“It is only possible to live happily-ever-after
on a day-to-day basis.”
I once read a quote by Hugh Downs that said, “A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.” We only have to compare two people in the exact same circumstances—one happy, one not—to know just how true Hugh Downs’s comment is. But no matter what our negative mental habits up till now, we can cultivate the thoughts and behaviors that promote feeling happier on a daily basis.
That’s what this section provides—some of the best practices I’ve learned to create the neurological pathway to your left prefrontal cortex, where the experience of happiness—satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment— resides. That way, when you notice yourself headed down the tired old path to misery, you can stop, employ one of these ideas, and head to happiness instead.
It’s okay if you don’t feel happy to begin with. The more you practice, the more the positive feelings will follow.
Recognize That Your Happiness Is Your Own Responsibility
“Perhaps the biggest source of unhappiness . . . stems from the idea that there is someone out there who will meet all our needs, because it turns us into needful children, waiting to be fed . . . We are not vessels in need of filling up, we are persons in our own right with resources of our own.” —Merle Shain
Years ago, I took a communications workshop with my then partner, Will. It was standard advice about “speaking from I, not you,” and so forth. I found it useful and true, and was glad I did it. Except for one thing—we were taught to take responsibility for our own feelings. As the leader pointed out, no one can make us feel anything. Our feelings may be in response to another person’s behavior, but the responsibility for them lies with us.
You were supposed to say things like “When you didn’t call when you said you would, I felt abandoned” rather than “You made me mad when you didn’t call.” I couldn’t do it. With all my heart I believed Will was responsible for making me happy or miserable, and I would not let go of that belief. If he called or came home on time, if he bought me the right kind of present, if he paid enough attention, I would be happy. Otherwise I would be miserable, and it would be all his fault. You might guess I wasn’t often happy and our relationship was filled with strife.
It took decades and our breaking up and my not wanting to repeat the painful past for this belief to finally shake loose. By observing the wide range of responses by others to the same event, I finally got it that my feelings were my own—true to me, and created by me from an amalgam of my past and my current response to someone’s behavior. They were my responsibility, as was my happiness. I could make requests for certain behaviors, but how I chose to respond to another person’s behavior was my own business that determined my happiness in that moment.
A simple example. I love orderliness in the house, and I live with two people who love to collect stuff and leave it everywhere. I can ask them to pick up after themselves, which they claim to do. But their idea of picking up does not come even close to matching my standards.
I could pitch a fit every day about how they make me miserable with their messes. I could leave their stuff all over and fume every time I see it. But because I know my happiness is my responsibility, I choose to tidy up myself by putting all their stuff into their respective rooms, where they can choose to clean it up or leave it a mess. That way I have order in the rest of the house, which brings me pleasure, and keep the harmony between the three of us, which allows me to enjoy them more and feel better about myself.
I’ve gotten so much happier since I’ve stopped trying to get others to make me happy. If my husband buys me a wonderful present, great! If he forgets Valentine’s Day, I focus on the opportunity to love him anyway and ask him to try to remember the next time (which usually results in a gift the next day rather than a bitter fight that leaves us disconnected for weeks). I’ve finally got the keys to the safety deposit box of happiness in my own heart—and boy, does taking responsibility for myself feel good.
Remember, You’re Not Responsible for Anyone Else’s Happiness—Including Your Kids’
“No one is really responsible to make someone else happy, no matter what most people have been taught and accept as true.” —Sidney Madwed
The phone rang at 2 p.m. It was Ana, calling from her summer program. “Tiera and Mia won’t play with me,” she wailed. “I want you to come and bring me home.” I felt a giant tug on my heartstrings—my child was unhappy. The mother lion in me rose up—how mean those girls were! Of course I’d come right over—and give those two an earful on the way out!
Then I stopped for a moment. What message would I send seven-year-old Ana if I ran to the rescue? That she was powerless to solve her own problems. That she must look to others for her happiness. But I knew she needed a bit of support—simply telling her to resolve it for herself wouldn’t work. If she could have, she wouldn’t have called. So I asked her about the trouble she was having.
“I don’t know why they won’t play with me,” she proclaimed, “and I won’t ask.”
Sensing a dead end, I tried another approach. “Look around the room. What are the other kids doing?”
“Well, some kids are beading,” she replied. “Some are doing art and others playing Legos.”
“Do you think you could join one of those groups?” I asked.
“Yes,” she responded, hanging up the phone.
When I arrived at the regular pickup time at five, she was her usual cheerful self. I asked her how she’d solved her problem. “Well,” she said, “I just gave up and did something else.”
I’ve often written that Ana is one of my greatest teachers. That day, she proved to me that while I may think my job as a parent is to make her happy, my real task is to help her figure out how to make herself happy.
The same is true for the adults in our lives. We can help them think about how to expand their options when they’re stuck, support them when they take risks, point out the effects they are having on us. But it’s not our job to make them happy, even if by some miracle we could.
However, there’s something about love, at least in this culture, that makes us think we’re supposed to. We take our loved ones’ unhappiness personally, even when it has nothing to do with us. We bend ourselves into knots, jump through hoops, give up what is near and dear to us in an attempt to “make” them happy. I know women who devote every waking hour to meeting the wants of their spouses.
Happiness is Each Person's Own Responsibility
I’ve seen a man move twelve times in twelve years for the sake of an unhappy wife. I’ve seen parents cater to their children’s every whim. But I’ve never met a person who has become happy as a consequence of such actions. Dependent? Yes. Self-centered? Yes. Temporarily victorious? Yes. But happy? Never, because happiness cannot be granted by one person to another. It is earned through our choosing to embrace all the beauty life has to offer and using all of who we are for a purpose we deem worthwhile. And that is something we do for ourselves.
The effect on the giver isn’t good either. Most often, you end up resentful as your attempts fail. Or your love fades as you burn out in exhaustion and despair.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about the feelings of those around you. Or that you never offer counsel or support, or compromise for someone you love. Simply that you recognize that the responsibility for happiness resides inside each of us. When we love, we hold the beloved in tender hands, supporting their growth toward happiness but never making ourselves the granter of it.
Declare your emotional independence—your happiness is your own responsibility and so it is for everyone else.
©2009, 2014. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com.
The Happiness Makeover: Teach Yourself to Enjoy Every Day
by M.J. Ryan.
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