How to Create a Plan to Maximize Your Happiness

I've been on a kick this year reading what I like to call "personal improvement" books. They aren't "self help" books in the sense that there's a problem about my life that I'd like to solve. Rather, I'm just looking to grow and improve. A few examples of these books include: The Power of Habit, The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, All the Money in the World, and The Power of Full Engagement (a re-read). Based on my reading, reflection, and personal experience I've come up with a fairly simple plan to maximize your happiness.

1. Give Yourself Time and Space to Think

You're not going to be able to create your happiness plan in bits and spurts of time. Ideally you would block off several hours or a half of a day with absolutely no distractions - no phones no computer, no other people. Feel free to do something that's relaxing and fairly mindless like bathing, sitting outside, etc. You don't just have to sit at your dining room table to make your plan. But you'll want two sizable chunks of free time to reflect and plan.

2. Make a List of Your Favorite Memories

Think back on your life and make a list of all of your favorite memories. Write them down. The list can be as long as you want - try to shoot for at least 50 or 100 things. And be specific. Don't just write: "vacation to Ireland." Instead try, "spending time driving through the Irish countryside, listening to Irish pop radio, talking with my spouse." Don't be afraid to list anything even if it seems silly, insignificant, or small, like: "sneaking a pizza, cheesecake, and flask of vodka into the movie Mean Girls with my best friend."

There are different approaches to making the list. You can you start by just listing whatever comes to mind. Or you can try to think of memories reverse-chronologically. You can try to remember by categories like: vacations, family time, traditions, major life events, dining, kids, sports, hobbies, nature, work, school, etc. If you're feeling stuck go back and look through some photo albums.

3. Make a List of Your Goals, Hobbies, and Dreams

Next, start a new list. List the things you'd like to do, experience, buy, or accomplish in your lifetime. Again, the list should be long -- at least 50 to 100, specific goals, hobbies, dreams.  Include even seemingly trivial, outlandish, or practical things. You can make the list categorically, chronologically, or completely randomly.

4. Step Away from the Lists

Give yourself a few days or a week to think about the lists you've made. Over time, add anything additional that comes to mind. (This is an important step . When I made my happiness plan there were a number of things I remembered that I couldn't believe I had forgotten in the first place.)

5. Find Themes and Quantify

This is where you'll need your second block of uninterrupted time. Look through your list and try to find themes in your happy memories and your dreams/goals. Maybe family trips are important to you or dining out  or being outdoors or spending time with certain people. Do your best to break down everything you've written into about 10 themes/categories.

Now quantify those themes. How much (very approximately) do they cost? Vacations might be $5000 a year. Dining out might be $40 a time. Spending time in your backyard is free (but requires a house with a backyard.) How often do you want to be able to do these things (keeping in mind that if you do something too frequently the novelty wears off)?

Add up the total cost for a year for your happiness themes. I recommend first totaling the cost by theme before totaling the cost for all themes for the entire year. Divide the total amount by paycheck and see how much doing or buying all of these things would cost you.

6. Plan and Seek Opportunities to Grow

Once you have a total amount by paycheck that you would need to fund all of your happiness themes, find a way to start saving or allocating a little more from each paycheck towards your happiness themes. You probably just want to tackle 1 to 3 themes at a time. If the amount of money you need seems exceptionally unachievable, start with themes that require fewer resources that you can do more frequently. (Such as going out to a meal with friends or taking a weekend getaway.)

Change your habits to be able to do more of and spend more on the things that make you happier. The key is not necessarily to actually earn enough to fund all of your happiness theme buckets. Happiness comes from not just doing the activities you want to do or buying the things you want to buy, but from striving to achieve these goals. Growing and stretching your limits is a key to happiness.

Continue to come back to, review, and revise your happiness plan on occasion. Because growth is a key to happiness, monthly or every-other month review of your plan will likely bring you the greatest satisfaction.

Photo credit: sedoglia