Helen Keller’s Five Keys to Being Happy

by | Jun 30, 2020 |

Once I knew only darkness and stillness. Now I know hope and joy. —Helen Keller.

In 1882, when Helen Keller was nineteen months old, an illness left her blind, deaf, and consequently dumb. For the next five years, she lived essentially as a wild animal in the home of her loving but desperate parents, who had no idea how to deal with her condition. She was unable to form concepts (e.g., “fork” or “water”), unable to communicate thoughts (beyond wordless expressions of desire, anger, pleasure, or pain), unable to understand the world or her needs, unable to become a functional human being. Her future looked bleak. But she would go on to live a life of success and happiness.

How?

When Helen was six, her parents hired a remarkable educator, Anne Sullivan, who taught her language. Under Anne’s tutelage, Helen learned to “hear” (via the manual alphabet), speak, read (braille), and write—and she went on to graduate from Harvard University and to enjoy a happy, fulfilling career as a writer and activist. She argued for, among other things, equal rights for women and blacks, the legalization of birth control and abortion, and (unfortunately) socialism (about which she knew far less than we know today). On the whole, Helen lived a purposeful, fulfilling, happy life. And she did so against all odds.

The story of how Anne Sullivan engaged with Helen Keller and taught her to communicate is portrayed beautifully in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker, which I highly recommend. The philosophic significance of Sullivan’s teaching methods is examined in Ayn Rand’s essay “Kant Versus Sullivan” (in Philosophy: Who Needs It), which I emphatically recommend as well.

My focus here is on Keller’s prescriptions for loving life. She is, to my knowledge, among the few people in history to explicitly and succinctly identify the fundamental actions that an individual must take in order to flourish.

In a 1933 article titled “The Simplest Way to Be Happy,” Keller reflected on what happiness is and how to achieve it. Although I don’t recommend the entire article (its flaws include paeans to selflessness), Keller makes several incisive points:

[H]appiness is not the work of magic. Happiness is the final and perfect fruit of obedience to the laws of life. . . .

I know no study that will take you nearer the way to happiness than the study of nature—and I include in the study of nature not only things and their forces, but also mankind and their ways, and the molding of the affections and the will into an earnest desire not only to be happy, but to create happiness.

A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships. Happiness is not for wild animals who can only oscillate between hunger and repletion. To be happy we must exercise our reasoning faculty and be conscious of our will and powers. In other words, we must have learned the secret of self-discipline. To be happy we must do those things which produce happiness. . . .

The surest proof that this is the law of cause and effect is, we may try every other conceivable way of being happy, and they will all fail.

These truths are rich. They’re also broad and highly abstract. And Keller packed them all into a few short paragraphs. So let’s unpack and concretize the main points, which boil down to five prescriptions. Along the way, I’ll suggest some books, movies, and TV shows that demonstrate or elaborate the core ideas and can help us to further integrate and apply them in our lives.

1. Study Nature, Including Human Nature

Nature is the environment in which we exist. It includes the raw materials that surround us, such as dirt, water, plants, and animals; the natural conditions and events that affect us, such as weather, earthquakes, and viruses; human beings, who play an enormous role in our lives; the things people create or do, which also play an enormous role; and the natural laws that govern it all.

Because we exist in nature, if we want to live and thrive, we must work to understand this place. We must observe that everything in nature is something specific; everything has properties that make it what it is; everything has a nature. This is the law of identity: A thing is what it is. (Water is water. A person is a person.) We must also observe that a thing can act only in accordance with its nature. This is the law of causality, which is the law of identity applied to action. (Water can flow but cannot walk. A person can walk but not on water.)

We can see the relevance of these ideas to our life and happiness in every sphere of concern, from material and biological to conceptual and spiritual. Raspberries, for instance, have an identity, including that they grow on bushes and are edible. Belladonna berries have an identity, too, including that they grow on bushes and are deadly if consumed. Likewise, knowledge has an identity, including that it is a mental grasp of some aspect of reality and that it enables us to think, plan, and pursue our values. To the extent that we gain knowledge of the world and our needs, we are better equipped to thrive. To the extent that we are ignorant, we are ill-equipped to thrive. Similarly, happiness has an identity, including that it is a state of consciousness that arises from the achievement of our values. To the extent that we achieve our values, we achieve happiness; to the extent that we don’t, we don’t.

The scene from The Miracle Worker in which Helen Keller finally discovers language illustrates these truths from multiple perspectives. (See the video clip below.)

Over the course of several weeks, Anne Sullivan had been spelling out words in Helen’s hand, trying to help her grasp the relationship between words and objects. But Helen wasn’t making the connection. Then, in a pivotal scene, Anne pumps water onto one of Helen’s hands while spelling W-A-T-E-R in the other—and something clicks. Helen grasps the link between the identity of the thing and the word that represents it.

She becomes ecstatic. She falls excitedly to the ground and pats the dirt, urging Anne to name this thing. Anne spells G-R-O-U-N-D in Helen’s hand. Helen spells it back. Smiling, she returns eagerly to the pump and pats it, asking Anne to name this thing. Anne spells P-U-M-P. Helen spells it back. She runs to a tree and pats it. Anne spells T-R-E-E. Helen spells it back. She runs to the stairs . . . and finally to the porch bell, which Helen rings elatedly. Her parents rush outside and hear the news. “She knows!,” Anne exclaims. Helen’s parents rejoice, hugging and kissing her . . . But Helen breaks away from her parents and feels her way back to Anne. Now, somewhat out of breath yet calm, she pats Anne, asking the name of this. Anne spells T-E-A-C-H-E-R. Helen spells it back.

This is how Helen discovered language. And by means of this achievement, she became a conceptual being, a rational being, a being capable of thinking and communicating. Consequently, she became capable of setting and achieving life-serving goals. She became capable of achieving happiness.

As she later wrote:

It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.

I recall many incidents of the summer . . . that followed my soul’s sudden awakening. I did nothing but explore with my hands and learn the name of every object that I touched; and the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world. . . .

I learned how the sun and the rain make to grow out of the ground every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, how birds build their nests and live and thrive from land to land, how the squirrel, the deer, the lion and every other creature finds food and shelter. As my knowledge of things grew I felt more and more the delight of the world I was in.

Before Helen was able to identify things and conceptualize them in accordance with their natures, she was in a living hell. After she acquired this ability, and as she developed it, her days and years blossomed into a lifetime of happiness.

Grasping the natures of things and acting accordingly is fundamental to flourishing. This is every bit as true for you as it was for Helen Keller.

Do you want a career you will love? If so, you must learn about the nature of a career, its role in life, the alternatives you could pursue, and the actions necessary to create such a career. Do you want to engage in exciting or interesting recreational activities? If so, you must learn about the natures of your options, try some out, and pursue the ones that fire you up. Do you want financial wealth? soul-fuelling friendships? deep romantic love? If so, you must learn the natures of these things and act accordingly.

This brings us to a specific aspect of nature that is supremely important to our happiness: human nature—the essence of the kind of beings that we are.

Human nature includes the essential characteristics that make us human as against some other kind of animal. The most basic characteristic that makes us human and distinguishes us from other animals is our capacity to form and use concepts: our reasoning faculty.

We perceive the world with our senses (however many we are fortunate to have), as do all animals. But we also possess reason, which enables us to mentally integrate our perceptions into concepts (e.g., “water,” “tree,” “teacher,” “happiness”), generalizations (“water is wet,” “good teachers can improve lives”), and principles (“water is a requirement of life,” “happiness is a consequence of achieving one’s values”).

By means of reason, concepts, generalizations, and principles, we can transform nature to suit our needs. This is what makes possible all of the values on which our lives and happiness depend—from agriculture, engineering, and entertainment to careers, recreation, and romance.

If we want to live and be happy, we must study nature, including human nature. We must learn the identities of things, including human beings. And we must act accordingly. (We’ll see another angle on human nature below.)

Two books that elaborate these truths in clarifying and helpful ways are Philosophy: Who Needs It and The Virtue of Selfishness, both by Ayn Rand. I especially recommend the essays “The Metaphysical Versus The Man-Made” and “Causality Versus Duty” in the first, and “The Objectivist Ethics” in the second.

2. Exercise Your Reasoning Faculty and Your Free Will

We gain knowledge by perceiving reality with our senses, forming or learning concepts on the basis of our perceptions, and building an integrated network of ideas grounded in perceptual reality. This is what Helen did, first by learning concepts such as “water,” “ground,” “pump,” “tree,” and “teacher”—and then by grasping and using countless other concepts throughout her life. We are conceptual beings. Our minds work by means of concepts. And, as Ayn Rand observed, “No mind is better than the precision of its concepts.”

This points to the fact that we can err in our thinking. We can embrace ideas that are not grounded in perceptual reality, or ideas that contradict the laws of nature, such as the notion that you can achieve happiness by means of sacrificing (giving up greater values for the sake of lesser values), or that certain races are morally superior, or that socialism is conducive to human life. But insofar as we gain real knowledge, we do so by deriving ideas from perceptual reality and keeping our ideas grounded in observable facts.

Because reason is our means of acquiring and validating knowledge, it is our basic means of living and thriving. As Keller observed, if happiness is our goal, we must “exercise our reasoning faculty.”

The alternatives to going by our reasoning faculty are:

  • Going by our emotional faculty, which, although vitally important to our life and happiness, is not our means of knowledge;
  • Going by the opinions or expectations of others, which entails relinquishing our means of knowledge and becoming a virtual puppet;
  • Going by faith, which is the acceptance of ideas that are not supported by evidence or that contradict known fact (if we accept ideas on the basis of evidence and non-contradiction, then we are going by reason, not faith).

Many people default to some mixture of these—going partly by reason, partly by emotion, partly by the opinions of others, and partly by faith. But if we want to maximize our success and happiness in life, we must recognize and embrace the fact that, in reality, our only means of knowledge is our reasoning faculty.

I might feel that I can lose weight by gorging on cake and ice cream, but that doesn’t make it so. A college professor might say that “reality is an illusion,” but if I step in front of a speeding truck that “illusion” will kill me. Someone might have faith that “God” will solve his problems and make him happy, but if he doesn’t adhere to the laws of nature, including the law of cause and effect, his life will be a miserable mess. (More on the law of cause and effect below.)

Of course, there is nothing wrong with embracing someone else’s ideas, so long as we understand through our own use of reason that the ideas in question are true. Whatever the source of an idea, our only means of checking its validity is our own reasoning mind.

Closely related to our reasoning faculty is our free will, which is our capacity to activate our mind by an act of choice—or not to do so. Although some people deny that we have free will and claim that we are determined to act as we do by our environment or genes or other factors beyond our control, the fact is that we can introspectively observe that we have free will. We directly experience the fact that we choose either to exert mental effort, or to relax mental effort, or to cease it altogether. In Helen Keller’s words, we can “be conscious of our will.” (You can be conscious of yours right now by choosing whether to think about this fact or not to do so.) And if we want to live and be happy, we must be conscious of our will. We must acknowledge the fact that we can choose to exert mental effort or to refrain from doing so. And we must exert the mental effort necessary to understand the world and our needs so that we can achieve our goals and thrive.

We have the power of choice. We have the power to use our reasoning faculty. We can observe that we do. These powers constitute the essence of human nature. And they are our fundamental means of flourishing.

The aforementioned Philosophy: Who Needs It and The Virtue of Selfishness elaborate on the natures and uses of reason and free will. Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged is all about the role of reason and free will in human life. And Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success addresses our powers of reason and choice from a psychological perspective. Dweck focuses on the distinction between a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset,” which is essentially the difference between someone who mistakenly believes that he doesn’t have the ability to activate his mind or make a difference in his life, and someone who understands that he does have this capacity and acts accordingly.

3. Learn Self-Discipline

Life is full of options and distractions. We are constantly bombarded with alternative ways to spend our time and energy—and we can’t pursue them all. We must choose. If we want to achieve our most important happiness-producing goals, we must commit ourselves to achieving them. We must stay focused. And we must follow through.

We all know people who talk a lot about what they are going to do but never do it. “I’m going to write a book . . .”—I’m going to start a band . . .”—“I’m going to take up scuba diving . . .”—“I’m going to quit this job I hate and create a career I love . . .” People who want such things yet fail to act accordingly are wasting the one and only life they have. They are spending their time doing things that maintain the status quo and do not serve to maximize their happiness rather than doing things that could and would transform their lives from mundane to magnificent. If they continue on this course, then, one day, they will die—having never really lived.

One key to really living is, as Keller wrote, self-discipline. And the secret to self-discipline is twofold:

  1. Essentializing your goals and projects in life so that you can focus your time and efforts regularly on what really matters most to your happiness.
  2. Forming good, life-enhancing habits, and breaking bad, life-throttling ones.

These processes are complex and require focus and effort themselves. But if you spend some time learning about them and put your knowledge to work, you can make a lot of headway fast.

Two extremely helpful books on these subjects are: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown; and Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, by James Clear.

4. Learn to Master Hardships

In addition to being full of options and distractions, life is rife with challenges and difficulties. Occasionally it even delivers hardships that seem impossible to overcome. Hellen Keller’s story is a case in point. So too is Bethany Hamilton’s.

In 2003, while surfing in Hawaii, thirteen-year-old Bethany was attacked by a shark that took her entire left arm.

One month later, she returned to the water and has been surfing ever since.

If you’ve never surfed, you might not realize how difficult it would be to do so with only one arm. For an indication, consider what happens when you paddle a surfboard with only one arm. Yep. You go in circles. Now imagine paddling out through large waves—which is a prerequisite to catching one—and somehow making it to the take-off zone on the far side of where the waves break. That “somehow” is just the beginning of the difficulties involved. Then there is getting up and staying up.

Even so, after losing her arm, Bethany went on to win several major surfing tournaments and to place in many others. She also has written several books, made or participated in a few movies, and helped many other people who have suffered similar hardships. Further, she has married the man of her dreams and is raising two sons, with whom, of course, she surfs. In short, Bethany is enjoying a robust and wonderful life—which appears only to be getting better.

How has she managed to deal with such hardship and nevertheless thrive? By deciding to accept her new context and make the most of her resources, assets, and opportunities. Is this easy? No. But, as she puts it, “I don’t need easy, I just need possible.”

Like many people who pull through hardships, Bethany credits “God” for her perseverance and success. But the credit in fact all goes to her. She decided to commit to her goals. She did the thinking and exerted the effort necessary to achieve them. She made her life what it is, despite the massive hardship that life dealt to her.

When we suffer hardships, we have a fundamental choice: We can either choose to marshal all the resources available to us and work to make the best of our situation—or we can choose to do something less. For instance, if you lose your job, or your relationship fails, or your house burns down—or, god forbid, your arm gets bitten off by a shark—you can either wallow in your sorrows and wish your hardship would go away; or you can accept your new context and embrace the principle that “A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.”

Some of the best books for learning to master hardships are biographies, autobiographies, and true stories about people who have mastered them. These include Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass; Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man, by Timothy Sandefur; Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman; In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park; and Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow.

Movies that portray people heroically overcoming hardships include The Miracle WorkerBethany Hamilton: UnstoppableSomething the Lord Made (about the men who pioneered open heart surgery); Men of Honor (about the first black man to become a master diver in the U.S. Navy); and October Sky (about a 1950s coal miner’s son who perseveres to become a NASA engineer).

Finally, I want to single out my favorite work of art in this genre, Dae Jang Geum, a TV series based on the true story of an orphaned girl in 15th-century Korea who, in the process of overcoming a constant onslaught of hardships and setbacks, rises from her servant-class beginnings to become the first woman physician to the king.

5. Recognize the Law of Cause and Effect, and Produce Happiness

Every effect has a cause (or a set of causes), and every cause has an effect (or a set of effects). In the realm of human values, this means that if we want to achieve an effect, we must enact its cause. If we want a fulfilling career, we must take the actions necessary to create one. If we want a wonderful romantic relationship, we must take the actions necessary to build one. And, more broadly, if we want a lifetime of happiness, we must take the actions necessary to make it so. (Rand’s essay “Causality Versus Duty” is all about this fact.)

Practically everyone wants to be happy. Relatively few are willing to produce happiness. But producing happiness is the only way to achieve it. And the surest proof that this is an instance of the law of cause and effect is, as Helen Keller put it, that “we may try every other conceivable way of being happy, and they will all fail.”

Happiness is a consequence of the achievement of our values. When we advance in our career, or complete a marathon, or catch a perfect wave, or begin to develop a meaningful romantic relationship, we experience some degree of happiness. And (catastrophes aside) when we pursue such values regularly—allowing that we will sometimes miss the mark—we achieve many of our goals. This process of consistently pursuing our values and goals is how we create a lifetime of happiness.

Look at the people you know (or know of) whom you regard as genuinely happy. Observe how they live their lives. Do they relentlessly pursue their values? I think you’ll find that they do. Do they occasionally fail? Yes—perhaps even frequently. But they keep moving forward. They keep leaning into life. They keep pursuing values—and happiness follows. This is not a coincidence. It is not mere correlation. It is causation. It’s an instance of the law of cause and effect.

The key here is to figure out what kinds of achievements would make you happy, and then pursue them with all you’ve got. What do you want in your life? What do you love doing? If you don’t yet know what you want or love doing, what do you like—or sort of like—or dislike least? Pursue that goal. Engage in that activity. See what happens.

Contrary to popular misconception, you do not have to be passionate about something in order to enjoy doing it or to derive happiness from it. Passion rarely if ever comes before action and experience. Action and experience almost invariably precede passion. When you take actions toward a goal, you learn more about what is involved in this particular activity. You learn what you may or may not like about it and whether this is something you might come to really enjoy. In time, you develop skills that make the activities you do start to like even more interesting and more enjoyable. This is how you begin developing passion.

It is also the road to happiness.

When you engage with the world and act to achieve goals—and when you allow for failures and setbacks along the way—you will achieve some goals, and you will experience some enjoyment. This will motivate you to engage further, to achieve more, and to reach even higher levels of enjoyment. It’s a virtuous cycle. It’s a causal cycle. Achievements cause some happiness, which psychologically motivates you to achieve more—which, in turn, causes more happiness . . . And so on. In Keller’s words, this is the process of “molding [your] affections and [your] will into an earnest desire not only to be happy, but to create happiness.”

Whatever your level of passion—or lack thereof—the key to loving life is action. Decide on a goal you might enjoy pursuing that is within your power to achieve—and dive in. Take action. Start a blog. Start a Dungeons and Dragons group. Start an online store selling t-shirts with inspiring quotations. Create an online course teaching people how to do something that you know how to do—yoga, accounting, knitting, cooking. Take dance lessons. Learn to ski, sew, or surf. Just take action. The “what” matters less than the “do” (so long as the “what” is a life-serving, rights-respecting endeavor). And the time to do it is now.

A few great books that can help you to get the ball rolling are Don’t Do Stuff You Hate, by Isaac M. Morehouse and Mitchell Earl; Forward Tilt, by Isaac Morehouse with Hannaah Frankman; and I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It, by Barbara Sher.

Whether Helen Keller would agree with my elaborations on her five keys to achieving happiness, I don’t know. But in those few paragraphs from “The Simplest Way to Be Happy,” she identified the basic actions required for personal flourishing—and these are the same basic actions prescribed by rational egoism, the moral framework I’ve used to elaborate her prescriptions.

I love that Helen Keller left us such rich ideas to contemplate. And I love that they integrate so beautifully with reality-based, life-serving philosophy.

“To be happy we must do those things which produce happiness.” That is a law of life drawn from a lot of experience. It’s a law to live by.

Level Up is a forum for sharing ideas and values that you find interesting, enjoyable, or useful toward flourishing. We invite you to submit:

  • Articles about ideas for loving life or defending freedom
  • Reviews of books, podcasts, or videos you find valuable
  • Personal-development tips, strategies, or tactics

Submissions are moderated for alignment with the purpose of the blog and may be edited for clarity and brevity. Read submission guidelines here.

Contributors here offer their own ideas, which do not necessarily reflect those of the staff or managers of OSI.

Recent Posts

The Golden Era of American Railroads

The Golden Era of American Railroads

Rail travel in America today leaves much to be desired. State-funded operator Amtrak has a well-earned reputation for slow, often late trains, running on inconvenient schedules and using outdated equipment. It wasn’t always like that. While browsing through an...

Comment Policy
Comments submitted to Level Up are checked daily and moderated for alignment with the purpose of the blog, which is to share life-serving values with life-loving people. Comments may be complimentary or critical but must be on-topic and civil. Posters must use their real names (first and last). If your username is not your real name, simply include your full name at the end of your post. Comments are limited to 300 words, but we invite you to submit longer posts for publication on Level Up.