feel it is to stop pursuing it. Maybe it doesn’t want to be found; it wants to find you.

I actually love this quote. It’s similar to Henry Thoreau’s perspective:

“Happiness is like a buttlerfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” — Henry David Thoreau, 19th-century philosopher, Massachusetts, U.S.

These great thinkers were of the mind that happiness comes from being present in the moment and enjoying the ride. Once we stop turning our circumstances into problems and start thinking of them as experiences, we can start to find joy and enjoy the beauty of the moment.


Last, but not least, one of my favorite quotes of all time.

“Happiness is the feeling that power increases — that resistance is being overcome.” — Friedrich Nietzsche — 19th-century philosopher, Germany

Most of the time, we’re the biggest barrier to our own happiness. We create problems that aren’t there. Even when we’re faced with external forces, it’s our internal interpretations of those forces that lead us to feel unhappy. We tell ourselves we can’t do something and hold ourselves back.

Niklas Göke once wrote, that one of the signs that you’re emotionally mature, is that you reconsider your interpretations of what others say and do. There’s a power that comes from knowing that your interpretation of your surroundings is just your interpretation. They’re not necessarily bad or necessarily good; they’re whatever you interpret them to be.

We all live in our own reality; make yours a happy one.


Each of these great thinkers had their own take on happiness. But there’s one thing that permeates through them all. That is, our individual power to self-reflect and recognize that our own happiness is already within us. So, don’t wait to find happiness; choose to be happy.

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