Happiness can be an elusive goal. But what’s even worse is to achieve it and fail to realize it. It’s not unusual for people to work all their lives in pursuit of something they possessed all along. And it’s even more common for people to be so busy chasing some external vision of happiness that they can’t be bothered to enjoy what they already have.
If this disturbs you, it should. You only get one life – it would be a shame to spend it needlessly searching for a treasure that lay just under your nose.
The first problem is that happiness is often depicted as a constant state of bliss. But no one is happy all the time. Even the Dalai Lama has said that he has days when he’d rather just stay in bed, or when negative emotions disrupt his normally calm mind. Every day has ups and downs, and every person experiences good times and bad. But often, we feel that if we’re not happy all the time, then we must not be doing it right. And that leads us to abandon the happiness we have in pursuit of a mythical happiness we can never attain.
A second problem is that we have been led to believe that happiness is a passive state of being – that once we get the right job, meet the right person or otherwise cross some magical threshold of life we’ll enter into the land of happiness, never to return to our previous unhappy existence. In reality, however, there is no magic threshold. You don’t achieve happiness once and then you’re done, but rather, as Deal Wyatt Hudson says in his book Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction, it’s “…a process of moving from one gratification to another.” (http://www.amazon.com/Happiness-Limits-Satisfaction-Deal-Hudson/dp/0847681408) In short, happiness is something you do, not something you are.
Finally, we often prevent our own happiness by believing that it can be generated by external things – possessions, jobs, other people – when in fact happiness is an internally-generated emotion. It’s a choice you make to focus on what you have in your life that pleases and sastifies you, rather than on what you don’t have, or leaves you for wanting. More than one study has shown that after spending some time keeping a gratitude journal, many participants reported increased levels of happiness and calm. They didn’t have anything more than when they started, but they began to recognize what they did have.
So how can you beat the blahs and begin to recognize your own happiness? Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Keep a gratitude journal, writing down at least 5 things a day that you are grateful for.
- Take five minutes each day to reflect on what has made you happy that day, even just a little bit.
- Commit to doing one thing every day that brings you joy or happiness.
- Write down your top five values in life (such as integrity, enthusiasm, love, kindness, joy, compassion, sharing, friendship, etc), and spend some time every day noting what happened or what you did that supports these values.
- Practice mindful happiness. Set a timer (on your cell phone or watch) to go off at set or random intervals throughout the day. When the timer goes off, take a moment to stop and become mindful of your emotions.
I work with many coaching clients who have had trouble connecting with the source of their happiness in the past. If you’re feeling unhappy, explore what it is you’re focusing on, and why it’s making you unhappy. Then, take a moment to refocus your attention in a more positive way.
For example, if you’re unhappy because you’re caught in traffic and are running late, remind yourself that being unhappy about it won’t make the traffic go any faster, but will simply make you miserable while it happens. Make a choice to change your emotional state. Use the time to think about things that make you happy, re-frame the delay (more time to prepare for a meeting) or try to come up with ideas for making inevitable traffic crunches more productive or fun (maybe bringing audio books along on your commute, or using the time to dictate letters to loved ones into a digital recorder).
If you’re feeling happy when the timer dings, take some time to simply enjoy the moment. Like slowing down while eating instead of bolting your food, mindfully enjoying happiness allows you to get more “flavor” out of the experience, and make it last longer.
The goal if these tips is to make happiness a habit, rather than an accident; to learn to see, recognize and enjoy the happiness you have, and minimize unhappiness. Each of us has things in our lives that would make us happy, if only we took the time to look. You already have everything you need – all you have to do is say, “Yes.”