Life

3 powerful rules for a happy life, from a 17-year-old who passed away from a rare genetic disease

Sam Berns, subject of the HBO documentary, "Life According to Sam"
(Courtesy HBO | Fine Films)

Happiness isn't something that just happens to us, but it is within reach for everyone. Even during the most tumultuous periods of life, we all have the power to make small changes in our behavior and mindset that can set us on course for a happier life.

If you're looking for some inspiration that will motivate you to make those changes, you might find it in a deeply moving 2013 TEDx talk (which has been viewed nearly 40 million times) from Sam Berns, who passed away at 17 in 2014 from complications of progeria — a genetic disorder resulting in rapid premature aging. 

Berns started off his talk by educating the audience about his illness. "It's pretty rare," he said, "and the effects include tight skin, lack of weight gain, stunted growth and heart disease."

Even though progeria led to many obstacles in his life, Berns said that if there's one thing he wants people to know about him, it's that he lives "a very happy life." 

He then went on to share his three rules for achieving true happiness:

1. 'Be okay with what you ultimately can't do, because there is so much you can do.'

Berns always knew what he was missing out on due to his disease, such as going on a long-distance run or riding an intense roller coaster.

"But I choose to focus on the activities I can do through things I'm passionate about," he said, "like scouting or music or comic books or any of my favorite Boston sports teams." 

And even when it comes to things that really seem impossible, there are ways to make them happen — if you're willing to make adjustments.  

Before his freshman year of high school, for example, playing the snare drum in his school's marching band was a dream Berns "just had to accomplish." But each snare drum and harness weighed about 40 pounds, and Berns was only 50 pounds. 

That didn't stop him, though. Berns and his family worked with an engineer to design a snare drum harness that would be lighter and easier to carry. After continuous work, they made a snare drum apparatus that weighed only six pounds.

2. 'I surround myself with people I want to be with.'

Berns' second rule stresses the importance of only keeping "high-quality" people in your life. These are the people who will be there for you when you're feeling down, encourage a positive mindset and accept you as you are.

"I'm extremely lucky to have an amazing family who has always supported me throughout my entire life. And I'm also really fortunate to have a really close group of friends at school," he said. "We really enjoy each other's company, and we help each other out when we need to. We see each other for who we are on the inside."

Your friends, family and community, he said, are a "very real aspect of everyday life, and they can make a truly significant, positive impact."

3. 'Keep moving forward.'

"I always try to have something to look forward to, something to strive for to make my life richer," Berns told the audience.

Not looking back was what got Berns through difficult times. "This mentality includes staying in a forward-thinking state of mind," he said. "I try hard not to waste energy feeling badly about myself, because when I do, I get stuck in a paradox where there is no room for happiness or any other emotion."

To illustrate his point, Berns recalled a time when he was feeling very sick: "I had a chest cold, I was in the hospital for a few days, and I was secluded from all of the aspects of my life that kind of gave me my identity."

But Berns knew he was going to get better, and looking forward to that day helped him keep moving forward. "Sometimes I had to be brave, and it wasn't always easy," he said. "Sometimes I faltered. I had bad days. Eventually, I realized that being brave isn't supposed to be easy [...], but it's the key to moving forward."

Tom Popomaronis is a leadership researcher and vice president of innovation at Massive Alliance. His work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, Inc. and The Washington Post. In 2014, Tom was named one of the "40 Under 40" by the Baltimore Business Journal. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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