The Hardest Lesson You'll Ever Learn About Happiness Is Also The Most Important One

How to be happy with the life you have, and not the life you want.

Last updated on Sep 07, 2023

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When we’re children, the authority figures in our lives spend a lot of time teaching us about the merits of ambition.

If we have access to strong mentors, they tell us to work hard, to strive, and to never accept any less than our very best. They’re really vital lessons for young people, that idea that anything is possible, however, as I grow older, I realize that my mentors neglected to teach me about another equally important topic.


How to be content.

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How to be happy with that I have.

How to stop worrying about what’s next.

Happiness is everything.

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with being aspirational. You won’t get anywhere in life if you don’t occasionally set big, bold goals and pursue them. But, that being said, it is interesting that we don’t really think about teaching children what to do once they’ve hit those goals.

Because everyone hits a ceiling eventually. And, once they do, they’re going to have to learn to live on that level, which isn’t something we prepare young people for.


And let’s be frank — most people in the world don’t achieve every personal goal they’ve ever had. Most of us don’t get the opportunity to learn what it’s like to live on the edge of a limitless horizon.

We live our lives and we achieve what we can.

Do those lives always match what we dreamed about as children? No. And that’s not a fault of “not enough ambition.” Ambition can only carry you so far, particularly when you consider race, class, and a million other factors that play into the equation.

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So the vast majority of us will hit a point in our lives where it becomes clear that we’ve tapped out our potential to a certain extent. That’s not a sad thing. That’s just… life.


But the tricky part is finding our way to a sense of contentment. Because, despite our wildest dreams, we do eventually have to learn to live with what we have.

That’s a really difficult thing to do for many reasons. We were told that we could achieve anything. We might have friends and family who have so much more than us.

We can turn on our televisions and watch reality shows following people who are objectively worse than us, having access to more money and opportunity than we ever could’ve dreamed of.

And that’s hard. That can be hard to accept.

Why do they get so much when you have a mortgage, a job, and regrets?

We need to start teaching people when they’re young, that ambition means nothing if you can’t balance it with a sense of being content with what you have.


That’s not giving up. That’s just learning to appreciate what life has given you.

Life owes us nothing.

So, if we can carve out a little section of it for ourselves, even if it isn’t the grandiose life we once imagined, we have to appreciate that.

We have to see the grace in what we have. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re doing OK. You have internet access, you probably have a phone. I’m going to assume that you have clothes, shelter, and a place to live.

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You’re doing so much better than so many others. And I don’t mean that in a “Ha ha, you’re better than them” way. What I mean is that, despite the chaos in the world, your existence is filled with blessings that you probably can’t even recognize.


You don’t have to fall to your knees and thank the universe for the ramen you’re having for dinner tonight. But, when you can, you should take a step back and appreciate that, in this galaxy of fire and randomness, you exist. And that’s a beautiful thing.

And, yes, your former college roommate might be a lawyer and own a mansion now. And, yes, you never did sell the screenplay to Hollywood.

But even the people who do achieve all of their goals have to learn how to be happy with what they have. Just like you.


The search for contentment is something that affects all of us.

Rich and poor. Weak and powerful. We all have to work to be comfortable in our skins, in our lives, at this moment right now, or else what’s the point of ambition?

If we can’t take a moment to breathe and appreciate where we are, why do we ever think that getting that next big thing will finally make us happy?

Finding a path to contentment should be just as important to us as achieving our goals. And, once you finally learn to be happy with what you have, you might discover that was your ultimate goal all along.

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Tom Burns has served as a contributing editor for 8BitDad and The Good Men Project, and his writing has been featured on Babble, Brightly,, Time Magazine, and various other sites.