This is the third in our special “12 Days of Giving” series running for the holiday season. It’s a little different from what you might think of as traditional presents or giving. We aren’t really talking about stuff you buy or a gift list. Rather, on these 12 days, we will be talking about different gifts that you can give to yourself, or others — those that have a deeper meaning, that can help you live with intention, be happier, be healthier. Soul gifts, you might even call them. Join us on the journey.
Happiness. Along with meaning and love, it’s one of the most sought-after elements to give purpose to our lives. It can also be one of the hardest to define, and one of the most elusive.
The word “happy” is derived from the Icelandic word happ, which means luck or chance. True to its origins, many people seem to go through life waiting to stumble onto happiness, for it to find them, or to catch their lucky break. But rather than happiness being some mysterious thing that we have no control over, the reality is that we are usually about as happy as we make up our minds to be.
Some years ago, I did a year called “30 Days at a Time,” where I practiced a different habit for 30 consecutive days to ingrain it. These were everything from sustainability, to diet, to finances, to happiness. On my happiness journey (and since then), I’ve learned a lot about the path to happiness. And the biggest two things I’ve learned are:
- Happiness is a choice; and
- It’s not ephemeral, but something you can actually learn, and change from the inside out.
In this post about giving yourself the gift of happiness, I’ll share a few key things that have radically changed my life, and some of the best tools I’ve found for increasing your happiness in life.
Do you Deserve to be Happy? (and 6 other dangerous happiness myths)
In his book Happiness Now, Robert Holden says that being happy is as natural to our existence as any other part of life, that we have a right to happiness and that choosing to be happy is the most important step in attaining it. He calls the fear “happychondria” – that feeling that when we do experience happiness we don’t trust it, we’re waiting for it to be taken away. Holden says that the most damaging beliefs about happiness are that it lies somewhere else (i.e. external, not within yourself) and that it has to be deserved.
“The moment you believe that happiness has to be deserved, you must toil forevermore to earn it. Ask yourself now: Do I deserve to be happy? Be careful how you answer this question, for there’s a catch. If you answer no, then no matter what you do, you will not accept much happiness. If you answer yes, you will have to fulfill all sorts of criteria (set by you) before you can be happy.
One of the greatest single steps you can take is to let go of the belief that happiness has to be deserved.You do not deserve happiness, you choose happiness. It is natural, unconditional, and freely available to all. Happiness happens, if you let it.“
Here are a few more dangerous myths about happiness:
- You have to resolve all your problems before you can be happy. If you’re operating this way, go ahead and kiss happiness goodbye. We might momentarily not have significant problems to deal with, but we will never “solve” all our problems. They are part of life, which isn’t perfect, and instead we have to learn to manage life’s struggles and suffering – and most importantly, our own attitudes and reactions to it.
- You can’t experience pain or sadness or suffering and still be happy. These things are part of life. We may not be wildly ecstatic every moment of life, especially when bad things happen. Allowing yourself to feel everything, even the bad feelings – being self-accepting – is necessary, but suffering and sacrifice don’t buy you later or greater happiness. We all have pain, but sometimes we keep ourselves suffering far longer than we have to. I have close friends who have experienced great tragedies such as surviving cancer, horrible divorces and even the death of a child – and still manage to be happy again.
- Being happy takes a lot of time and energy. The truth is that everything takes the same amount of time. The concept of time, in fact, is just a way to mark events in a linear way; the reality is that all anyone has is this instant. Therefore, life is really timeless. In this moment, it takes the same amount of time to be happy as it does to be miserable. It takes the same amount of energy to choose to feel peace or joy or contentment as it does to be angry, depressed or resentful – in fact, those things take much more energy in my opinion.
- Happiness must be worked for. This fallacy treats happiness like a paycheck you earn for putting in the hours. Sometimes our work ethic makes us try too hard to be happy; we are in too much hurry chasing things we think will someday make us happy. This goes from the short term – working all week at a job you hate so that you can be “happy” on the weekend (which just becomes an escape as Monday looms with dread) – to the long term: working for years and years for wealth or a certain job or marriage or whatever you are sure will make you happy when you get there. Happiness doesn’t have to be earned, or paid for – and only you can give the gift of happiness to yourself.
- Happiness is a destination you arrive at. Because now is all we have, as we’ve already discussed, then the future doesn’t really exist. If you’re waiting for something to happen, or to attain something, before you are happy then you will never arrive. In the Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama says that one big problem with this mindset is that by looking to arrive at or attain happiness with a specific goal (when I make X amount of money, when I have that job, when I get a Porsche, when I get married, etc) is that eventually, you will come up against something you want that you can’t attain. And if you’re basing your happiness on that, what happens then? A huge spiral into depression. Stop waiting to be happy!
- Happiness needs a reason. It doesn’t – it is its own reason. Joy and happiness are free, and they are available to us at all times.
Happiness Doesn’t Just Happen: Top Habits to be Happier
In The Art of Happiness, His Holiness the Dalai Lama puts forth 3 steps to a happiness transformation. Under each of the 3 steps, I have listed my best findings for happiness habits and practices.
“With our thoughts we make our world.” ~Buddha
Step One: Learning How to Be Happy
This step involves identifying thoughts, behaviors, actions and habits that lead to happiness.
- Want what we have – not what we don’t. Whether we are happy or unhappy at any given moment 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 enhance your satisfaction with life by shifting your perspective and contemplating how things could be worse. Try this exercise: Complete the sentence “I’m glad I’m not _____.”
- Learn to accept the past and move on from it. We can perpetuate our own pain and keep it alive, and stronger, by replaying it over and over. Dwelling in the past will never change it, but only keeps you stuck there emotionally.
- Adjust our attitude toward suffering. The Buddhist viewpoint that “all of life is suffering” is not a negative or pessimistic attitude, but rather realistic and freeing. The reality is that 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. Eastern cultures seem to have a better tolerance toward suffering, and pain and death are often in plain view and accepted as a part of life. Western society has sort of developed this system of denying and glossing over these things with a slick facade, and in doing so have lessened our ability to cope with difficulties. By not being prepared for it with coping skills, suffering intensifies.
- Ask yourself, “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 deal with anger and conflict better. When problems 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 conflict and feelings seem much more intense, but limits our ability to see the other person’s viewpoint or have compassion toward their suffering. In the same way that when we are first in love with someone, we perceive them as 100% positive – when we are angry at someone, we tend to see them as 100% negative. Neither are true. A cooling-off period, which can give distance and perspective, helps address the problem without such high emotions; also, look for the ways in which anger or a conflict has given you opportunities, maybe for personal growth or learning something new. The Dalai Lama says, “The enemy is a necessary condition for practicing patience and tolerance, so we can consider an enemy a great teacher.”
- Make a list of “Happiness Islands.” These are places, things and activities that make you feel joyful and content. It might be music, gardening, 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.
“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life,
the whole aim and end of human existence.” ~Aristotle
Step Two: Choosing Happiness
This step involves determining to be happy, rather than letting uncontrolled thoughts and random moments of external factors to cause unhappiness.
- View happiness in the long-term. When choosing an action, ask yourself “Will this ultimately bring me happiness?” 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 in the long term, you will be happier if you’re active and healthy. This is not denial or sacrifice – we are giving ourselves something greater by looking beyond the moment.
- Shift your focus. 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. This does not mean ignoring problems or emotions; only when we get to the point of reliving it over and over and over. What we give the majority of our focus to becomes stronger and more present in our lives; simply be aware of the tendency to stay too much in the negative, and balance difficult emotions with a focus on that which is positive in your life.
- 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.
- Choose not to sweat the small stuff, and develop a reluctance toward anger and hatred. These two emotions are those which, if left unchecked, tend to aggravate and increase. Confront and analyze these feelings; if they are relatively mild, then deal with them immediately and be quick to let it go. After all, if we keep escalating anger over small things, it doesn’t alleviate the injury that’s already been done us, but creates additional suffering. If the feelings are greater, taking a time out to calm down before facing it might be best. 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. By sacrificing small problems or hardships we can often save ourselves much greater suffering in the long run.
- 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.
“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is
just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit
quietly, may alight upon you.” ~Nathaniel Hawthorne
Step Three: Making an Effort
None of this happens overnight; it’s a long-term sustained habit. Rather than just letting life happen to you, put conscious focus and energy into the type of life you want.
- Act the way you want to feel. Doing this often helps propel us in that direction. Psychological behavior therapy is based on the theory that people have largely learned to be the way that they are; if this is the case, we can learn, through practice and habit, how to be a happier, more joyful person. Not only do our attitudes determine our behavior, but the reverse is true — our behavior also affects our attitude and emotional equilibrium. 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. I discussed the aspect of the “helper’s high” in a previous blog post – volunteering and performing altruistic acts not only make us happier, they also are top indicators for a longer life.
- Surround yourself with beauty. One of the books I read during my 30 Days of Happiness project, Choosing Happiness, was written by an interior designer, Alexandra Stoddard. When you think about it, this seems fitting. Stoddard talks a lot about making your home a place that brings you joy – surrounding yourself with prized things whether that is 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 — some of mine are a good meal, quiet space to read, a massage or bubble bath, a glass of wine. 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 Alexandra Stoddard calls picking yourself up and getting out to do something that you enjoy. I know that for myself, particularly since I work at home, if I get a case of the blahs this always works. I get out, even if it’s to work in a coffeehouse for a while, and do something that I enjoy. Maybe treat myself to lunch or pick up a smoothie, or stop in some favorite Austin spot. Maybe it’s just heading to a park with a book. Like exercise, this is almost a guaranteed pick-me-up.
- Resist the urge to over-discuss our problems in life. I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk to friends about difficulties, heartaches and problems – this is 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 big problems, I typically discuss with one or two very close, trusted friends. For smaller things, I’ve decided to implement a “5 minute bitch rule.” If I’ve had a bad day or something stressful happens, I’ll ask a friend to give me five minutes to vent it out of my system – but when those five minutes are up, I will be done with it and move on to happier things.
- 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!