It was a cold, dreary Saturday morning. Ana, our then three-year-old, woke up with a fever. 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.
Looking at Happiness Head-On
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.
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.
Happiness: The Ultimate Makeover
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.
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.
The Study of Happiness
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
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.
Gloomy Brain, Optimist Brain... Which One Are You?
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.
An illustrative story: My friend and I were lost on a mountaintop in Utah. I began instantly worrying. How will we ever get down? What if we freeze to death up here? My friend was looking around saying things like, “Look at this fabulous scenery! Isn’t it breathtaking!” Same event, but she has a left prefrontal tilt and I have a right. Therefore, in precisely the same circumstance, she is happy and I am not.
How To Change Your Old Groove
Here’s the great news for anyone whose mind goes to the gloomy right. With practice you can create a left tilt. First you have to catch yourself in your negative habitual thinking. Then you have to choose to think about things in a peaceful, optimistic way. Over time, you’ll be doing it without thinking about it. When you find yourself going down the bad old road, you simply stop and, without beating yourself up, choose the other path. You’re not trying to get rid of the old habit—it’s a deeply grooved neurological path. What you’re doing is building a pathway to a new habit, each time you stop and make a different choice.
This approach of focusing on the positive is not a plea to ignore or deny the challenges, sorrows, and grief in our lives. They are real. And it doesn’t mean that we feel fabulous all the livelong day. But the possibility of experiencing the joy of being alive, of appreciating what we can in our circumstances, of letting go of unnecessary burdens, of giving to others—is also real. We have what we need to be happy.
In every moment, we can choose where to focus our attention and therefore how we feel. The difficulties of our lives get a lot of our mental airtime and sap a great deal of our life force. How about giving equal time to happiness?
©2009, 2014. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com.
About the Author
M.J. Ryan is one of the creators of the New York Times bestselling Random Acts of Kindness and the author of The Happiness Makeover, and Attitudes of Gratitude, among other titles. Altogether, there are 1.75 million copies of her titles in print. She specializes in coaching high performance executives, entrepreneurs, and leadership teams around the world. A member of the International Coaching Federation, she is a contributing editor to Health.com and Good Housekeeping and has appeared on The Today Show, CNN, and hundreds of radio programs. Visit the author at www.mj-ryan.com
Watch a video: Letting Go of the Torturing Mind -- M. J. Ryan
Another video: Giving Thanks (with M.J. Ryan)