The most memorable thing my mother has ever said to me wasn’t actually said at all. She wrote it in an e-mail. I had spent an hour crafting her a long, overly dramatic novel about some minor upset in my life and she had replied, simply, “Christine: You’re not happy unless the world is falling apart around you.”
It was perfect.
Not only had it stopped my overactive mind in its tracks and put things in perspective in a way no one else in my life could, but those first few words were impossible to ignore.
Was I unhappy?
I’ve been in the constant hunt for happiness for as long as I can remember, but only recently developed a plan. It sounds silly. We all want happiness. But achieving it and sustaining it can seem impossible at times. Happiness is subjective and elusive. It’s individual and dependent on many things that are constantly in flux.
And while we’ve become accustomed to creating happiness for others, in our relationships, with our families and through bringing people together, we’re often guilty of putting others’ needs first and forgetting about our own.
Research suggests that about 50 per cent of happiness is genetically determined. “Some people are born Tiggers, some are born Eeyores,” says Gretchen Rubin, happiness expert and author of The Happiness Project. “About 10 per cent to 20 per cent is life circumstances, which is factors such as age, health, occupation, marital status, income and the like,” she continues. “All the rest is very much influenced by the way that we think and the way that we act.”
John Zelenski, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, agrees. In his research on happiness, he’s discovered that demographic variables account for a relatively small amount of variation in happiness. However, personality factors, such as emotional stability and extroversion, account for much more.
Being happy doesn’t have to require a monumental occurrence, such as winning the lottery or finding your soul mate. There are small changes you can make each day to improve your happiness, says Rubin, who spent a full year doing things that made her happy, including singing in the morning, cleaning her closets and reading Aristotle.
A TWO-STEP APPROACH
Those were the things that made Rubin happy. But would they make you or I happy? Probably not. That’s because so much of happiness is individual.
In my quest for happiness, I realized that it all boils down to two things: Loving what you do and doing what you love. It’s one part mental and one part physical. The first step towards happiness, I discovered, was to change the way you think about your life. It’s about learning to see the good, thinking positively, practicing gratitude and being kind. Just as someone being rude to you on your daily commute can put you in a terrible mood for your 9:00 a.m. meeting, so, too, can positive behaviour affect yourself and others. Being kind, or simply flashing a smile, is contagious. It makes others happy and that happiness (more often than not) is reflected back at you.
The second step is to pinpoint simply what makes you happy. And do more of it.
MY HAPPINESS PLAN
Over the last year, I’ve thought seriously about what makes me happy and I have compiled some of it here because, for me, sharing my insights is part of my happiness plan.
Exercise. Before you throw things at me, think about it. While it might be difficult to get up and get moving, once you do, your body naturally releases endorphins. And endorphins make you happy. It’s one way to control and create actual happiness, naturally and consistently. And as the old adage goes, “health is happiness.”
Try something new. Take a salsa dancing class. Try making your own sushi. Teach yourself how to use a computer program. Learning a new skill, however small, will give you a sense of accomplishment. If you can get over that fear of failure that often accompanies trying new things, happiness is just around the corner.
Meet for coffee with an acquaintance. At best, it’s an opportunity to expand your social circle or build a relationship. At worst, it’s an opportunity to converse with someone who doesn’t know you that well. Let me explain. When we meet someone new, and that comfort level isn’t established yet, we have a tendency to show the other person our “highlight reel.” We pick the best things about our life and share them. And that exercise alone is enough to remind us that our lives are pretty great.
Gratitude. Happiness is relative to our perspective and our expectations. It’s not to say you shouldn’t dream big—you should. But often we don’t take the time to think about the little things in our life that we should be grateful for. Take a few moments each day to think about what you’re thankful for in your life. Or if you’re a journal writer, keep a gratitude journal. Oprah does it, so you can, too.
Be active. This has nothing to do with exercise. I’m talking about being an active participant in your own life. It’s easy to complain that we don’t make enough money or aren’t satisfied in our relationship. But the whole “woe is me” line of thought (or speech) is incredibly passive and, well, generally unproductive. We’re all guilty of it at some point or another. But it’s important to pull yourself out of it. When I get in a funk, I recall my favourite line from the terrible movie Vanilla Sky, “Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.” If something isn’t satisfactory, make a plan, set timelines and attack. It’ll give you a sense of control over your future and, ultimately, your happiness.
At the end of the day, everybody wants to be happy. So what makes achieving happiness so difficult? It’s simple. People are as happy as they make up their minds to be. In Zelenski’s research, he found that most people are in positive moods most of the time, but for whatever reason, we fixate on the negative. “Sometimes the negative ones stick out in our memory, and we often desire to be happier, but, for most, we are happy.”
My mother would say I have a hard time accepting when things are just fine—that there always has to be some other goal I want to achieve or some fire I need to put out. And sometimes that’s true. But it doesn’t have to be.
–Christine Otsuka is Assistant Editor of Meetings + Incentive Travel.