What Confucius Can Teach You About Living a Happier Life

by Henrik Edberg

Image by Ivan Walsh (license).

“It is better to play than do nothing.”

“Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them.”

“Only the wisest and stupidest of men never change.”

About 2500 years ago there lived a man called Confucius. He was Chinese philosopher and thinker and has had a big influence on life and thought systems in countries like China, Korea and Japan for a long, long time. His teachings became the system of philosophy called Confucianism.

Today I’d like to share a few of my favorite happiness tips from Confucius.

What goes around, comes around.

“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”

A very simple rule for how life often works. The Law of Reciprocity is strong in people. How you treat others, they are likely to treat you. So be honest and think about what you do to others and what they are doing to you. And think about how you can change and improve what you do to them.

The payoff may not be instant though. So let go of your need for instant gratification and continue to act in a way that you feel is right rather than quickly giving up doing positive things just because you didn’t get validation and positive feedback right away.

You have to do to understand.

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

This is a key piece of advice. It’s easy to confuse what you read in a book or see happen to someone else as having an idea of how it is to do or experience such a thing for yourself. Sometimes it gives you a good idea of what it is about. Other times it’s quite different than you thought it would be.

So while books and seeing someone doing something can be useful, the key to really understanding what something is about is to do it yourself. You can argue with yourself or others about an idea for years. Have logical discussions and theories. But until you actually try it for yourself you won’t understand it.

Shoot for something.

“If you shoot for the stars and hit the moon, it’s OK. But you’ve got to shoot for something. A lot of people don’t even shoot.”

The most important thing is to start and to do. You may fail, you may stumble. And that’s OK. You may not wind up exactly where you wanted to go. And that’s OK too.

But if you don’t try then nothing will ever get started. You’ll probably just spend days, months and years sitting around waiting for something to happen.

Focus on what you want.

“The more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large.”

What you focus on, you will see in your world. Changing what you think about most of the time can change the world around you radically. Things you never noticed before come into focus. Things you previously spent a lot of time thinking and worrying about seem insignificant and sink into the background of your world.

And your actions tend to align with your dominant thoughts. So if you replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts then you will probably start to take more positive action in your world and so you world tends to become a better world. This can of course spread outside your own little world since people tend to treat other people as they are being treated. And so a positive, upward spiral of thought and action can grow.

Let go of the past.

“To be wronged is nothing unless you continue to remember it.”

“Things that are done, it is needless to speak about…things that are past, it is needless to blame.”

People can hold on to things that have happened long, long after they happened. One reason for that is that it inflates the ego. If you have or have had important problems then well, you must be a person of importance. Or so you can tell yourself and others to gain sympathy and attention.

So you feel a sense of importance by bringing these past things up in your mind and perhaps by discussing or arguing with others about them. This may be seen as normal and something a whole lot of people do. But it is not useful. It is not necessary. You get some pleasure out of it but in the end it always leads to a lot more misery and suffering.

So ask yourself: “what is in it for me?”. Or: “who cares?”.

Is it really a lot of value in it for you to be thinking and feeling negatively for perhaps hours each week about things that is already in the past, things you can’t change anyway?

Now, just saying that you should drop negative stuff that happened to you in the past is easy. Doing it isn’t always that easy. These memories have a tendency to want to cling to you. Or jump out at you once again even though you thought you had moved past them.

But with time, they can become less and less frequent visitors. Until one day, you may even have forgotten about them altogether.

Delay the impulse and avoid the consequences.

“When anger rises, think of the consequences.”

No matter if you train your mind, you are still human and in the heat of the moment it’s easy to take less helpful path. In those moments it’s good to look into the future. It is easy to get lost in the anger and act based upon that. But is it worth it? And what may happen if you do?

When anger rises, take 10 breaths and think about that.

You are here.

“And remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”

It’s easy to get lost in the past or future. But you aren’t there now. You are right here right now. Most of the moments you spend thinking and feeling about the past or future is simply you being stuck in an unnecessary habit and it is a distraction from what is here in front of you.

So return to where you are right now by focusing on your breathing for a minute or two. Or by focusing on what is in front of you and around you right now. Then be where you are.

Recognize the simplicity of life.

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

The mind loves to think. So it thinks and thinks about things. Making them more and more complex than they ever really were. And so you bog yourself down with too many thoughts and perhaps a lack of action due to things just seeming too complicated and hard.

Don’t get lost in details and unimportant things. Realize what is most important in your life and discard what you don’t need.

Then spend more time and energy on the important things in your life. And stop thinking so much and instead take action to gain a better understanding of life and of yourself.

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Laura Horn July 7, 2010 at 1:35 am

Hi Henrik
Congrats on a great post. Beautifully written and inspiring. I apply most of these philosophies to my life and have found them incredibly helpful for reducing my anxiety. I didn’t realise that they come from the teachings of Confucius. Your post has given me a great boost and reminded me of what life is all about. The headings are fantastic: What goes around, comes around; You have to do to understand, Shoot for something, Focus on what you want, Let go of the past, Delay the impulse and avoid the consequences, You are here and Recognise the simplicity of life. I’ve written these down and pinned them up to inspire and help me. Thank you for sharing.

Will July 7, 2010 at 2:58 am

It’s amazing to think that sharing such short little quips could pack such a huge impact on a person’s mentality and mindset. Does making the point short and concise make it easier to deliver, thus easier to receive or is it the puzzling out, your own interpretation that makes it so meaningful? Just food for thought!

jonathanfigaro July 7, 2010 at 3:36 am

I think it comes down to what you focus upon. It’s best to focus on great thoughts. It’s all about feeling good. Everything else comes after.

Joyce at What Would You Do In Heaven? July 7, 2010 at 3:39 am

I like the one about simplicity, that life is simple but we want to complicate things. Maybe it’s because if things aren’t complicated, we can’t accept it as real or true. I’ve read it somewhere in the works of St. Thomas, that one of God’s traits is that God is simple. I guess, that’s something to ponder about.

Joshua Noerr July 7, 2010 at 4:44 am

My favorite is “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” It’s really true. Our need for things, and our ability to think, which can both be good things, also are responsible for making life complicated.

Thanks Henrik, this one is getting a tweet and a digg!

Chris Fam July 7, 2010 at 5:15 am

well explained! thanks for sharing!

John Wang July 7, 2010 at 5:21 am

Most – if not all – “Confucius Saying” in English are simply made up.
Here are my comments:

- The guy is so uptight, he would never ever say “It’s better to play
than do nothing”
- The “Only the wisest and stupidest of men never change” does not
sound like his saying.
- This is simply not in Chinese culture at all: “If you shoot for the
stars and hit the moon, it’s OK. But you’ve got to shoot for something. A lot of people don’t even shoot.” His teaching (and later
interpretation) is all about how to do things right, and the dire
consequences of not doing the right things. This mindless following
of convention & rules from the past snubbed out creativity and initiatives in Chinese elites.
- “And remember, no matter where you go, there you are.” is more of a Zen/Taoism saying, not Confucius

This statement is definitely from him: “What you do not want done to
yourself, do not do to others.” In Chinese it is “?????????”.
Despite all the harm caused by subsequent bureaucrats/scholars acting in his name, this Golden Rule had positive influence on the Chinese culture. It can also be found in most of the world’s religions.

Laura July 22, 2010 at 10:10 pm

You are ovviously educated and like quotes to be correct. I often feel the same way. Although, I’m not at your level of expertise. I appreciated the understanding and bit of insight into the “Confucius Sayings”. Thank-you.

Renee July 7, 2010 at 8:24 am

“What you focus on, you will see in your world. Changing what you think about most of the time can change the world around you radically.”

Amazing piece of advice. What we focus on, we tend to see. And humans focus on what they DON’T have – because human beings hate to lose. So even if we have an amazing life with great friends, lots of money, status, a great relationship etc, if there’s one thing we’re missing, we tend to focus there.

I notice myself doing that with my blog. In amongst 10 positive comments, if there’s one flamer, I focus on that instead of on the positive.

But, then I know a special person who focuses only on the good – which is amazing. I can’t say that’s true of everyone though :)

Love this blog Henrik. Keep up the amazing work


Parveen Rizvi July 7, 2010 at 10:21 am

Hi Henrik
Your inspiring posts come at the right time for me. Last night I could not sleep due to some personal worries, I was very upset and frustrated till I read this amazing post. I shattered all my negative feelings and thoughts and now feeling light hearted.
LIFE is EASY but at times it is hard to control on our mind.

I am a great fan of your blog it gives me motivation to live happily and live a simple and easy life.


Parveen Rizvi

Billy July 7, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Great post once again. very gripping :0 thanks for sharing

Frederik Vieten July 7, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Thanks for the great post. You’ve got one new reader :)

Vivek July 7, 2010 at 4:12 pm

so profound…simply awesome!

Kendra July 7, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Thanks, Henrik! Great post. I especially love the reminders to stop and be present… I’m trying to make it a regular habit. :) And I focus on gratitude too, especially for the smallest, simplest things. It helps.

Thank you!


Count your blessings. Everyday. Everywhere.
mobile gratitude journal (free with promo “joy”)

Nancy Shields July 7, 2010 at 8:38 pm

I love the one that states “Life is Simple”; this is so very true but we as humans want to make things so complex and difficult! Great inspirational blog Henrik! I am a woman that also inspires other women. Please check out my blogs of inspiration at http://www.blog.makegirlfriends.com

Keep up the great writing!!!

Lucky Balaraman July 8, 2010 at 6:40 am

It’s interesting how the Law of “Goes Around, Comes Around” has been recognize all over the planet… Confucious, Jesus and Karma all say the same thing…

Darshan Chande July 8, 2010 at 8:01 am

Yeah, this was really a very helpful article. You have used a good idea to bring Confucius’s thoughts to today’s people. He was a great philosopher, indeed.

finallygettingtoeven.com July 8, 2010 at 10:33 pm

Confucius led a hard life. His father a great warrior was killed when he was just 3 and his mother left her safety net to raise her only son on her own in great poverty. She died when he was 17 from illness and a life of hard work. He married a few years later and left his own family to ‘save the Chinese Culture and way of life’ as he saw it. He had a lot of disciples but also a lot of critics that believed he had his own agenda and ‘brainwashed’ the folks.

I have to agree with another poster that while I do not know this to be a fact, I too think that some of the sayings that we have been passing down have been the result of us making them up.

Regardless of who said them, the sayings are all still profound and helpful to many.

Thanks for a great post!

Sheryl July 9, 2010 at 7:09 am

Hi there. Came across your blogsite today. I think it is fabulous. It has inspired me to keep up with my own. I like your set up so will have to check out word press. I am on blogpsot. I build furniture from salvaged materials and have started a blog for my customers and for anyone else who is interested. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, experiences, education, enthusiasm etc with us. A great reminder that in helping those around us we can only become better ourselves…..cheers, Sheryl

Roman Soluk July 9, 2010 at 1:37 pm

I like your writing, Henrik! Thanks for sharing this info. I’ve enjoyed it!

Amanya Jacobs July 12, 2010 at 1:40 am

Your article is so full of ideas-it should be read more than once. Letting the past go and focusing on the present applies to more than just negatives in the past, it also applies to positives. Those “Good Ole Days” cannot be revisited or re-examined. Your idea is to make now the Good Ole Days and move forward.

Martin Wildam July 12, 2010 at 1:55 pm

I have been reading a lot of famous/popular blogs but your’s is one of the very few that I keep reading because you keep the post quality in long-term. Thank you.

Petteri, Happiness Hunters July 12, 2010 at 2:27 pm

I like the idea of shooting for something the most. Fear of failure seems to make most people just wait and wait for the perfect opportunity with no possibility to fail, but obviously that kind of opportunity does not exist.

jonathanfigaro July 13, 2010 at 3:14 am

I wonder if Henrik is gonna ever comment back to us…Hmmm?

Henrik Edberg July 13, 2010 at 9:42 am

Thanks for the reminder, Jonathan. :)

Sammy July 13, 2010 at 6:57 am

I just stumbled up on your site and I am glad I did. What a great way to end the day.

Henrik Edberg July 13, 2010 at 9:41 am

Thanks for all the comments and insights you have been adding over the last week, I appreciate them. :) Hope you all are having a sunny and wonderful summer.

Cesar July 19, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Did confucious actually use the word “OK”?… I’m sure he probably used some other term. If so, I feel it would be more meaningful to get something closer to his actual words. Though, I did enjoy the quote of : “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” whoever wrote it…Thanks!

Carolyn Jolly July 28, 2010 at 5:02 am

I love this article! Such great wisdom and research on your part.


Anne July 30, 2010 at 9:58 am

I’m enjoy reading this article… very inspiring and truest wisdom!

Anonymous July 31, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Overall, I think this is nice article, what’s written here is true in some ways, love these three the most: what comes around goes around, shoot for something, and let go of the past. Smile everyone and let’s strive through this life all way long with peace and happiness :).

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