Help Yourself to Happiness

by Jean Marie Johnson
  • "Hi, how are you?"
  • "Hey, Pete, how is it going?"
  • "How you doin'?"
You've asked, but the truth is that you may not be terribly interested in the customary "Great," "All good," or "I'm fine" answers. And it's not that you are indifferent. Or that your co-worker wants to brush you off. It's just that these quick, back-and-forth exchanges serve a different purpose: they allow you to acknowledge a person as opposed to ignoring him. Generally, there is no harm done when the intention is simple acknowledgement.

Imagine that you posed a different question, asking instead:

  • "Hi, are you happy?"
  • "Hey, Pete, how happy are you?"
  • "Happy today?"
You wouldn't. In fact, even in your closest, most cherished relationships, you are likely to tread lightly, if at all, around "happy." It's a sensitive subject because we ask so much of it and sometimes expect so much of ourselves when it comes to happiness. It's personal. We may even feel that it is a frivolous question. And yet, as Sonya Green, in the book Reinventing Myself reminds us, "Health and happiness are the two things that most people will tell you that they desire the most."

Happiness is Good for You

Far from being frivolous, research continues to reinforce that happiness is good for us. University of Illinois Professor Emeritus of Psychology Ed Diener analyzed eight different types of studies and reached the conclusion that:

  • "Your subjective well-being – that is, feeling positive about your life, not stressed out, not depressed – contributes to both longevity and better health among healthy populations."
When it comes to health, we know what we need to do: focus on a balanced diet, sufficient exercise, and controlling or eliminating unhealthy habits like smoking and alcohol consumption. Dr. Deiner suggests a fourth dimension: "It may be time to add 'be happy and avoid chronic anger and depression' to the list."

Where Art Thou, Happiness?

You may be thinking, "Well, that's just great. I have a lot going on, so much of it is out of my control, and frankly, I am feeling pretty stressed out. This doesn't help."

While there is no express lane, no recipe card or secret formula for happiness, there is much that is within your control that can contribute to your experience of happiness. That is precisely where Dr. Deiner and other researchers suggest that we begin: within.

Six Practices to Cultivate Happiness
1.  Commit to Building Fulfilling Relationships

Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia observes:

  • "We need others to be happy. We were made for love, friendship, and family, and when we spend a lot of time alone, or free ourselves from the "constraints" of relationships; it is generally bad for us. Even introverts who think they want to spend a lot of time alone perk up and get happier when they are around other people…relationships must be nurtured and enjoyed, not just known about and filed away."
You might think that you are doing a better job of this these days because social media allows you to "talk" with your "friends" 24/7. But relationships need dedicated time and attention, preferably face-to-face where the unspoken speaks louder than text ever will.

Ashley & Michael Arn, Founders of and The Relationship School, are even more specific. They suggest that you identify five key people in your life, and then focus "80 %– 90% of your relationship time and energy" on them. Instead of thinking "Facebook friend" or "networking contact," think in terms of specific people with whom you might even explore the happiness question. See the difference?

2.  Focus Your Attention and Energy
Many of us spend a good deal of our time in eager anticipation of happiness. Whether or not we say it, we hope that someone or something that will "make us happy" is right around the corner. We can't wait to be eagerly-surprised. And so we are often disappointed because we put happy "out there," instead of within our own reach.

You can reverse this by honing in on and pursuing the activities, places and things that bring you happiness. This is a very deliberate process that puts you in control of your attention and your energy. Your choices may range from the bold to the subtle. Because I work from home a great deal, I have challenged myself to create an environment that is conducive to clear thinking and focused effort. That includes my daily ritual of feeding the variety of birds that call my backyard home. When I am in search of inspiration or amusement, I need only look out the window to see the squabbling juncos, the wobbly doves and the skittish crows. They are a source of happiness for me.

Think about your day. It is yours. You may not be able to change a long commute, an unpredictable workplace or the persistent need to figure out what to do about dinner tonight. But asking yourself the not-so-frivolous question of what will bring you happiness as you meet the challenges and realities of the day can change the texture of your experience.

And while you are at it, the Arns suggest that you do one more thing:  "Make a ‘not-to-do list' of all the things, events, habits or behaviors that aren't enjoyable, that drain your energy, that leave you feeling empty or that are only mildly enjoyable." This may be the harder task, particularly if saying "no" is difficult for you.

3.  Pay Attention to Purpose
"Purpose" is a lofty word for some of us. We may think, I'm not writing the next great American novel, I will never be the best caregiver. I don't have a mission for mankind. No wonder we trip ourselves up. Thinking in terms of absolutes and grand contributions, we minimize or dismiss what matters to us and what we have to offer. I was reminded of this recently when a complex and vexing technical conundrum was brilliantly resolved by a gentleman in Texas. At the conclusion of our 90 minute call, I thanked him for his exceptional problem solving, and the sustained curiosity that led to an out-of-the-box solution. When I expressed these sincere observations, he said: "That's what I do." "At the highest level," I was quick to add.

What do you do? What captures your heart, or intrigues your mind so much so that you wouldn't be you without it? Maybe you sing at every opportunity, or pass on family traditions to your plugged-in and wired children. Maybe you are determined to work your way through the story of civilization, or learning French, finally! Perhaps you are on a spiritual quest or are simply determined to get your garden in synch with the seasons.

Whatever "it" is, you needn't explain or defend it to anyone. You do need to pay attention to it, because it won't leave you alone and it is key to your sense of happiness.  

4.  Manage Your Mental Hygiene

The Arns suggest that: "Many of our problems survive and thrive on our mind's Demanding/Judging Stories. These stories "occur anytime your mind turns your preferences or wants into demands, musts, and shoulds." So, what exactly do they mean? Let's take a look:

  • The "I should, I must story": I should go to yoga tonight. I must lose 10 pounds. I must get my act together.
  • The "You should or shouldn't story":  You should know better. You must not talk down to me. You should have taken care of that.  You shouldn't think that way.
  • The "Life should or shouldn't story": It should be warm today; it's May! People shouldn't do that. Life shouldn't be so hard.
When thoughts like these get take hold, they can consume us, zapping our happiness bit by bit. When we learn to recognize them, we will begin to notice our own need to be "right" or our tendency to judge something or someone else as "wrong." It is about being able to separate a situation from how we judge it.

Let's take something simple: Your dog "has an accident" on the living room carpet. It's an observable fact. It's one that you can perceive as a catastrophe that ruins your day, an inconvenience, a warning sign of impending anxiety, or simply something unexpected that you had to attend to today. How you choose to think about it is key to how you experience it.

When we take more responsibility for our perceptions and expectations, we begin to accept that people and situations are rarely exactly as we would have them. When you can let go and let them be, you manage the tyranny of the shoulds and musts. And you manage your happiness in the process.    

Oliver Burkeman, in his beguilingly-titled book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Negative Thinking, takes this thinking even further. Burkeman reminds us that there is a big difference between something bad and something absolutely terrible. When we learn to ask ourselves "What's the worst that can happen?", we keep things in perspective and are reminded of our resilience, our ability to cope.

5.  Get Right with Work (Make the Most of Your Work?)
Love may make the world go ‘round, but work pays the bills and provides an opportunity for us to satisfy our need to feel productive, to use our unique strengths and even to make a difference. But it's not always or in all ways, automatic.

Most of us spend a good deal of time at work. So why don't we spend more time making the most of our experience, instead of leaving it up for grabs? Work and happiness in the same sentence, you may ask? That's right. There may be many things you don't control; that's true for the vast majority of us. But why not focus on what you can? Here are three steps to explore:

  • Look for the happiness opportunity. This is different than looking for a promotion or a raise, although those might indeed factor into your happiness! Regardless, you can think about the hours you spend at work as an opportunity for more happiness and less toil. Maybe you volunteer for a special project or simply think about your customer interactions in a brand new way. Your manager can't do this for you. It's up to you.
  • Clearly identify your contribution. Revisit your work and begin to see it in the bigger scheme of things and ask "to what end is my effort?" What you do may bring others peace of mind, comfort, a better quality of life. When you think about it, is there any occupation that doesn't in some way "make the world go ‘round" by serving others?
  • Tap your strengths. Many of us are familiar with the time-honored phrase "don't hide your light under a bushel." This is simply a more pragmatic way of saying the same thing. Identify the three to five key strengths you bring to your work and then challenge yourself to use them in new ways throughout the day. Or, use them to help your co-workers for whom your strength is their challenge.
6.  Learn to Move Forward

Jonathon Haidt has perhaps said it best:

  • "If you ever have to choose between changing your thinking or changing the world to make it conform to your wishes, be sure to choose the former."
For each of us, doing so is an inside job. Certainly, happiness will surprise us. It will indeed appear just around the corner when we least expect it. People will reach out to you and good things will happen. It's part of the beauty and mystery of our human experience. But you needn't leave it at that. Help yourself to the pursuit of happiness in your human experience. Which reminds me: it's time again, to feed the birds.   

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
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