you can be happier
"What would happen to us if we really fell in love with life? How would our lives change if we really thought . . . that reality is fabulous . . . ? Would we be fools of whom other people take advantage, or would we find that life is exciting, joyful, and wonderful?"
--James A. Kitchens
It was a cold, dreary Saturday morning. My husband and I had plans to go out to dinner for a joint birthday celebration. Then Ana, our then three-year-old, woke up with a fever. She'd had recurring pneumonia since we adopted her at age one and fever was the warning sign. Cancel the sitter and hunker down to deal with one crabby child. For a sick Ana was not a pleasant experience--she'd cling to me and scream bloody murder if Don or anyone else came close.
Somehow we survived the day, but not without many tears and tantrums. As night fell, I had her in my lap in the rocking chair. "Hard day, huh Ana," I said. "What was going on? What do you want?"
She looked up at me and wailed, "I just want to be happy."
Don't we all? No matter who we are or what our circumstances, isn't that what we each long for? Happiness, the experience of the sheer joy of being alive. Indeed, it is such an important shared value that the Declaration of Independence identifies its pursuit as one of only three unalienable rights.
We all want it so badly, but like Ana on that December day, so many of us don't seem to know how to experience it on a consistent basis. Maybe the problem is with the word "pursue." Somehow we've gotten the message that happiness is out there, something to be sought after--in the right job, the mate who never annoys you, the $50,000 BMW--rather than inside ourselves. We've trained ourselves to think in "if onlys"--if only our spouse would come home from work earlier we'd be happy; if only we'd make $20,000 more a year we'd be happy; if only we could be a stay-at-home mom we'd be happy. We spend our time trying to make our "if onlys" come true only to discover that even if we do achieve them, a new "if only" arises.
That was certainly true for me. For most of my first forty years, I was your average negative person. I would religiously catalog all that was wrong with my life and spend my time and energy trying to create a happier tomorrow. But when getting what I was sure would make me happy didn't--independence, money, success--I realized that I'd been looking in all the wrong places. So I decided to do a happiness makeover. This twelve-year process has led me to write a series of books on the virtues of kindness, gratitude, generosity, patience, and self-trust as ways to be happy, and to now look at happiness head-on. I've studied happy people, read all the books, done a lot of soul searching, worked hard on myself, and offered a helping hand to my clients.
This week, I got a bit of validation that I'm getting somewhere. We've been doing work in our backyard and I invited the contractor and his wife to dinner as a thank-you. I'd spoken maybe twenty-five words to them beforehand. We had our normal family time, including after-dinner dancing in the living room with Ana. The next day, the man came to the door to thank me. "That was nice," he said with a smile. "You're really happy, aren't you?"
I am, I thought, and it's taken fifty years of work to get here. Maybe that's why I've written this book--so that others won't have to struggle so long, so that more of us can answer a resounding yes, so that happiness can blossom to its fullness for ourselves and for those we encounter on our path.
Happiness is its own reward, but it doesn't stop there. Happy people are accepting of themselves, so they don't spend precious time in regret. They accept others, too, so are free to love people as they are, rather than expending energy trying to do a repair job on everyone in sight. They look positively to the future so they don't spend a lot of time in worry or fear. They are engaged with life as a wonderful adventure in which they are here to give their best. The zest with which they encounter life is contagious; people are drawn into their orbit and success seems to be attracted as well. They're healthier too. A study reported recently in the Journal of Neurology found that happy older people are less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. Studies have also found that folks who are happy are less likely to die prematurely or even develop colds.
As I've thought, read, and practiced the art of happiness, I've come to understand a few things: first, that the search for happiness is at the root of all human activity throughout the ages; second, that happiness must be experienced in this moment or risk never being felt at all. While we can get nostalgic for the past--oh, I used to be so happy--or wistful about the future--someday I will be happy--it is now, in this very moment, that we must create the only happiness that we can count on.
Most important, I've learned that while scientists have recently discovered we each have a genetic happiness set point, a place on the emotional spectrum we tend to drift toward, it accounts for only 40-50 percent of our happiness (which they determined by studying twins raised apart). What that means is that we all can experience more contentment and joyfulness no matter who we are. For as of yet, no one has discovered an upward limit on good feelings.
In a very real sense, happiness is the ultimate makeover. Why else do we spend money and time on fixing our houses, our bodies, our relationships except that we want to be happier? Rather than trying to shore up baggy eyelids or redo mismatched furniture in an attempt to experience greater overall satisfaction and enjoyment, why not go directly to the source--cultivating the mental and emotional outlooks that will generate a sense of joyfulness independent of couch fabric or lipstick brand?
As I studied and practiced, I've come to understand that happiness is a feeling that arises as a result of thoughts we choose to hold and actions we choose to take to increase those good thoughts. In this way, we think our way to happiness.
At the heart of this book is the realization that the mind is a powerful thing and its power can be used to make us happy or miserable. We can concentrate on how the world has done us wrong or the ways it does us right. We can focus on where we're stuck or how we're free. We can take the opportunity to notice the ordinary miracles around us. We can find ways to truly enjoy, even to relish, the moments of our lives.
While certain thinking creates happiness, happiness itself may also create better thinking: "[T]here is a growing body of evidence that people think more effectively and expansively when they are happy than when they are not," noted Professor Barry Schwartz in a recent speech to Swarthmore graduates. For instance, doctors who were given bags of candy before seeing patients--a happiness booster--increased their accuracy and speed of diagnosis.
Before psychology got interested in happiness, about ten years ago, this topic was left to philosophers. Since Aristotle, philosophers have distinguished between hedonistic happiness, happiness as a feeling of pleasure or contentment, and eudaimonistic happiness, which arises out of satisfaction with one's actions and character. Recently positive psychology has made a similar distinction between pleasure and gratification, noting that since pleasure is fleeting and gratification longer lasting, it is better to pursue gratification to experience "authentic" happiness. The distinction may be intellectually useful, but I think it fails to take into account the uniqueness of each person and therefore what each of us may need.
Take me, for instance. I knew a lot about the happiness that comes from living your strengths and values (what Martin Seligman calls the path of gratification). But until recently I knew precious little about enjoying my life moment to moment, the pleasure path. What I want to encourage you to do, dear reader, is understand which of the paths to happiness you need to pursue in your own makeover and to cultivate the thinking that will lead you there.
There Are Many Paths to Happiness
"Happiness, that grand mistress of ceremonies in the dance of life, impels us through all its mazes and meanderings, but leads none of us by the same route."
--Charles Caleb Colton
Fred, a harried marketing executive, contacted me because he wanted to be happier. We chatted about what he could do to make his life feel better, but I could tell we weren't getting anywhere. He kept focusing on his problems--an unresponsive boss, children who were struggling in school. So I asked him to make a study of the happy people he knew--what was different between them and him?--and then report back on what he observed.
Two weeks later, Fred called. "People who are happy are more appreciative," he told me. "They take action on the things they can in their lives, and don't worry about the rest. And they smile more." So Fred and I laid out a plan for him to learn to do these three things. On a daily basis, he began looking at what he could appreciate about his life--healthy children, a job, a solid marriage. Then he began taking action where he could--better training for his employees so he wouldn't have to do so much himself, setting boundaries with the kids (making it clear there were consequences for not doing assigned chores, for instance)--and letting go of the rest. Every time he found himself worrying about something he could not control, he would stop and refocus. He began to look each day for at least one "rosebush of happiness," as I call those little pleasures of everyday life that bring us enjoyment and make us smile. And what do you know? He got happier.
Another client came to me, same issue. I gave her the same assignment and she came back saying, "Happy people have more fun. They take time to play." So I helped her figure out how she could do more of that. A third person said that happy people are kinder and more generous than she. A fourth reported that happy people are passionately consumed by meaningful work.
I've given the happy people study to dozens of folks. And lo and behold, everyone discovers something different! What I've come to see is that each of us notices exactly what we need to learn--that's why we notice it. So rather than giving too much credence to what the research says or taking anyone else's word for what creates happiness, conduct a study for yourself and pay attention to what you discover. That will be the key to your own successful makeover.
This is not to say that there aren't themes in what they found. No one said other people were happier because they have more stuff or fewer problems. No one said it was because others were rich or famous. In fact, the things they and others discovered form the basis of this book. But which things you need to concentrate on most likely will be revealed in your study of happy people, as well as the ideas that resonate most strongly for you as you read along. Both are signals of the path that will yield the best results for you personally. So let your heart, mind, and spirit guide you to the practices and ideas that are just right for you.
The Happiness Makeover offers stories from my life and those I've worked with and read about, and a blend of emotional, spiritual, philosophical, and practical perspectives drawn from positive psychology, Eastern and Western wisdom traditions, and asset-focused coaching. Along the way, I try to suggest approaches that really work; at the bottom, I'm a fundamentally practical soul. I try to avoid offering pat or insipid solutions that are impossible to enact--a recent Reader's Digest, for instance, citing research, advised readers that one of the keys to happiness was to be married; another was to have religious faith. What effect does that have on the millions of single people searching for love or those who struggle with faith? It leaves them standing outside the candy store window, unable to partake of the goodies inside. The Happiness Makeover is intended to help anyone, regardless of your race, religious affiliation, income level, gender, or marital status, to experience the joy, contentment, and satisfaction that are your human birthright.
At bottom, happiness is not an idea but a feeling--of lightness, of well-being, the "relaxed at-ease state of your being with existence" as spiritual teacher Osho describes it. As you begin the journey, it helps to understand that what you are engaging in is nothing more or less than mind training, the creation of new habits of thought that in turn generate positive feelings.
A Happiness Makeover Is Like Training a Puppy
"The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts, therefore guard accordingly; and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue, and reasonable nature."
--Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Ana got a puppy for her seventh birthday. "I never knew it was so much work!" she exclaimed after the first week. As we struggled with the (seemingly endless) task of housebreaking little Mooky, I was struck by how similar it is to training your mind to happiness.
At first, the puppy just goes where she wants to, whenever the urge strikes. Your job as trainer is to keep putting her where you want her to go, namely outside, at the right time. Punishment doesn't work so well; it's better to keep putting her outside--no, not here, over here--and offering a lot of praise and rewards. Over time, she gets the point and it takes no effort on your part anymore. She's done it so many times correctly that it becomes automatic.
That's also the theory behind a happiness makeover. Right now, your mind is like an untrained puppy, wandering all over the place, often making you miserable. The more you become aware where your mind automatically goes and place it where you want it to go, the more you create the neurological pathway to that better choice, and the more automatic that choice becomes. And the reward is found in how good you will feel.
In a sense, unlike a puppy, your mind is already trained--to go to thoughts of worry, negativity, gloom. Your job is to retrain it. Recent breakthroughs in the ability to see the brain function--through MRIs--reveal that we all have two prefrontal lobes in our neocortex. When the left is activated, we think thoughts of peace, happiness, joy, contentment, optimism. When the right is activated, we think thoughts of gloom, doom, worry, pessimism. It turns out that each of us has what they call a tilt--a tendency for whatever happens to stimulate one side or the other. That's what creates the difference between optimists and pessimists. Whether we're born that way or develop it very young is not clear. But by the time we're adults, we have a deeply grooved tendency to activate either the right (negative) or left (positive) no matter what's going on.