The 3 Ingredients to a Happy Existence

"It is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many." - Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica

14 min. read

Intentionality, Mindfulness, and Minimalism are all you need, beyond basic biological requirements (clean water, nutritious food, human touch, etc.), to live a happy existence. This is what I’ve come to believe. I’ll define what I mean by all three, and talk about their relationship to one another, but first I want to talk about “happiness.”

I don’t aspire toward being happy all the time, nor do I recommend it. I don’t think of happiness as existing at the opposite end of sadness, nor do I think that sadness is inherently bad. All emotions have value.

Think of happiness on a continuum with lack of happiness on the other end, sadness on a continuum with lack of sadness on the other end, and so forth. Experiencing happiness doesn’t necessarily make you less sad — The Barenaked Ladies kew this: “I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral.”

Similarly, other emotions (anger, surprise, disgust, contempt, and fear) are not necessarily dependent on one another. Or, at least, they don’t need to be. And while some emotions are generally cast as bad (anger, disgust, contempt, and fear) I’m going to argue otherwise, with a few caveats.

Truly, I aspire toward a content existence (and I highly recommend giving it a shot — it’s better than Kix). And while I still have a long way to go, and don’t expect to ever be “done” on this front, I’ve experienced the most contentedness (or happiness) in my life when I strike a harmonious balance between these three things.

con·tent kuh n- tent: satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more or anything else

The colloquial usage of happiness, as in a “happy life,” is interchangeable with contentedness, but it’s a dangerous flip-flop. Nobody is absolutely happy all the time — the idea of experiencing a constant level of an emotion like that in itself is exhausting. And we tend to make the assumption that when someone says you should be happy that what they really mean is content, I want to be intentional in advocating contentedness, and not perpetuating a misconception that not being totally happy all the time is a bad thing. I try to be intentional as much as possible.

Let’s talk about that first, though I encourage you not to think about these as steps, but instead as mutually supportive and interdependent states of mind.


in·ten·tion in-ten-shuh n: an act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result

Intentionality is all about choice. We make thousands of choices every day, and many of us let the world make thousands of choices _for us _every day. Being intentional is living in a way that maximizes the former and minimizes the latter.

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There’s a quote (can’t remember who said it, nor could I find it on google) that goes something like “We can’t choose what happens to us, but we can choose how to react” (if you know who said it, please let me know). This is the essence of what I’m talking about here. The unabridged version of the quote might read “We can’t choose what happens to us, but we can choose how to react, or let the world choose for us.”

By “the world” I really mean impulse, which comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Sometimes we react with impulse because we feel we’ve been wronged. Other times it’s because something unexpected goes right. Impulsive happiness can be just as destructive as impulsive sadness, because both rid us of our ability to act with intention. Impulsiveness puts our well-being at the whimsy of the universe, which is chaos, and chaos does not tend to a content person make. If you rely on the universe to make you happy, and happiness is what you seek, odds are you’re going to be experiencing a lot more of the other six emotions instead.

I’ll talk more about intentionality and impulsiveness in a bit, but first let’s address mindfulness and minimalism.


mind·ful [mahynd-fuh l] (adjective):attentive, aware, or careful

Mindfulness is all about your senses. We are taught at a young age that we have five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound), but that’s a bit incomplete. We actually have at least ten more senses: itch, thermoreception, equilibrium, thirst, proprioception (where one body part is in relation to another), tension (of muscles), pain (called “nociception”), stretch (in internal organs, like your diaphragm and stomach), chemoreception (brain reaction to hormones in blood), magnetoception (sense of direction), and time.

At all times, whether you’re aware of it or not, your body is consuming information in all those 15 areas (and generally more, like a social — based on folkways and mores — and moral sense). That’s happening. Right now, as you read these words. That’s a lot to wrap your mind around, but that’s exactly what I’m suggesting you do.

Ultimately, nothing exists outside of your mind. Descartes profoundly and historically said one of the simplest things that, if you give it the leeway, has the potential to unravel your mind, “I think, therefore I am.” Through the data collected by your senses, your mind creates your lived reality; it’s different from mine, and it’s different from anyone else’s who has ever lived, or will ever live. You truly live in your own world and nobody else will ever occupy it.

While at times it might seem better, or more appealing to “tune out” your senses, and distract yourself from what your experiencing, or your life, it’s actually quite the opposite that is true (other than, perhaps, in situations of extreme trauma). Mindfulness is one of the most powerful ways to live a life free of depression and anxiety, and checking into all of your senses as much as often is essential to a content existence, because how can you be truly content if you’re unaware of how you’re feeling?


min·i·mal [min-uh-muh l] (adjective): barely adequate or the least possible

Minimalism is all needs and wants. Living minimally is eliminating the unnecessary so you can focus on enjoying the rest. We’re taught that money and things and experiences and bacon equals happiness — that _more _equals good — but it’s actually the opposite that is true. The old adage “less is more” isn’t just applicable for ketchup on your hotdog, where the appropriate amount is the absolute least possible, ideally none (I’m from Chicago — mustard, please!).

The easiest way to think about minimalism is how it relates to the stuff in your life. One of my favorite comedy bits of all time, by the late George Carlin, does an amazing job dissecting the idea of _stuff. _Please watch it. Here it is again, in case you missed it. Count all of your possessions (translate all of your stuff into things) — you probably have at least 1,500 things — and reduce the number by half. Give 750 things away. You don’t need them. Trust me. And someone else might. Then, a year later, after you realize that you didn’t need those things you thought you needed, do it again. Count it all and reduce it by half. Over the past few years I’ve done this a few times, and I can’t verbalize the experience, but I absolutely recommend it. This, in and of itself, if you take nothing else away from this essay, will lead to a more content life. But minimalism is much more about stuff.

Minimalism can be applied to every aspect of your life. Emotions, experiences, indulgences, the various ways you spend your time — LESS is more. The less you experience delicious food the more you will be able to enjoy and appreciate it when you do. A minimalist diet is one that fulfills your need of nutrition. The less you experience happiness, sadness, anger, contempt, disgust, surprise, and fear, the more you will be able to appreciate those emotions when you do.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, less is more is also applicable to minimalism: it’s possible to become so non-minimal in minimalism that you aren’t meeting your needs. This is bad. Do not do this. Own the stuff and give into the experiences and emotions you _need _in order to be content — nothing less.

Mutually Supportive and Interdependent States of Mind

In the beginning of this essay I said that the order in which I presented these didn’t matter, but what matters most is the above. The way I see these three things is so intertwined it was really tough to write about them separately. Fun game: after reading this whole thing, go back through the three sections above and count all the ways the language I use to describe how to live one virtue one relies on the living of one of the other two (spoiler: the answer is a lot).

Ultimately, it would be tough to live in a way that embodied just one of the virtues and entirely lacked the other two. I really can’t imagine that reality, but perhaps you’re more imaginative than I am. However, you can live in ways that focus more energy on fulfilling one or two, and fascinating things happen to the neglected virtue(s). Here are some possible cases of different combinations:

HIGH Intentionality, low Mindfulness and low Minimalism

Is a great way to tune out the world and weather a storm, but an easy trap to fall into when a touch situation arises. If a storm isn’t prone to blow over (as some storms are want to stick around), living excessively as a means of tuning out of your emotions (something I’ve used drinking, or, as I call it, “power eating” to accomplish) is only going to pause time. When you stop, and start to rear back your excess and tap into your senses, the problem will still be there.

HIGH Mindfulness, low Intentionality and low Minimalism

Can lead to depression and anxiety, or at best an unfulfilled life. Being highly aware of the feeling that you are not in control, and your life is completely at the whim of a chaotic universe, is dangerous. Add in an excessive life where you equate more with contentedness, while you are incredibly aware that more isn’t doing anything to make you more content, and you have a recipe for disaster.

HIGH Minimalism, low Intentionality and low Mindfulness

Is a great way to not experience life. Excessive minimalism alone can lead to you not meeting your basic needs, and impulsive minimalism is sure to lead you down that road. Further, the benefit of living minimally is to be able to better focus on experiencing the important things in your life — the possessions, emotions, experiences, and relationships you need for a content existence. If you’re not living mindfully, you won’t appreciate any of those things. So what’s the point?

HIGH Intentionality and HIGH Mindfulness, low Minimalism

Leads to a saturated life, where you are in control of your life, choose to live in excess, and are fully checked into your senses to experience it. This is a great way to fully maximize your experience in certain situations (Las Vegas, Family holidays, funerals — bet you’ve never seen those three in a list), but an unsustainable way to live all the time.

HIGH Mindfulness and HIGH Minimalism, low Intentionality

Is where a lot of people who read a ton of zen or minimalist literature and dive headfirst into it all, allowing every recommendation to be their guide, often end up. Letting other people, or the universe, decide for you, will likely lead to cognitive dissonance. And if you’re genuine in your pursuit of minimalism and mindfulness, you’ll have a lot of energy to focus on that dissonance, which not for a happy Sam makes.

HIGH Minimalism and HIGH Intentionality, low Mindfulness

Leads to an empty life. Without mindfulness, intentionality is likely to lead you to making decisions that aren’t in tune with your needs, and a blind pursuit of minimalism amplifies this. For example, never allowing yourself to fully experience emotions, especially the “bad” ones like sadness or anger, when when all of your senses are demanding it, is denying an essential part of being a person.

As in all things, this is about balance.

Intentionality, Mindfulness, and Minimalism are the ingredients to a content life, but like any recipe, the proportions are as important as the ingredients. For some situations, more or less of one or two of the ingredients is necessary. For others, you’ll need an equal portion of all three. If right now you’re wondering, “But how am I supposed to know? Where are these recipes?! SHOW ME THE COOKBOOK, SAM!” you’ll be pleased to know that unlike most recipes, the recipes for the various situations in life you’ll find yourself in are written by the ingredients themselves.

Say what?

You can’t be mindful without intention (choosing to be aware) or minimalism (all 15+ senses on full blast all the time and your nose will bleed then your brain will pop), you can’t be intentional without minimalism (sometimes you need a break) or mindfulness (knowing if you’re choosing or letting the world choose for you), and you can’t be minimal without being mindful (knowing what you need) or intentional (impulse leads to excess). It’s like a game of rock, paper, scissors, where all three can be beaten by or defeat one another.

If you’re employing all three, you’ll know if you ever need to turn up the volume on one or two in a particular situation. It’s like one of those fancy new cars that has a monitor that tells you when things are wrong with it, and what to do about them. The instructions are all there, it’s up to you whether or not you want to follow them. And while I’m much more of a fan of teaching a person to fish and giving them fish, here are some recipes my body has created for happiness:

  • Eating a mostly simple, plant-based diet allows me to fully enjoy more decadent foods when I eat them. And while I rarely eat stuff from animals (like meat, or dairy, or eggs, because I’ve found my body to feel better when I don’t) I wouldn’t call myself a vegan because every once in a while I’ll eat cheese (because it’s delicious — body be damned!) and once a year or so I’ll eat meat (because I want to be sure it’s still something I don’t want, and that I’m not just avoiding it because I feel I should).
  • Taking days off work, and stopping a workday before I’m done, even though I genuinely love what I do and could easily (and sometimes do) work for days in a row without sleep. I tend do do this more seasonally, as it works better with my schedule, and force myself to take sabbaticals and unplug. But I also do it on a smaller scale by taking breaks to read, watch, or play throughout the day.
  • Giving away everything I don’t need (time, money, stuff) to folks who do need it.
  • Building a healthy relationship with myself first, and working to undo all the ways I’ve poorly treated myself throughout my life (and still do: body image, anyone?), and cultivating a few meaningful relationships with others in my life, instead of being kinda in touch with a ton of people, but not deeply in touch with anyone (including myself).
  • Listening to music, or consuming media, sparingly, or at least trying to turn off the “default-ness” of media consumption that I’ve trained myself to do. I don’t put headphones in my ears on the bus unless I decide that music will enhance this particular bus ride. I don’t home and immediately turn on the TV unless I feel that I need a distraction and want to give into that feeling. And I spend more time consuming just one thing at a time, instead of constantly multitasking (music as background to work, TV as background to checking social networks or emails on my phone, etc.).
  • Turning my phone off frequently, or at least curbing the number of times I check it for updates throughout the day.
  • Using love as the ultimate rationale when I’m unsure of what to do, or how or why I should do it.

By living intentionally, mindfully, and minimally, you’ll be best equipped to know exactly what you _need _in any situation, or what you need in life in general, in order to feel the warm fuzzy glow of contentedness.