Home All The Keys to a Happy and Successful Life

The Keys to a Happy and Successful Life

written by David J. Pollay 2 April 2007

David J. Pollay, MAPP '06, is a co-founder of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). David has an Economics degree from Yale University and has held leadership positions at Yahoo!, MasterCard, Global Payments and AIESEC. He is an Executive Coach who specializes in business relationships. He is also an author and keynote speaker known for his best-selling books, The Law of the Garbage Truck (how to navigate negativity) and The 3 Promises (how to create personal fulfillment every day). David's articles are here. For permission to reprint David's articles, please contact him.

Art Museum

I used to do it every time I went to an art museum.  I would view a painting that I liked, and then I would head for the wall directly to the right of it.  Now I was careful not to disturb anyone’s view on my approach, so I would make a big swing to the right and then shimmy up the wall until I reached the little metal plaque next to the painting. 

Sure, I was interested in the name of the painting, who painted it, and the year in which it was completed.  But I mostly wanted to know one thing.  I wanted to know how long the artist lived.  I was always relieved and happy when I saw that the artist had lived a long life, and I was disappointed when I saw it had been a short one.  For as long as I can remember I thought a good life was a long life.  Positive Psychology helped change my thinking. 

Psychologists Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi co-founded Positive Psychology when Seligman was president of the American Psychological Association in 1998.  Seligman was celebrated for his research on “learned helplessness” and “learned optimism,” while Csikszentmihalyi was best known for his research on “flow,” and for his best-selling book by the same name.  Both men set Psychology on a course to discover what made people happy and thrive in life.  They wanted to know what made up the “good life.”  

Three keys

The results of countless research studies that followed the launch of Positive Psychology led Seligman to conclude that there were three approaches to the good life.  And they were all important.  When you savor the present, are grateful for the past, and are hopeful for the future, you are experiencing positive emotion, the first component of happiness.  When you do what you do best, when you use your signature strengths in your life’s work, you are engaged; this is the second contributor to happiness.  And when you are involved in activities that are beyond your self-interest, and that you believe matter to the world, you are experiencing the third and final component of the good life:  your life is full of meaning. 

While genetics do play a role in affecting our happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research has demonstrated that as much as 50% of our happiness is within our direct control.  The headline here is that the good life is possible; it’s within our grasp, and it is not measured only by the number of years we live.

Butterfly up close

My little girls helped me learn this lesson last year.  Dawn and I took Eliana and Ariela, 3 and 2 at the time, to a museum of butterflies in Key West.

When we entered the museum through a special pressurized entrance, we were immediately surrounded by thousands of butterflies, all flapping their multi-colored wings.  My girls were thrilled!  I turned to our Museum guide and asked, “How long do butterflies live?”  She said, “About ten days.”  I thought to myself, “Ten days – what do you do in ten days?!”  So I blurted out, “What do they do in ten days?!”  And she stopped, paused, and said, “They make the world a more beautiful place.” 

Every day I now ask myself, “How am I making the world a more beautiful place?” A long life is good; a good life is better.

3 keys courtesy of Cassandra Baker
Art museum courtesy of WadeB
Butterfly up close and personal courtesy of photoholic

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Gigi 2 April 2007 - 2:25 pm

David, this is one of my favorite stories of yours. It is so powerful, meaningful, insightful, and relatable. It is important to me that I remind myself that it’s what I do each day that counts, and not so much what ‘big’ things I plan to do in the future, so I’m grateful for your reminder.
Thanks for your stories!

Jen 2 April 2007 - 7:28 pm

David, we can learn so much from our little ones, right? Loved this story, too…As a future minded fanatic, reminders of how being “present” can create happiness are invaluable to me…I thank you, too!

Chris 8 April 2007 - 10:07 pm


How uplifting to realize how much control we really do have over our own happiness. And the butterflies – what a powerful story! Since reading this I’ve realized that hearing of someone’s death many times triggers in me the same thought process you had in front of those paintings – “how long did they live?” It inspires me to act in ways that give my life meaning right now, and hopefully make the world a more beautiful place. Thanks!

David J. Pollay 12 April 2007 - 11:16 am

Hi Gigi,

Thanks as always for your support Gigi! I’m glad my story helped you remember the contribution you make to our lives every day. You’re a special person and a big talent, and you lead such an interesting life!


David J. Pollay 12 April 2007 - 11:19 am

Hi Jen,

It is incredible what we learn from our children! We just returned from a family vacation and I was learning again. Our children’s radar is fascinating to me; what they focus on and what they pick up is so interesting to me.

Thanks for the warm comments on the column Jen!


David J. Pollay 12 April 2007 - 11:28 am

Hi Chris,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments Chris!

I think you’ll relate to something someone said to me yesterday. He was getting ready for a family trip and said that he was really using his time at work to take care of his most important commitments. He felt good about his productivity. He wanted to make the best use of his time.

I heard this and thought again about how we can make the most of our lives now, no matter how long we have to live. Why wait to live our best possible life?

Thanks again for the support Chris!


Charlotte, NC 30 June 2007 - 4:12 pm

Great article! Your writing reminded me of an old quote I once heard: “Each day is a gift, that is why it is called ‘the present'”. Thanks for bringing that one back….a worthwhile reminder!

Keep up the great work – I enjoy your messages.

David J. Pollay 10 July 2007 - 4:12 pm

Thank you Charlotte, NC for your post!

I remember the little book The Precious Present. It makes a powerful point to enjoy the life we have now, even as we are pursuing our goals in life.

Thanks for your support.

All the best!


Sarah 2 December 2009 - 8:43 pm

Are there any tricks to savor the present at all times? Sometimes it’s easy to forget this important concept. Thanks!


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