My Mom’s 4 Rules for a Happy, Fulfilled, Engaged Life

The teacher (left) and his parents, Cory-John Albert and Joel Teich.

Source: Cory-John Albert

For 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.

This is Generation: My Nonni first gave my mother the first three rules when she was 6 years old. „Children have very little power in their lives,” Nonni later told her daughter. „I wanted you to feel like you had a little bit on you.”

My mother added a fourth rule and sent it to my sister and me:

  1. Do whatever makes you happy.
  2. You can do anything you really want to do in this world.
  3. You don’t have to do anything in this world that you don’t want to do.
  4. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

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

I will deal with that argument in a moment. First, I’d like the 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 great pieces of wisdom that can be used to help someone find greater meaning and fulfillment, in a variety of ways.”

The first rule is simple, if not always easy: realize what gives you satisfaction and fulfillment, and seek those things. „When in doubt, go back to them,” my mom says. „This is a very important rule.”

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This doesn’t mean drop everything and become a hedonist. No one is happy all the time, and if that’s your goal, life’s normal ups and downs can leave you feeling disappointed and self-doubt.

Think of movie characters who go about their jobs or buy mansions or sports cars, believing that only wealth and influence will finally make them happy. It never works.

Rather, the rule echoes the psychological concept „Prioritizing the positive,” says Harrison. If you build activities and connections into your day that engage you — help improve your relationships, give you a sense of personal growth, create little sparks of joy — you’ll come out the other end happier.

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

„Focus on the little moments that bring you joy and fulfillment,” says Harrison. „And then when you look at that list, you’re like, 'Okay, how do I make these more frequent in my day?’ You might start thinking that.”

There’s an unspoken second half to this rule: as long as you’re willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

When I was 5 years old, I wanted to become a professional baseball player. Chasing that dream now, figuring out how to go from desk job to top athlete would require giving up my career, hobbies, and friends, spending a ton of money I don’t have, and dedicating an unfathomable amount of effort. An unprecedented task.

This apparently did not happen. Still, if I really wanted to, it would be technically possible.

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„You’re not too young or too old,” says my mother. „Sometimes, you don’t have some combination of knowledge, experience, finances and time – but if you have enough of it, you can get those things. Never forget this.”

Psychologically, it is linked to perception Self-efficacyHarrison says – if you don’t believe you can do something, you’ll probably struggle.

You can build self-efficacy in two ways, he adds: proving you can do something by going out and trying, and being motivated by people who believe in you.

My mother trusts you.

There’s an unspoken second half to this rule: as long as you’re willing to accept it Consequences of your actions.

Is ignoring that tough job from your boss holding you back from getting a promotion? Does staying home hurt your relationships with your friends because you don’t want to dress up and attend that party?

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

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

„Part of living a good life is identifying what you don’t want to do so you can focus on the things that really matter,” Harrison says. „You’re only human and can find great joy in accepting the reality that you can’t do everything. The idea that you can is often the cause of stress and anxiety.”

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“In the grand scheme of things, there are only two things you should do in this world,” my mother adds. „Breathe in. Breathe out.”

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

My fatal flaw is biting off more than I can chew. In high school, I enthusiastically took on a gigantic course load and piled on extra curriculars. In college, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I did it over and over again.

I swore I would never let myself get burned again. Then, my entry-level job pushed me past sanity—I took on more responsibility at a local nonprofit and joined a band. What have you been doing, young Cameron?

Prospects may be happy. Some doors need to be opened and run with excitement. „But if you find yourself overwhelmed or tired, give yourself permission to say no,” says my mother. „Even if it’s something you know how to do. Even if it’s something no one else can do as well as you can.”

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

„Oh my god, I can’t mess with your mom’s rules,” Harrison says with a laugh. „The only thing I can consider adding is: Do it with people you love.”

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