Ahh, happiness … along with love, one of the most chased and elusive of human conditions. It’s so important we even wrote it into our Declaration of Independence: We have the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. But, what is happiness? Is it universal, or is it different for different people? Can we make it, find it or attain it; or does it just happen when we are still and accepting?
Inspired by Gretchen Rubin and her year-long Happiness Project, which became a blog and subsequent book, I embarked on my own happiness experiment as part of my 30 Days at a Time project. Rubin defines the project as an approach to changing your life through three stages: preparation, when you identify what brings you joy and contentment; resolution, when you create concrete actions that will boost your happiness; and action, when you put it all into effect and make it part of your daily life.
Like Rubin, I read and studied many different approaches to happiness, from the philosophical Buddhist perspective offered by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in The Art of Happiness, Robert Holden’s psychological approach in Happiness Now! (featured on Oprah), and the practical methods of Alexandra Stoddard in Choosing Happiness, among others. While styles and philosophies often differed, there were several underlying points of consensus, the most important being that happiness is a choice. It’s not something mystical or magical that happens to us by luck, and our internal level of happiness should not depend on external circumstances.
We can choose to be happy or not in every moment, and no one can make us happy but ourselves.
During my Happiness Project, I found the following 20 practices to be the most profound and effective:
Want what we have – not what we don’t. Happiness has less to do with our circumstances, than how we perceive them and how satisfied we are with what we have. Our feelings of contentment are strongly influenced by our tendency to compare; which is why the whole “keeping up with the Jones” mentality is such a debilitating spiral. But conversely, you can use comparison to shift your perspective and contemplate how things could be worse. Try this exercise: Complete the sentence “I’m glad I’m not _____.”
Make a list of “Happiness Islands.” These are places, things and activities that make you feel joyful and content. It might be music, traveling, time spent with a loved one, a hobby, working out, pampering, etc. Try to incorporate as many of these into your daily life as possible.
Ask, “What do I love about myself?” We rarely ask ourselves this; instead, our self-dialogue tends to be very critical. Write down all the things you really love about yourself, and refer to it to battle self-doubt, criticism and guilt.
Learn to accept the past and move on from it. We can perpetuate our own pain and keep it alive, and stronger, by replaying old hurts over and over. Dwelling in the past will never change it, but only keeps you stuck there emotionally.
Adjust our attitude toward suffering. Hurt, pain and grief are part of life—but our attitude toward these hard times is critical because it affects how we cope with suffering when it comes. What we give the majority of our focus to becomes stronger and more present in our lives; when the temptation comes to wallow in past hurts or even current bad feelings, consciously choose to give mental energy and attention to the positive as well.
Learn to deal with anger and conflict better. When conflicts with others arise, our outlook may become narrow until we’re focused only on the problem, leading to a self-absorption that can not only make the problem seem much more intense, but limits our ability to see the other person’s viewpoint or have compassion toward their suffering. Research shows that venting anger in a way out of proportion to the circumstance that created it physiologically arouses us and makes us even more prone to rage. A cooling-off period, which can give distance and perspective, helps address the problem without such high emotions.
View happiness in the long-term. Immediate/temporary pleasures are often harmful to us in the long run; for example, it might be more pleasurable to sit and eat ice cream in the moment, rather than work out. But ultimately, you will be happier if you’re active and healthy.
Choose carefully the people and activities you spend your time with. Make enough time for those which really matter to you, and make it focused time—be present with it, not planning all the other things on your to-do list.
Decide to be something, rather than chase it. Do not seek love—instead, act loving toward those around you. Do not seek peace, but be peaceful. Do not pursue joy, but determine to be joyful in the present moment as much as possible.
Act the way you want to feel. Doing this often helps propel us in that direction. Try a smile, even if you don’t feel like it; try helping someone else, even if you don’t feel like it. You might be surprised how those feelings change.
Stay active and physically fit. Sometimes if we’re feeling down, physical activity helps. Even just getting out of the house, taking a walk, or having a high-energy cardio workout. The natural endorphins are a proven mood-booster.
Approach others with compassion and openness. Often we expect the other person to respond to us first in a positive manner, whether that is brief exchanges with strangers or in our most intimate relationships. But by being open, positive and empathetic first, you are setting the stage for a more meaningful, happier encounter. It’s basically the golden rule – treat others the way you would like to be treated. It’s amazing what that little initiative will accomplish.
Give to others and volunteer. The “helper’s high” has been documented, and even the memory of helping brings it forth! Performing altruistic acts not only makes us happier, it is also the top indicator for a longer life.
Surround yourself with beauty. Make your home a place that brings you joy by surrounding yourself with prized things such as flowers, a certain color on the walls, photos of loved ones or mementos from travels. It’s not about how big or expensive your home is; it’s about the importance of our immediate environment being filled with things we love.
Write letters to those you love. Never underestimate the power of telling people closest to you why they are important to you—to them and yourself. Identify your “carrots” and reward yourself. We all have them: a good meal, gardening, a massage or bubble bath. Whatever yours are, the fun of planning a little reward and the anticipation of it often creates joy. It’s celebration for life being lived well, and these little mini-breaks for ourselves help take care of our own emotional needs and energy.
When you feel a little down, get in a groove. That’s what Stoddard calls picking yourself up and getting out to do something that you enjoy. It might be treating yourself to lunch, stopping in a favorite Austin spot or heading to the park. Like exercise, this is almost a guaranteed pick-me-up.
Resist the urge to over-discuss problems. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk to friends about difficulties—this very therapeutic and often they can be of tremendous help. But when we go on and on for weeks or even months about a painful situation in our lives we put too much energy into it that is not constructive. For small stresses, try the “5 minute bitch rule.” Ask a friend to give you five minutes to vent, but when those five minutes are up, be done with it and move on.
Keep a gratitude journal. Jotting down the things we are thankful for can help us appreciate what we have in life, and keep our difficulties in perspective.
Have a “happy hour” every day. Set aside an hour of time that is for you, to do something that makes you happy. Choose one of your happiness islands, read a book, go shopping, meditate, take a nap, have a cocktail. Whatever it is, this is your time. And you are worth at least an hour every day!