Valerie Alexander: Happiness As A Second Language

Valerie Alexander is an American author, speaker, screenwriter and director. She is also a writer for The Huffington Post. Her books include, Happiness as a Second Language: A Guidebook to Achieving Lasting, Permanent Happiness and Success as a Second Language: A Guidebook for Defining and Achieving Personal Success. Valerie originally worked as a lawyer, banker and in Silicon Valley. We spoke to her about happiness, why it is so important, and how easy it might be to attain.

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  • How the brain learns to be unhappy or to have self-doubt

  • Why social media invites impossible comparisons

  • Be aware of your need to accomplish things to be happy

  • How choosing to be happy is important

  • Treat people kindly and see the benefits

How we determine happiness

Valerie AlexanderValerie Alexander feels that in order to determine whether people genuinely are happier today than they have ever been, you need to look at the different groups of people in question. If you look at the way that capitalism has reached China, for example, and how the developing world has become more and more stable, you can say that happiness has certainly increased. However, if you look at places that had the highest standard of happiness 50 years ago - the West - overall happiness levels have decreased. This is partly to do with technology. As technology advanced, Valerie Alexander feels that the additional free time that people had made them more unhappy. By not being kept busy, they had more time to focus on things that were not what they wanted.

Keeping yourself busy is important

You need something to fill your time if you are going to be truly happy; you need to have a purpose. It should be an accomplishment that matters. There are many different 'happiness in the workplace' studies, says Valerie Alexander.

They have all reached the same conclusion: the number one reason to be happy at work is having a sense of accomplishment. When you look at the Scandinavian countries, they always score very highly on any happiness index. This is to do with life 'hygiene'.

This means having all the basics covered. Once you have this, anything else is a bonus, and your happiness levels will increase. This happens most in countries with really strong social programmes; Scandinavian countries have these in place.

Be careful of social media

But, says Valerie Alexander, happiness also has to do with 'wants'. Having unmet wants makes you unhappy. Social media has a big part to play in this. On social media you just see everyone's highlight reel, but what you are living is more like a behind the scenes movie. So you'll be comparing the two when they just don't and never can match up. Comparison is the enemy of happiness.

Happiness is not just an absence of unhappiness. In order to be happy you need to acknowledge what is good as well. You need to understand what makes you happy.

Be prepared to self-evaluate yourself

Happiness really can be a second language. You need to learn it. It will depend on how you are raised - were you told that happiness wasn't for you? This is limiting and negative programming. But the beautiful thing about humanity is that it can be learned. You can re-programme yourself to be happy.

There is a centre at Berkeley [Valerie Alexander studied at Berkeley] called The Greater Good Science Center. They have shown that we have absolute control of our own happiness.

Self doubt can be very damaging

It may sound strange, but the brain literally creates ruts of thought. If you are told that you are not good at something over and over, that will create a pathway in your brain that is difficult to get away from. The best way to get over it is to practice positive affirmations each morning when you wake up. Make your own, new, neural pathways that lead to happiness.

Valerie Alexander is one hundred percent sure that happiness is a choice. If you are in a situation where you have the basics covered and your life isn't in danger, you can definitely choose to be happy. There is no reason not to.

Depression, of course, is an entirely different thing. It's a chemical reaction in the brain and you cannot simply choose not to be depressed. That's a different thing. But if you're just feeling down, choose not to be.

Set your own goals

If you're setting your own goals and you're in pursuit of them, you can definitely still be happy. The trouble comes when someone else is setting your goals, and there is pressure to reach them that comes from an outside source. This can lead to unhappiness. However, if you can break down your goals into daily tasks that you can then accomplish, happiness will be easier to find.

Keep your employees happy

Traders should pay attention to the happiness of the workforce in the business they are investing in. The happier the workplace, the more productive and efficient the business, which will affect your investment.

Valerie Alexander has one top tip: whenever you are talking to an employee, especially if you are assigning a task, lead with appreciation. Always start by thanking them for the good work they are doing. They will be much more receptive to the new task they are being given.

Then make sure that the instructions they are given are clear, and express confidence in them: tell them you know they can handle it. Why? People give you what you expect from them.


As with many things in life, happiness is not necessarily something you are born with. Happiness requires work. If people have made the conscious decision to be happier, they will need to have a happiness practice. Tell yourself you're a happy person and really mean it. You will soon see the positive effect this has on your life.

Valerie Alexander can be found at


  • In the West, we are in a post-war age where society is more equal than it has ever been. Both famine and disease are at record lows and living standards have increased immeasurably. This is a massive contrast to 50 years ago. Would you say that people are happier today than they were 50 years ago? Why?
  • Would you say that happiness arises from a lack of unhappiness?
  • Are happiness and success generally intertwined?
  • There's an old saying that success is a choice. Would you say that happiness is, to an extent, a choice?
  • How can you coerce happiness if, say, the person isn't financially or emotionally stable and therefore they may not be in a happy space let alone choose to be happy?
  • Can one remain happy in pursuit of goals or do you find that often the ambition to fulfil overambitious goals is often the source of unhappiness in corporate life?
  • Obviously, everyone has their own pathway and events in their life can dictate their own level of happiness, relatively speaking. Irrespective of what trauma people may or may not have gone through, what process would you recommend to people who want to enjoy more happiness?
  • Where can people find out more about you?

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