C’mon, Get Happy!

10 reasons to celebrate (and ways to get even happier in the process).

Daylight Savings Time may be over, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon a sunny attitude toward life. Happiness, according to Rick Foster and Greg Hicks, authors of How We Choose to Be Happy: The 9 Choices of Extremely Happy People – Their Secrets, Their Stories, is not an inborn disposition bestowed upon the lucky. Nor is it the province of naive Pollyannas too dopey to understand the dark twists of the human condition.

“True Happiness,” Foster and Hicks write, “is a profound, enduring feeling of contentment, capability and centeredness. It’s a rich sense of well-being that comes from knowing you can deal productively and creatively with all that life offers – both the good and the bad. It’s knowing your internal self and responding to your real needs, rather than to the demands of others. And it’s a deep sense of engagement – living in the moment and enjoying life’s bounty.”

It’s true that the grief of September 11 and its aftermath have marred many Americans’ rosy sense of invulnerability. It’s also true that integrity breaches on Wall Street have shrunk our pensions, not to mention our faith in what we once saw as an invincible economic machine. But these tragedies have also encouraged us to examine what matters most in our lives and to seek out opportunities to live a more conscious, purposeful – and yes, happy – life.

Here at EL, we think breakthrough realizations are cause to celebrate. So, with that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of 10 of our favorite ways to increase personal joyfulness. Each concept presents its own set of promises as well as challenges, but all are virtually guaranteed to help you take a bigger, juicier bite into the fruit of your existence.

What are you waiting for? Your joy is right here for the making.

1. You Can Say YES!

Most of us work an average of 55 hours a week. Some of us work a lot more. That just doesn’t leave much time for all the other things we want to do with our lives. Problem is, when you get spread too thin, it’s impossible to give yourself fully to much of anything, including the things that matter most. To conserve time and energy, you start meting out your energy in smaller and smaller servings. And you get back smaller and smaller amounts of satisfaction in return. Before long, things turn bland.

Hey, wait! Life’s not supposed to be that way! When was the last time you said – and truly felt – a great big “YES!” to something? If it has been too long, life coach and Life Makeovers author Cheryl Richardson suggests you create an “Absolute Yes” list to help you identify your fundamental priorities for the next three to six months. Choose a quiet time when you will have at least one hour to yourself. Then write out answers to the following two questions: What most needs my attention at this time in my life? What do I need to let go of? (See below for more on that.) Be sure your “yes” list includes things that energize you and that you know will have a positive effect on your life. When you’re finished, choose the top five in each category and place them in order of priority. Copy your list onto several index cards and affix them to various high-traffic areas in your home or office (next to the kitchen phone, bathroom mirror, car dashboard). Then start saying enthusiastic “yeses” to the things that deserve them and practice your new *just say no* skills to weed out decoys and distractions. Update your lists every three to six months.

2. You Can Say NO!

We Americans, with our Puritan ethic of muddling through, believe it is rude to say no. We feel that turning someone down without a legitimate “reason” is selfish; that we must finish what we start because sticking with things builds character. But to find true happiness, we need to put an end to our passive habit of willingly letting others – friends, coworkers, corporations bent on selling our interests back to us – dictate the terms of our precious life. We also have to stop blaming others for the state of our lives, when it’s really up to us to establish boundaries that define it. Think of it as a little “tough love” you can do for yourself.

Where to start? The Simple Living Network (www.simpleliving.net) suggests that you take an inventory to discover what is “enough” in your life and then start saying no to the rest. You could put down that book you don’t love but feel obligated to finish. Or stop reflexively answering “Okay!” when someone asks you to join a board, or plan a party, or help them process their latest relationship drama. You might turn off the phone at intervals. Or you could thwart the consumer spin cycle by removing yourself from junk-mail lists (to learn how, visit The Center for a New American Dream at (www.newdream.org).

Finally, switch off that TV! You’ve got better things to do (should you forget what they are, consider posting your “Absolute Yes” list smack dab in the middle of your TV screen). Try going on a self-imposed news fast every once in a while, too. Escaping from CNN, newspapers and Yahoo! headlines – even for just a few days – can give you back the mental and emotional juice you need to create news in your own life. And don’t worry, if there is real news you absolutely need to know, it will find you.

3. You Can Change Your PERSPECTIVE.

We tend to think that happiness is the biproduct of certain circumstances: If we just had the right job, the right house, the right relationship, the right body, then we’d be happy. According to Richard Carlson, Ph.D., author of You Can be Happy No Matter What: Five Principles for Keeping Life in Perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. “In reality,” he writes, “it isn’t the circumstances, but our interpretation of them that determines our level of well-being.” And there’s a lot of statistical evidence to support his point. Our happiness, it turns out, hinges mostly on our ability to discern between our own momentary, disturbing thoughts and feelings and the broader possibilities at hand.

Too often, says Carlson, we confuse our current thoughts and emotional experiences with Reality. That is, we think or feel something, and we automatically assume that our perceptions are an accurate reflection of “The Way Things Are.” In fact, he argues, they are a reflection of where our heads are at one moment in time, and not much else. But when we cling obsessively to our thoughts and act on them as though they are Reality, we get into all sorts of needless trouble. We nurse grudges, pick at wounds and dwell on the past. And mostly, we worry ourselves crazy for no good reason. By mastering our thoughts, becoming more adept at handling our moods and emotions, and keeping our attention in the present moment, says Carlson, we can achieve happiness long before all the “right” things come our way, and increase our chances of attaining them in the process. For more on this train of thought, see The Art of Happiness and Authentic Happiness in “Reading List,” page 53 of the magazine).

4. You Can SCREW UP Sometimes.

You never miss a dental checkup, never arrive late for a meeting, and never have a froth mustache from your fresh latté. Above all, you are galled when others fail to function according to your standards. After all, your inner critic would never let you get away with that! You are a perfectionist. And your life isn’t as in control as it seems. In fact, while the gilded standards and iron-clad order you impose on life may allow you to achieve a lot of great things, they can also backfire, alienating others, limiting your ability to take creative risks, and preventing you from seeing your life as fluid, changeable, and above all, enjoyable.

Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D., author of Never Good Enough: Freeing Yourself from the Chains of Perfectionism, suggests that the underlying cause of perfectionistic tendencies is often a deep fear of making mistakes and losing control. If this sounds like you, Basco urges you to start being just a little gentler with yourself. Learn to adjust your expectations. If there’s something that you feel you aren’t doing “right,” she suggests, “accept the fact that there is a discrepancy between what you want to do and what you are actually doing. [Then] make peace with yourself about it or make a plan to achieve the goal at another time in your life, when it may be easier to achieve.” That may mean putting off graduate school until your youngest child starts kindergarten. Or accepting that your home isn’t spotless because you have other priorities – working out, enjoying friends and family, having a life. Look, nobody’s perfect, even you! Take Basco’s advice: Forget perfection, and pursue peace of mind instead.

5. You Can Share Your GIFTS.

Each of us is endowed with special skills, capacities and sensibilities – inborn strengths that are part of our reason for being here. Sometimes these strengths are quirky: We may have an astonishing sense of smell, a way of calming angry people, or the ability to climb trees like nobody’s business. But too often we end up using only those skills that are sanctioned by our “tribe” (our circle of family and friends) or that are rewarded by society. If we underuse our gifts, we tend to forget about them. Over time, we let them go, and with them a part of us withers. Whether or not you can make a living using your special gifts (you’d be surprised how often people find they can!), make sure you know what they are and that you are finding some way to put them to good use.

If you’re a natural writer (but work as a broker) write love letters or poems for your partner, or help unemployed folks polish their résumés. If you’re a skilled skateboarder (but haven’t skated since you were 12), offer to teach a niece or nephew. If you’re a born comic (but make your living in sales), consider a weekly gig reading funny stories aloud at a local children’s library. Remember that giving doesn’t stop with people you know and love. Volunteering is a great way to expand your worldview, combat isolation, and do something constructive for your community.

6. You Can LEARN for the Rest of Your Life.

According to Marshall Brain and the staff at How Stuff Works (www.howstuffworks.com) your brain is capable of processing something on the order of 10 quadrillion operations per second. The fastest supercomputer in the world clocks a mere 40 trillion. Your awesome gray matter is begging to be stimulated! Give it the workout it deserves. A library card is a free ticket to endless exploration on any subject. So is the Internet. Local colleges and universities offer continuing education courses on anything from Greek classics to physics to contemporary art. Community-ed outlets offer classes on every topic imaginable. Neighborhood gourmet stores and wine shops will teach you how to braise lamb or differentiate Bordeaux from Merlot.

Commit to learning wherever you go. Talk to old people. Ask questions. Observe. Let your vacations become self-guided retreats and visioning sessions. Read, write, feed your curiosities, and you’ll find that the world is bursting with opportunities that can fuel your passions. Transitions Abroad magazine (www.transitionsabroad.com) is an excellent resource for educational travel, as well as for ideas on how to live abroad. Even if you don’t set out on a year-long trek, just considering such options is sometimes enough to get your mind traveling down more interesting paths. And who knows where that will take you.

7. Your Body Is a GENIUS

That pile of bones and muscle and blood that gets you from Point A to Point B is also an incredibly complex bundle of information. Caroline Myss, Ph.D., author of Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can and The New York Times bestseller Anatomy of the Spirit, asserts that emotional energy – the result of internal and external experiences, profound or traumatic memories, belief systems and attitudes – is stored in, and constantly interacting with, our cell tissue. Myss is not alone in her thinking. Neurologists like Antonio Damasio, energy psychologists like Frank Gallo, and mind-body experts like Deepak Chopra all point to the existence of a bio-energetic and chemical network that carries literal and symbolic information throughout the entire body.

According to these experts, our thoughts and feelings may to a very large extent govern our body’s function. In Myss’s words, your biography – that is, the experiences that make up your life – quite literally becomes your biology. The bad news is, this means we can literally make ourselves sick by allowing mental and emotional “short circuits” in our system to compromise our body’s chemistry, vitality and immune resistance. The good news is that by becoming conscious of how our bodies are hardwired to our emotions, we can release the destructive patterns that hamper our full emotional, physical and spiritual development. For more information on Caroline Myss’s philosophies check out her Web site at www.myss.com.

8. Pain Is INFORMATION

A best friend dies. Infertility problems rob you of the dream of a biological child. Chronic hip pain forces you to stop running marathons. No matter how charmed your life, it is impossible to control everything that happens. But, according to Foster and Hicks, how you respond to these tragedies is what is important. Working 60 hours a week and then remodeling your home may feel like a productive way to cope, but it will also anesthetize you to all the other textures of life. Foster and Hicks suggest that instead of denying sadness, happy people dig right into the heart of it. Cry. Vent. Feel sorry for yourself and rage about the unfairness of your lot. Find a private place where you can express any raw or ugly emotion without censoring it. If you give yourself over to the power of your most intense feelings for long enough, you will eventually get the messages embedded in them and move on to the next stage, which Foster and Hicks call “recasting.”

“Recasting,” they write, “ultimately lets happy people navigate through difficult times by raising the positive emotional value of an event. Even in the most traumatic situations, they search for the seeds of growth and insight Recasting ultimately requires less energy than chronic suffering and grief.”

How do you begin to recast? Foster and Hicks suggest you ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the emotions I’m feeling?
  • Have I really allowed myself to feel all of the emotions related to this problem?
  • As difficult or painful as the problem may be, what things of great importance have I learned about myself (or others) because of this problem? Have I re-evaluated my life in any way?
  • What do my emotions and reactions teach me about myself?
  • Has this problem prompted me to make positive changes in my life? Or are there meaningful ways to change my life that would make me happier and more productive?
  • If this problem is unlikely to change, how can I best enhance other parts of my life?

9. You DON’T Have to Go It Alone.

When researchers identified the core factors of a happy life, they found that the primary components that explain 70 percent of personal happiness are number of friends, closeness of friends, closeness of family, and relationships with co-workers and neighbors. Most of us want more “high-quality” relationships in our life but because of work, childrearing demands and technologies that make us less dependent on one another, we feel isolated. To find a more soulful connection with others, Cheryl Richardson suggests that the most important step we need to take is to strengthen our own ability to connect. “Be present for others,” she writes in Life Makeovers. “Slow down and make the time to get together. Stop what you’re doing when a friend calls and pay attention. Take time out of your busy schedule to spend quality time with your family. When you are with loved ones, take the conversation to a deeper level by asking deeper questions. For example, ask them directly what they’ve been dreaming about or secretly hoping for in their lives. This will help you move beyond boring, superficial chitchat to a deeper connection.”

10. You Can Live an EXAMINED Life.

As much as we may long for deeper connections with others, creating a meaningful bond with ourselves can be the most transforming relationship of all. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, suggests that the single most powerful exercise available for increasing self-knowledge is writing what she calls “the morning pages.” These are three pages of uncensored writing done by hand each and every morning to help you unlock what your unconscious voice may be trying to tell you. To make it a daily ritual you can stick with and enjoy, take care to create an inviting physical space. Find a comfortable chair and situate a table or desk near a window with morning sunlight. Invest in a pen that moves quickly and easily across the page. Don’t worry about your penmanship or making your words sound like you are a “real” writer. The whole point of morning pages is to clear out the mental gunk so that your mind is more receptive to all the crazy and miraculous things your unconscious has to tell you. Like what comes next.

Why Stop Here?

Obviously, happiness is not a one-shot deal, or even a 10-shot deal. There are as many ways and reasons to be happy as there are moments in the day, and it’s up to each of us to identify and embrace our own.

So commit now to creating your own happiness. Learn the skills that will predispose you to a satisfaction-filled life. Check out a good book or Web site on the topic (see Reading List, page 53 of the magazine, for a few suggestions), and in the meantime, keep in mind these basics:

You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Regardless of other people’s judgments and expectations, each of us can (and ultimately must) accept ourselves for who we are. We can be happy now, despite our shortcomings and problems, before we fix/get/achieve everything on our list of things to do.

You don’t have to feel happy all the time. No one should tolerate chronic unhappiness. At the same time, don’t assume that a momentary sad, mad or bad feeling means that you or your life are innately flawed. It is the nature of feelings to move and change and transform themselves. Become adept at knowing the difference between passing moods and calls to action.

Don’t panic! If you know there’s something wrong that you don’t know how to fix, you can always go in search of more information, ask for help, or simply wait it out. Remember: Everything changes; more shall be revealed.

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Elizabeth Larsen is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.

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