"Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be."
- Abraham Lincoln
In our culture, I just want to be happy is a familiar refrain, but do we even know what makes us happy? Do you know? I am asking you to think about the prerequisites for your happiness.
Our cultural script tells us: Go to school, get good grades and land a well-paying job and you will have enough money to buy the things that will ensure your security and, with it, your happiness. But according to the National Opinion Research Council, we have increased our annual consumption of stuff by almost three-fold since the 1950s, but, as a people, we are actually less happy today than seventy years ago. That’s right. Though we have more stuff than ever before we are no happier. Comedian, George Carlin, captured this irony when he said:
"Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body."
Psychologist, David Myers, referred to the pattern of rising wealth and diminished happiness in America as “The American Paradox.” Specifically, he observed that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Americans found themselves: “…with big houses and broken homes, high incomes and low morale, secured rights and diminished civility. We are excelling at making a living but too often failing at making a life. We celebrate our prosperity but yearn for purpose. We cherish our freedoms but long for connection. In an age of plenty, we are feeling spiritual hunger. These facts of life lead to a startling conclusion: Our becoming better off materially has not made us better off psychologically.”
As a reflection of the widespread unhappiness in America, consider these observations from author and public speaker, Charles Eisenstein: “I live in a country where nearly one in four people take psychiatric medication for depression and anxiety, where suicide and addiction are at epidemic levels, where a third of all children suffer abuse, where half of marriages end in divorce.”
You can build on the above observations from Myers and Eisenstein by considering the sources of happiness, as well as the roots of unhappiness, in your own life. I challenge you to initiate your inquiry, right now, by sitting with a cup of tea, while reflecting in your journal on the following questions:
i-When do you feel most happy, most alive? Make a list…
ii-What, in your experience, contributes to your happiness? Make a list...
iii-What, blocks, or interferes, with your happiness? Make a list…
iv-As you review your three lists, what new understandings—what insights—arise?
After reviewing your lists from the journal prompt above, you may tend to think that happiness comes from sources outside of yourself. But what if the real key to happiness is making the choice to accept life, just as it presents itself, moment-by-moment? You can begin to play with this idea right now by considering the simple act of jumping around and dancing. For many us, this kind of free, silly, and uninhibited motion can unleash a measure of happiness. Indeed, just watching Pharrel Williams’ Be Happy dance video could cause a temporary uptick in happiness.
Happiness: Fake it Until You Make it!
Have you ever had someone tell you to cheer up and smile? It’s probably not the most welcomed advice, especially when you’re feeling sick or tired or just bored with your life. But there’s a good reason to turn that frown upside down insofar as research reveals that the mere act of smiling can lighten our mood, lower stress and give a boost to our immune system.
I grant you that this may seem kind-of-backwards. After all, isn’t it happiness that causes us to smile… and, if so, how could the reverse be true? Well, as neurologist, Dr. Isha Gupta explains, a smile—even if it’s forced—triggers chemical reactions in the brain, that release certain hormones, including dopamine and serotonin, known to reduce stress while increasing feelings of wellbeing.
You could explore the effects of smiling on your own mood. As a prelude, consider this testimony from life coach and meditation instructor, Jaime Pfeffer: “Smiling changes the way I think and feel. My husband and I purposely spend 60 seconds every morning smiling to supercharge our mood. If something goes awry during the day, I use smiling to quickly shift my mood. This helps me to… transform my mood quickly and to put things in a different perspective.
Even if you don’t feel like smiling right now, you could fake it until you make it by placing a pencil between your back molars, while biting down lightly. As you do this, you will be engaging the facial muscles associated with smiling and this, alone, could be enough to tilt your mood toward happiness.
In addition to promoting happiness through physical actions, like dancing and smiling, we can also contribute to our happiness by working with our thoughts. I was first introduced to this perspective by Byron Katie in the book, Loving What Is. The thesis of Byron Katie’s book is that it’s not what actually happens to us that causes our unhappiness, it is our thinking—specifically, our attachment to our stories about what has happened… or is happening… or should be happening.
For Byron Katie, the realization that it is often our stories that are at the root of our unhappiness came to her one morning, after she had been suffering from depression for several years. On that particular morning, to her surprise, she awoke, feeling buoyant and happy. But, then, she had a stressful thought and her happiness dissolved. But in that same instant, she had the presence of mind to recognize that it was a stressful thought—nothing more—that was the source of the sudden mood shift that upended her happiness.
This singular experience led Byron Katie to begin to pay careful attention to all of her thoughts. In so doing, she realized that, just as her body was being breathed—i.e., breathing occurs involuntarily—she was also being thought! This is true for all of us: Thoughts come and go, all day long.
Byron Katie was particularly interested in catching the thoughts that created stress. She puts it this way: “It's only when I believe a stressful thought that I get hurt. And I'm the one who's hurting me by believing what I think. This means that I'm the one who can stop hurting me. It's within my power.”
As she dug deeper into the dynamics of her thinking, she noted that she experienced unhappiness only in those instances when her thoughts argued with reality. So, rather than fighting against “what is,” she chose to open to and, ultimately, love what is.
How might choosing to 'love what is' affect your happiness from the inside-out?
"Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony."
- Mahatma Gandhi
"For me, happiness exists beyond the norms of what society tells me."