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Have you ever come across someone who’s genuinely happy? No matter what’s going on in their life, they always seem to feel… content.  Satisfied. Fulfilled. Happy.

Wise beyond their years, they’re calm even when life is chaotic. And handle whatever is thrown their way with ease.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing several wonderful souls who fell into the genuinely happy category. And although each one of these miraculous people have passed on, I want to introduce them to you today. Because there’s much to be learned from them.

3 Contrasting Lives, 1 Thing in Common

My uncle Hal was a self-described curmudgeon bachelor, but with a sensitive and kind heart and an eye for beauty (as was demonstrated in his paintings).

My grandfather Charlie was a quiet, reserved man who had the ability to pull the best out of people.  He was a natural-born leader who was very much a member of The Greatest Generation.

My friend Cheryl was a self-described fashionista, foodie, and global gypsy.  She was physically frail and tiny yet mentally tough-as-nails and was one of the best mothers I’ve ever known.

All three of these folks led contrasting lives and had incredibly different personalities.  But despite their differences, each of them were genuinely happy.

What could possibly be similar about them, given their marked differences?  In looking deeper, I’ve identified 5 traits that each one possessed.


A yellow ball with a happy face on it


Trait #1: Understand What Happiness Is

Genuinely Happy People Know How To Choose To Be Happy

You can’t be truly happy if you don’t understand what happiness is or how to be happy. And most people have this all wrong.

Happiness isn’t really about being positive, laughing or feeling up. It’s about understanding who you are and proactively making decisions that you’re satisfied with regardless of your circumstances. That means that it’s about contentedness (i.e. feeling good in your own skin because you’re content with how you’re choosing to live your life).

Want to be genuinely happy? Work to: (1) know what you value (and why), (2) accept that life isn’t always going to go your way (and that’s okay), and (3) align your life around your values.

Some people get stuck when trying to figure out how to align their life around their values. It’s actually easier than you’d think. You do that by:

  • Using your values as a guide for decision-making (especially when making big decisions for personal and professional life).
  • Checking in with your values regularly to ensure that you’re not misaligned.
  • Setting values-based goals.

For more about what your values are and how to redefine yourself using your values, read my article about how to do that here.

Note: you can choose to be happy even when unexpected (and yes, bad) events occur. By making decisions that align with your values, you’ll still feel content that you’re doing the best you can. This allows you to choose to enjoy the parts of life that are enjoyable. THAT’s what happiness is – a choice.

What Happiness Looks Like When Life Gets Messy

Charlie struggled with ALS and emphysema for years prior to his death.  My friend Cheryl had a rare cancer that she battled the last few years of her life.  Hal had an aggressive skin cancer and a circulatory issue that made it incredibly painful to walk during the last year of his life.

All three of them struggled both physically and mentally as a result of their illnesses.  Yet they still were genuinely happy people.

How?  Each one understood who they were and what they valued most. And they lived accordingly, as best as they could given their circumstances. 

They did this by living life purposefully (or as Cheryl would say, by living authentically).  They made values-based decisions that aligned with their true priorities.

And they didn’t worry about having to be perfect or positive all the time.  They just strove to be themselves. For more about this (and get other life lessons thanks to a life-changing situation of my own), be sure to read my article about 10 Powerful Life Lessons On How To Be Happy (Thanks to Cancer).


Picture of calm woman who isn't stressed


Trait #2: People Who are Truly Happy Accept What Is

Genuinely Happy People Accept That Life Happens

Life is messy, difficult, painful, scary, and sometimes even boring.  And – of course – it’s also joyous, satisfying and fun. Happy people don’t just get this, they accept it. But there’s more to it than mere acceptance.

Because acceptance isn’t the same thing as agreement.

Part of the reason genuinely happy people are happy in the first place is because they’re always working to make themselves and their lives better.  Even – especially – when life is messy, hard, and chaotic.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify something.  Pretending things aren’t as bad as they are and/or holding to unreasonable, false hope isn’t what I’m talking about.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in miracles and I know first-hand that things can take a sharp turn for the better when you least expect it.  The key is to not count on these things to happen.

The Interrelationship Between Traits #1 and #2

Happy people understand that there are no guarantees in life yet don’t allow that to bring them down.  They still have hope, mostly because they understand that life is a journey of immense ups and downs and they know they’re internally capable of weathering any storm.

This trait is about living life to its fullest no matter what’s going on.  And part of living life to the fullest is doing whatever is in your power to improve your life and your circumstances.

Note the interconnection between this concept and Trait #1.  If you can get to a place where you’re living authentically (as Cheryl would put it), then you’re more likely to accept what is regardless of your circumstances.

How to Accept Without Approving

Because of his illnesses, Charlie was physically limited during the last 5 years of life.  Yet he never let it stop him from enjoying life or doing the things that he wanted.  And, although he was incredibly proud, he let people help him when needed.

My friend Cheryl never let her cancer stop her.  She continued to do everything she could for her friends and family and continued writing (she had a blog and wrote for numerous local publications).  She even seemed to take on more after her cancer diagnosis.

Both Cheryl and Charlie were honest about their current circumstances and limitations, yet still lived their lives.  If you asked them how they were doing, they were honest with you yet not down about it.

They key point in all of this: their illness didn’t define them. It was merely a part of their life.


Woman with a better sense of purpose, looking down a read


Trait #3: Genuinely Happy People Focus On WHO

When You Focus On Who, You Don’t Worry What Others Will Think

Genuinely happy people don’t stress or worry over what others think about them.  Instead, they concentrate on what they think of themselves based on who they are and how they behave.

This is primarily about being able to look yourself in the mirror and feel good about the person you see.  Do you see someone who’s making decisions that align with what you value in life?  Are you treating others with respect and care?

By doing this, you’ll be happier with yourself and hence much happier in life.  And when you live this way, the right people will think well of you (so you don’t need to worry about that).

I want to make clear that this isn’t about being perfect.  Quite the contrary, it’s about accepting your imperfections yet striving to do your best.  And being okay with making mistakes.

This trait is about integrity – being honest with yourself so that you can learn from your mistakes and then move on. And quick note: integrity is a necessary trait for being an effective leader too.

How This Works

My uncle Hal is a perfect example of this trait.  Although he didn’t worry or stress over what others thought about him (and would often shrug his shoulders if he heard that someone didn’t think he was their cup of tea), he was very careful to live up to his own expectations.

He understood that not everyone would like him, but the right folks would be attracted to him if he lived purposefully and treated others with respect and dignity.

[Recommended Reading: Worry about what others might think?  Overcome these feelings with 5 Effective Tools to Stop Living in Fear and Worry].


Picture of two people touching hands


Trait #4: People Who are Genuinely Happy Adopt an Attitude of Service

What it Means to Serve Others

Many people misunderstand what it means to serve others.  Some believe that it’s dis-empowering.  And yet some people feel that it’s about putting others before yourself.

But neither is right.

Adopting an attitude of service (and prioritizing service) is about respecting and caring for others and yourself.  And there’s nothing that says you can’t serve both yourself and others at the same time (the two aren’t mutually exclusive).

What’s important is understanding that service isn’t merely an act.  It’s an attitude that infuses who you are.  I’d argue that you’re not truly serving if you’re doing it because you feel that you “have to” or “should”.

Also, service comes in many forms – in both large and small ways.  And sometimes the small things have the biggest impact.

The Connection Between Service and Being Genuinely Happy

Why does having an attitude of service result in happiness?  First, it’s good for the soul and brings with it joy.  In fact, studies show that serving others increases positivity and even happiness.

But there’s more to it than that: it’s an act of belonging and fellowship with your fellow man.  People are here to connect with one another and service is one of the most pure forms you have to connect with others in a meaningful way.

How to Adopt an Attitude of Service Through Simple Acts

My grandfather Charlie taught me what it means to serve.  He served in his Church, through charitable activities, and through donations.  But more importantly, he served everyone he met.

Charlie believed that all human beings are worthy – and treated them as such.  Because of this belief, he prioritized listening.  And boy did he listen intently to everyone he spoke with regardless of socioeconomic status, background, race, gender, etc.

I remember overhearing a conversation that he had at his local Exxon station with the mechanic when I was about 12.   When we left, I asked him why he so often strikes up conversations with people (including strangers).  Here’s what he said:

“Everyone has something to teach you.  Be sure to be curious, ask, and listen.”

My friend Cheryl also represented this attitude of service, but in her own unique way.  As mentioned above, Cheryl was a writer and she had a blog based in her love of food.  But the blog wasn’t just about her.

She wanted to help families be adventurous with food and she utilized her gifts to help people do that.  That’s service.


Picture of Chain turning into birds flying off


Trait #5: Truly Happy People Let Go

The Connection Between Happiness and Letting Go

Genuinely happy people practice the fine art of letting go.  I call this an art for a reason.  As with most skills, it takes constant practice and work.

So, what does it mean to let go?  Letting go means:

  • Not trying to control the things that are uncontrollable, such as other people’s opinions of you, the choices others make, and circumstances out of your control. This is easier to do once you adopt Trait #3 discussed above.
  • Not being tied to a specific outcome by accepting that, even when you’re working toward a goal or want something to happen, it might not turn out as planned. This skill requires you to understand the difference between acceptance and approval.
  • Being honest with yourself about mistakes and regrets while also accepting them as-is, so that they don’t take control over your life.

Be Genuinely Happy By Letting Go of What You Cannot Control

I remember talking with Cheryl several years ago about how difficult it is to get noticed and grow a blog.  Cheryl told me that she had been following all the “rules” about how to grow her blog and was ready to stop stressing over it.

She recognized that she was doing her part and venturing into territory that she couldn’t control.  It was time to let go.

Interestingly, letting go seemed to help her blog grow.  I don’t pretend to know how many readers she had at that time or exactly how much it grew thereafter.  But I do know that she noticeably grew shortly after we had this chat.

[Listen to Episode #100 of the Life & Law Podcast >>>here (What Cancer Taught Me) to learn more about how to let go].

Let Go Of Needing A Specific Outcome

My grandfather Charlie grew tomatoes and had some of the most beautiful rose bushes I’ve ever seen.  He put a lot of work into his garden.  But despite all his hard work, sometimes things didn’t turn out as expected.

One year after we had a lot of rain, several of his rose bushes died.  I asked him if he was upset and he responded that he couldn’t control why it happened and wasn’t going to get upset over stuff he had zero control over.

And then he told me not to get attached to my expectations, as life has a way of surprising and challenging you.  To make that easier to do, he told me to:

  • focus on what you put in;
  • do your best; and
  • identify what you can learn from every experience.

Doing this allows you to focus on your personal growth, which happens to be the outcome you ultimately want.

How To Let Go of Regret

My uncle Hal wasn’t always a bachelor.  Unfortunately, he married someone who, it turned out, married him to gain US citizenship (and divorced him shortly thereafter).  This deeply scarred him.

Because of this experience he never remarried.  But he later confided that he regretted that he never remarried (he would have made a fabulous father and husband).

Instead of letting this regret drag him down, he perceived it as a fact. Yes, this “regret” would always be there. But there was nothing he could do about it at that time. What he could do instead was focus on what he could control in that stage/moment of his life.

This enabled him not to dwell on this issue or be overtaken by it. And it enabled him to become more active in other people’s lives (those he cared about and could be there for while he was alive).

That’s how to deal with the things you regret.

How to Be Genuinely Happy

You don’t find happiness (which is why so few people searching for it ever find it).  You choose it.  And happiness isn’t a destination – it’s a journey.

Learn from Cheryl, Charlie, and Hal.  Three beautiful souls who understood that happiness takes work.  Simply put: they worked at it and chose to be happy. Now it’s time for you to do the same.

Recommended Next Steps

Listen to the following popular Life & Law Podcast episodes to start choosing your happier life now:

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Hey there, I’m Heather

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I’m here to help purpose-driven lawyers and other professionals (like you) build your ideal career to support the life you actually want. Because you shouldn’t have to choose between professional success & personal happiness.

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