A plaque sits on my office credenza which reads: “Happiness is something you decide ahead of time.” Some clients read it aloud, but most don’t say whether they agree or disagree. Perhaps they wonder if it’s really as easy as just making up your mind to be happy. Maybe it’s no surprise that many people who come in for therapy will say that their counseling goal is to “be happy.” Ah, the elusive state of happiness! How do we achieve it? Is it even possible?
I would say the answer is Yes….but…you must be willing to make some changes. Happiness is not a tangible something that one day you will receive or find. It is a state of mind, a choice, a lifestyle.
Many studies have been done to uncover what leads to a happier life. What’s interesting is none of them tie happiness to our usual pursuits: money, success, beauty or fame. The good news is most of the research shows that happiness is within our control.
A comprehensive study was conducted by a Harvard researcher who followed hundreds of men for their entire lives noting a variety of factors that the happiest ones seemed to have in common. The study results reveal what it takes to have a happy life. One factor that the study cites as extremely important is relationships. We need meaningful relationships in our life –friendships, someone to love, someone with whom we have a connection. As you might guess, it starts with our parents and continues throughout our lives (and if those childhood relationships were problematic, keep reading). In short, those who have meaningful relationships throughout their lives are happier overall.
Satisfaction with a Life Purpose
You can toss out those designs on power and success. You really just have to have something that you like to do and that gives you a sense of purpose. It can really be anything as long as you feel good about it. It might be a job, it might be a role (such as mother, father, T-ball coach), or it might be volunteer work. Doing what we love, leads to loving what we do and happiness. And those who combine their life purpose with helping others are often very fulfilled.
Feeling You are in Control
People who feel they choose their destinies are happier. This is where my plaque, as well as this saying apply: “We may be products of our past, but we are also the architects of our future.” According to a University of Michigan nationwide survey, those who feel a strong sense of control in their lives have a more positive outlook on life and extraordinarily positive feelings. Self-determination is feeling as though you can influence the choices of your life, that you can control how you spend your time, and that you can achieve goals.
I am Who I am
Well…not so fast. While personality traits determine who we are in a general way, personality isn’t programmed like eye color. We are also impacted by nurturing influences as well as our own efforts in life. Most people presume that our personality affects our behavior. While that’s true to an extent, it is also believed that our traits and attitudes follow our behavior. We can act ourselves into a new way of thinking just as we can think ourselves into a new way of acting. Your choice.
Happy attitude, Happy life
The National Institute on Aging found that regardless of many demographic factors, those with an enduring and overall happy disposition, even in the face of difficulty, can stay relatively happy. They lead with positivity and a glass-half-full attitude. Have you ever known a person, who despite a very difficult life circumstance, still remains hopeful and positive? That type of attitude is what leads to and keeps a person happy. Another mindset is the attitude of gratitude. Being more grateful for what you have, and sometimes don’t have, is also important.
Let it Go
To quote Buddah: “Holding anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one that gets burned.” Holding on to grudges and past hurts imprisons us in negative feelings like anger, resentment and even hate. Holding on to regret, shame and guilt are also negative emotions that block happiness. Forgiving others and ourselves is often said to be for our own well-being because letting go of past hurts and regrets not only frees us from mental anguish but also decreases stress and physical symptoms. Multiple studies have shown that letting go of anger reduces emotional and physical pain, lowers blood pressure, and can even extend life.
A few other lifestyle changes leading to a happy life include being open to new experiences and getting out of ruts. Also, reframe thoughts to positive: “I am working so many hours this week, but I’m glad for the extra money and to have a job.”
So stop waiting to BE happy, and start creating an attitude and experiences that lead to a happier and positive mindset -- despite what’s happening or not happening in your life. Take steps to influence what you can and let go of the negative emotional ties that bind you.