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How to Be Happy: Understand What Makes You Happy

Getting real about your expectations, and understanding that you can’t be happy all the time, is key to being truly happy.

Not surprisingly, being happy means that you realize that there are times you will be unhappy and recognize that life sometimes stinks.

What's uplifting at those times is appreciating life and facing the challenges that come with it.

This is not to say that you should lower your expectations for your so-called perfect life or downsize your goals. If you can align your expectations with reality a little more by expecting to face challenges, you'll be better off in the end.

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How to Be Happy: Understand What Makes You Happy

There's a biological reinforcement of this notion, too: Your levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of damaging inflammation) have been shown to be higher when you have expectations that are unattainable.

Makes sense: You worry when you're not hitting goals, so that makes your body more vulnerable to stress. You need to start learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. 

Depending on whom you live and work near, you've probably heard every lament in the book. Unhappy with the job, the spouse, the ever-cluttered house. These moments stress us, inflame our body, and take focus away from our brain.

QUIZ: Are You Feeling Stressed?

At the same time, we can't expect to experience euphoria 24/7. In fact, there's some benefit to experiencing some unhappiness. The survival value: acting pessimistic made our ancestors more prepared for problems that would arise.

Today, unhappiness still serves an important purpose. It causes you to think carefully through problems, so you gain some wisdom and perspective. Thinking about what gives you happiness allows you to set new directions for your life.

It's natural to get into cycles of unhappiness, and recognizing that could actually help you get out of it. Smokers, for example, have developed a misaligned coping mechanism. They might go out for a smoke when their boss stresses them, but when they come back inside, the initial problem still hasn't been dealt with. When they quit, they may still feel unhappy, until realizing that's very natural. It's worth it to rid yourself of unhealthy habits despite the challenge.

Happiness correlates with having better health. If you can't align your expectations with your reality, you'll experience a conflict that gnaws at you.

It sounds simple to drop the habits, but most of our perceptions and actions are subconscious and automated. While this has great survival value, it doesn't offer the autonomy we crave to bring expectations and reality in sync.

MORE: Try This Technique for Banishing Negative Thoughts

Much of our life is lived with a veneer crafted around us. This protects us and keeps our true selves from the world. Few times do we get to experience a true, deep reality when the veneer's gone. This happens when we see the bigger picture of what's out in the world, how we fit into it and how we can best help others.

We obsess over our daily responsibilities. We fret about mistakes at work, we nag people we dislike (or love)… We're often shackled by superficiality in our world. Step back a little when you find yourself thinking about the past or future too much. We should bathe in the present…thinking about relationships, new ideas and the deepened truths of the world—your world—and how you fit into it.

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