As I scan the news in my RSS reader, and Google News, I see that there is so much unhappiness in the world. When I pick something to watch on Netflix or YouTube, I often come across videos about suffering. When I peruse Facebook or Twitter, I see yet more suffering. So much suffering, so little joy.
Everyone wants to be happy, but they seem to lack the skills to know how to be happy. Most of us are raised to believe certain myths about happiness:
- Other people make me happy.
- I need X to be happy.
- More money, a bigger house, a fast car, etc, make me happy.
- Food, drugs, sex, shopping, make me happy.
I have seen enough and tried enough, to boil happiness down to a skill, or set of skills, and I’m here to share with you what I think it takes to be happy. I just know that this works for me, and it’s possible that what I share here will work for you, too. Suggestions, criticisms and comments are welcome below.
The first thing to know about happiness is that gratitude is the foundation for happiness. Happiness springs forth from a stream of decisions to notice the good all around you.
To start from the low end of the spectrum, I used to believe that the world was against me. People told me that the world is not that small. People told me that the world doesn’t know me enough to be against me. I gave it some thought and concluded that if the world were truly against me, I’d be about a millimeter thick.
I have also learned that there is nothing personal about a bad day. I don’t have bad days. I have challenging or even difficult days, but I don’t have bad days. If a day is bad, that’s about me. Believing a day is bad is like believing that the day is out to get me. That’s like taking everything that happens in a day, personally, as if it was personally directed at me, with intention to do ill will. It’s not.
Once I got past all that, I began to take notice of the good around me. At one point in my life, well, more than one point, I was effectively homeless. in 2008, I was there, but I was married. I didn’t worry about my wife leaving me, though. We were committed to the marriage and willing to see anything through. We came to Utah with very little money, most of our life in storage, and the rest packed in a car that we drove to Utah.
I was happy with the adventures, but there were nights when I was unhappy and I could not sleep. So I took notice of everything that I was grateful for. In my mind, I was “counting my blessings”, but not really counting them, for that only makes them the lesser. I was just noticing the good around me. I had shelter. I had food. I had someone in my life that I loved. I had clothes. I had hope. And so on.
Then I got in the habit of writing a gratitude list and morning page every morning. I went from living in someone’s basement, to getting a job, an apartment, another job, a house, a better job, and a better house, to here. To a day where I am in a daily habit of noticing the good, of having gratitude. Happiness is a stream of conscious decisions to notice the good in life. Every day, every hour, every minute if need be.
There is something that happens to the brain when we take on this habit of noticing the good. Noticing the good, and acknowledging it, changes our perception. Yes, this is sort of like asking whether or not the glass is half empty or half full. Our language does narrow our perception of reality. Language is useful for communicating our needs, cooperation and culture. But it is a terribly imprecise tool for describing reality.
Noticing the good around us, and noticing how we feel about that, without words, brings us back to our pre-verbal state of being, of life without words. Writing about that good stuff, with a gratitude list or morning page, reinforces the habit of noticing the good. That changes our perception. That also changes our expectations, though I strongly recommend living without expectations to the greatest extent possible. A mind without expectations is a mind ready to see what is happening around it.
Embracing the good around us as a habit, does something else. It’s attractive. People want to be around other people who they see as positive. People will give to others who notice the good around them. If I were struggling with negative thoughts, I’d want to be around people who are more positive. And that is what I did. I didn’t get to this place alone.
I did 12 Steps, I did therapy, group therapy, Toastmasters…I did whatever it was going to take to bend my mind to a new way of life. And it worked. I’m not really a church person, but I’ve seen people live a better life by going to church if that is what they needed to do. The social network alone is worth the price of admission. If you want be happy, don’t do it alone.
Having gratitude, or as some say, “An attitude of gratitude”, gives us resilience. Resilience is the capacity to manage our thoughts and feelings after a setback. Resilience is our capacity to keep our eyes on the prize and keep trying. Resilience says that even if I didn’t get what I wanted, I can still take notice of the good around me. Happiness isn’t getting everything you want, it’s knowing what to do when you don’t. Happiness is a skill.
Happiness is a stream of decisions to be happy. Each decision, really, is a decision to notice the good around us. Making those kinds of decisions requires experience and skill. Happiness is losing the expectation that people, places and things are going to make us happy. For even if we get something we wanted, we still have to make the decision to be happy about that, now, the next day, the next month, for the next year.