“Most folks are about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” – Abraham Lincoln
There are plentiful opportunities in life to be happy or unhappy. While we don’t choose everything that happens to us, we choose most of it in some way or another. When life feels difficult, stressful, or upsetting, there is always a choice of how to respond to that distress. No matter what happens, your response is within your control. This is the idea of fully accepting reality in the present moment and then asking yourself, “Now what?”
It does no good to fight, complain, or deny reality. It is going on around you whether you choose to accept it or not. There are often many choices that could have been made to bring about a different present-moment reality, but in that moment reflecting back on what could have been done differently is not productive. We can always learn from mistakes made to prevent them in the future, but in the moment when things are not going your way, you must recognize that complaining does absolutely no good.
A recent article in WebMD’s Health & Balance Center, “Choosing To Be Happy” discusses 7 steps towards choosing happiness:
(1) Make a Conscious Choice
In order to actively move towards an emotional state of happiness, you must set your intention towards reaching happiness. Rather than waiting for happiness to somehow fall into your lap while you pout around being miserable, choose to consciously engage in attitudes and behaviors consistent with happiness.
Each moment of your life presents you with a choice of what attitude and behavior you will adopt. People who choose to act in angry, miserable, or anxious ways begin to feel these emotions. Begin to consciously align your thinking and behaving with how you would like to feel.
(2) Develop & Express Gratitude
Many people who feel unhappy choose to pay little or no attention to the things in life for which they do have to be grateful. When minor setbacks occur and even when tragedy strikes, you may be surprised by how many things in your life for which you may still express gratitude.
Martin Seligman, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and leader in the field of positive psychology, suggests writing in a gratitude journal each day about a few things for which you feel grateful. He confirms that this activity promotes happiness and shifts people away from despair.
(3) Foster Forgiveness
Research indicates that holding on to grudges and resentment negatively affects both physical and mental health. Positive psychology researchers, Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons, suggest that actively fostering forgiveness can reduce the power of bad events to create the sense of bitterness and resentment.
Clinical psychologist, Everett Worthington, suggests the following 5-step approach to fostering forgiveness:
- Recall the hurt
- Empathize and try to understand the other person’s point of view and motivations
- Be altruistic – recall a time in your own life when you were forgiven
- Commit – put your forgiveness into words
- Hold on to the forgiveness (rather than the hurt, resentment, etc.)
(4) Improve “Mental Hygiene”
Learn how to exert control over your thoughts and behaviors through conscious, mindful, and deliberate practice. You can’t expect to change your entire way of being in the world overnight. Major changes require consistent and concerted efforts through mindful practice. Research indicates that you can retrain your habitual ways of behaving and thinking through practice.
Techniques such as mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and yoga have been shown to reduce anxiety and stress levels. There are many well-researched cognitive behavioral techniques that successfully change negative patterns of thinking and behaving as well. Jon Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, explains that “if you learn techniques for identifying negative thoughts, then it’s easier to challenge them.”
(5) Recognize that Money Can’t Buy Happiness
Research has strongly indicated that once you reach a certain income level ($75,000/year), obtaining more money does not increase levels of happiness. While it is important to be able to provide for yourself and your family in a way that allows you to have a roof over your head and food on the table without significant stress and anxiety, it is crucial to recognize that chasing larger and larger amounts of material wealth will not magically “make” you happy.
As long as you insist on focusing externally (outside of yourself) in the pursuit of happiness, it will likely remain elusive. True happiness, contentment, and fulfillment that is stable and lasting comes from a deep place within. When you feel true peace within yourself and congruence between your thoughts and deeds – your values and your actions – you will find serenity and contentment.
(6) Develop Friendships
Strong social support is a crucial aspect of health and happiness. According to one Australian study, people over 70 years old with the strongest social network lived longer than their peers without that same social support. Consider the ways in which you can actively develop, strengthen, and maintain the friendships/relationships that you already have. Think of some friends that you can actively reach out to and reaffirm your bond.
(7) Engage in Meaningful Activities
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believes that people are rarely as happy as they are when they are in a state of “flow.” In this type of state, the mind becomes fully immersed in the activity at hand – your abilities are challenged and you are fully engaged and awake. He has found that one of America’s most common leisure activities, watching television, produces the lowest levels of happiness.
In his book Finding Flow, he explains, “Active leisure that helps a person grow does not come easily. Each of the flow-producing activities requires an initial investment of attention before it begins to be enjoyable.” Essentially, the deep happiness that comes from a flow state requires you to make a deliberate choice to engage yourself. In order to reap the benefit of true happiness from our lives, we must be willing to put more into our lives.
If you struggle with reaching and maintaining happiness in your life, consider the ways in which the choices that you make are moving you closer to or further from the happiness that you desire. A great deal of happiness in this life is based upon how willing you are to choose that happiness. You do not control all that happens in life, but you always control how you respond.
When you are faced with the opportunity to become engaged with life, alive to its possibilities, and grateful for all that you have, you are choosing a life with happiness as its foundation. You will not feel happy “all of the time” – and who wants that anyway? A wonderful part of being human is our ability to feel a wide range of emotions. What you will have is a secure base of contentment and peace. Today will present you with many opportunities to choose happiness. It’s up to you which path you will take.
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Valeo, T. (2011). Choosing to be happy [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/choosing-to-be-happy.
Featured image: A few pieces of pepperoni later… by ginnerobot / CC BY 2.0