There are as many roads to happiness as people on the planet. No two are alike. None of us can judge another’s concept of the way to find happiness. Novelist Paulo Coelho said, “We can never judge the lives of others because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation. It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think that yours is the only path.”

However, we can explore what happiness is and how we might achieve it. Although each of us is a unique individual, human beings share universal commonalities. While our emotional makeup may vary, we smile when something brings us joy, we laugh when we’re amused, we cry when we lose a loved one, and we become angry when we’re betrayed.

I become concerned when I read that our greatest and likely our only goal is happiness. While it’s certainly true that happiness can help provide us with the strength to act on our own behalf or for the good of others, it’s a by-product of our actions, not the ultimate goal. Besides, it’s little like the chicken or the egg puzzle: Which comes first—happiness or action?

We can examine two concepts: 1) What actions can make us happy? 2) Are actions necessary for happiness?

Author William Arthur Ward wrote, “Happiness is an inside job.” It doesn’t depend on outside circumstances, but rather a state of mind we must cultivate unless we’re fortunate enough to be born with a happy disposition that we maintain throughout our lives. While pre-packaged happiness may be possible with some exceptional DNA, our environment probably has the greatest effect on the state of our emotions. Most of us need to work at creating happiness within ourselves through 1) self-indulgent actions to give us pleasure, or 2) caring for others, which depends on—and engenders—our self-worth and self-love.

We often measure our happiness by our accomplishments, such as marriage, raising a family, and holding down a job or career. These are conventional rungs on the ladder to success—but they don’t necessarily lead to happiness. While they may be noble pursuits, they can be relatively meaningless unless we prioritize our open expression of love and compassion for others.

Someone born with material advantages may think that he or she can find happiness in quantifiable success. Never learning the value of money or the need to be accountable for his or her actions, this individual might even feel entitled to all the material symbols of success: an Ivy League education, marriage into a wealthy family, world travel, expensive cars, designer clothes—the whole package. I venture to say that these attractive perks may bring some semblance of happiness— and let’s face it, privileges many of us dream of, especially during moments of aggravation—but the potential for joy is missing when greed takes precedence over love.

Measures of success do not determine happiness. Not all of us are born with the means to afford even the simplest luxuries of life. Some of us struggle to provide ourselves with the most basic necessities. Job training or education is not always available or affordable. Even food is in short supply. Without the means to support ourselves—not to mention a family—the only option is to strive hard to simply provide the basic means of survival.

But there’s hope. Remarkably, many who are born into humble surroundings and left without apparent means still seem to possess an invisible source of happiness and gratitude that doesn’t depend on material advantages. Despite their hardships, they show a great capacity for generosity. As fellow members of humanity, they deserve our empathy and respect.

If we are lucky enough to enjoy more advantages than others in our community or anywhere on the globe, any time we can spare out of our busy lives to help our underserved neighbors to help themselves will not only uplift them, it can also bring us happiness, peace of mind, and self-worth for our efforts, which at best won’t seem like effort at all, but genuine pleasure—not fleeting self-gratification.

Sure, some self-indulgence is a good thing! Plan that big vacation. Delight in the double-chocolate lava cake. Put up your feet and enjoy a glass of wine…OK, more than one on occasion. Buy that expensive pair of designer shoes that you’ll only wear once. Take a long nap. Do what it takes to make you feel good and energize you for another week of work in a job you took to pay the bills while you plan for that dream career a few years ahead. Maybe you don’t have the time or the means to plan beyond tomorrow. Treat yourself, at least once in while, to the little things that will make you feel content. But only use things as your fallback solution for creating happiness. Keep top-of-mind that your primary source of happiness is love.

Individual happiness is subjective and mysterious, based on unseen layers of our capacity for love, and little or nothing to do with material wealth or prestige. Someone who puts others first may even transcend happiness and find something deeper we call joy. The paradox of life is that although the human race exhibits inestimable diversity, we are all one. As such we need one another for happiness. Author Nikki Rowe stated it well: “Of all the paths you take, follow only those where your heart is wide open, mind enriched and your soul learns to dance.”

We would all be shallow indeed if our only goal was to live in a constant state of happiness without any investment of love. As we evolve, we realize love is often a conscious choice. It’s more of a verb than a noun—something we do, not just something we feel. We are complex beings with potential for good that we need to develop. Happiness and its deepest manifestation joy emanate from our victory over the more selfish side of our natures. In the words of writer Kamand Kojouri, “The only path wide enough for us all is love.” The road to happiness beckons us to grow to love something larger than ourselves and serve it with our kindness.

Mary Kathryn “M.K.” Jones