There’s only one person on earth who could give me a happiness planner without insulting me, and that’s my best friend. She knows I’ve always struggled with feeling happy, mostly because I’ve had a hard life. There have been a lot of ups and downs, including spending my teen years in foster care. These sorts of traumas have been known to mold the mind, making it hard for me to really grab onto good moments, because I’m always expecting the worst. I’m sure that no matter your situation, you might feel the same at times.

By giving me this planner, my friend wasn’t trying to imply I’m some miserable scrooge or new-age hippie (although I sometimes come close to the latter, if you catch me on the right day); she just knows I need a little push when it comes to making myself happy, truly happy, deep in my soul. The particular planner she gave me focuses on positive thinking and personal progress, with 100 open-dated pages (no feeling guilty for skipping a day!) and spaces for reflection and goal-setting. Basically, you list the things that make you happy, and then you list the things that make you unhappy. Knowing all of that, you intentionally set your 100 days going forward. It sounds simple, but the process is actually so, so, so hard.

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, happiness works sort of like this: In order to have it, you need a basis from which to work (food, water, sleep). You then need safety, love, esteem (success), and self-actualization, which I think is the hardest to master. At this point, you need a bunch of abstract concepts: morality, creativity, spontaneity, lack of prejudice, problem-solving, and acceptance of facts. It can be difficult to know what real-life actions help you meet these intangible needs, especially when those actions are things so obvious, you tend to forget about them.

I began wondering, “What the hell does make me happy?” I sat there looking at the planner and thinking, “I truly have no idea.” My mind went to all the things we’re taught to think make us happy: money, a nice apartment, life in a city of opportunity. They all have one common denominator: They buy into the idea of success, not actual happiness. I was functioning on autopilot and fulfilling a sense of achievement, which is contingent upon working hard all the time.

In the end, I didn’t need some abstract, momentous, deeply mysterious aha moment to unlock my happiness.

It’s easy to get addicted to the feeling of success, especially if you’re lucky enough to have food, safety, and love. But I got to the point where success wasn’t cutting it for me anymore; the drug had worn off. I started feeling like a hamster on a wheel, spinning and spinning into oblivion—constantly tired, overwhelmed, and oversaturated with negative emotions.

I might not have known precisely what makes me happy, but I realized what was making me sad: having no wonderment, no downtime, no moment to just experience life. It was frightening to realize I was filling my day with busy time; with things to do; with jobs, responsibilities, and opportunities that made me “me.” I was faced with this huge emptiness—were there things that could fill me with a sense of joy and peace? Did I actually, truly not know them? It dawned on me that I had spent my whole life running on that aforementioned hamster wheel, which never truly fulfilled me.

So I started to write down things that made me feel good, and the first things that came to mind were so simple and obvious that I doubted their usefulness in my quest for happiness:

  • Setting aside time to myself
  • Reading a book
  • Sitting in silence without my phone
  • Taking a walk in nature
  • Exercising

After reviewing this list, all I could think was, “What a cliche, Lisa!” But the reality is simple: I don’t exercise enough, I rarely let myself have actual nonwork downtime, nature is a mystery to me, and I tend to scroll endlessly on social media as though my life depends on it. In the end, I didn’t need some abstract, momentous, deeply mysterious aha moment to unlock my happiness. I didn’t need to achieve zen or find myself in a foreign country. I just needed something simple, something that let me focus on who I am, outside of the “me” I’m supposed to be in society or at work.

As I went forward with my happiness planning, I noticed that the more time I allotted myself—an hour to read a book in my neighborhood park, time off without my cell phone in hand, a half hour to work out or meditate between work sessions—the more my world started to really, truly clarify and open up to me. I began to see the beauty in ordinary things (how the flowers bloomed, how their colors were bright). I fell deeply in love with quiet moments, allowing me to access my creativity. I was inspired by the small things, like a story I’d overheard or the view from my window.

I felt like I wasn’t just running through life at full speed but really experiencing it. I gave my body the sleep, time, and self-care it needed to work well. In short, I was able to understand the mechanics of happiness by slowing down and appreciating being alive. To realize I am a heartbeat and a brain—not just an employee or a person with things to do—was both freeing and saddening; I’d wasted so much of my life not paying attention.

While my happiness items may sound a bit trite, they actually make perfect sense, since studies have shown that “regular physical exercise, cognitive behavior therapy, and ancient contemplative practices lead to a range of positive psychological outcomes such as improved cognitive performance, enhanced emotional regulation, and even plasticity-related alterations in the brain.” What I take from this: The more good things I do for my body and mind, the more I adapt to doing good things, making it easier for me to accept and perform them.

I was able to understand the mechanics of happiness by slowing down and appreciating being alive.

And let me tell you, not scrolling through Twitter is difficult, and I need major help rewiring that need. It’s so easy for me to fall into a whirlwind of social media statuses (like an intravenous drip into other people’s realities), to do “a little extra work” during my time off, or skip working out or turning off in favor of being “productive.” That’s where the happiness planner really did change my life.

If I had kept going the way I had been, the hypertension and exhaustion would have truly made me both physically and mentally ill. A happiness planner seems like a silly thing, but as the saying goes, if you stare into the abyss, it definitely stares back at you—and that can be frightening. The thing is, the abyss contains the sort of truth we all need, and I’m so glad I chose to face it. In my own handwriting, I’d formally acknowledged these basic, simple things that I knew would make my time on earth more real and more nourishing. It doesn’t always take a planner to find happiness, but it can sometimes take that extra, intentional push to figure out what happiness actually looks like.

Lisa Marie Basile is the founding editor-in-chief ofLuna Luna Magazine and moderator of its digital community. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Bustle, Bust, Hello Giggles, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, and The Huffington Post, among other sites. She is also the author of three poetry collections. Basile holds an MFA from The New School. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.