So what is it? I’m not talking about the lofty goals you come up with when you overthink happiness. (“I would be so happy if no child ever went hungry.”) I’m talking about the things that make your day, the things that right there, right then, in the moment, make you feel very personally and specifically happy to be alive. I’ve been pondering this lately since I recently read a thought-provoking article about happiness.
Every time I get together with any of my children it makes me so once-again-surprisingly happy that it takes my breath away. I could just watch my children talk to each other or their father for hours. They are still such extraordinary, luminous, beautiful creatures that I remain in wonder that they came from me and Ron and that we raised them.
My children are a big source of happiness in my life. But there are also an abundance of trivial moment-to-moment sources of happiness, like eating organic dark chocolate, evening walk at Coyote Valley Dam with Ron, completing a work project and knowing I rocked on that particular job, solving a problem, petting my cat, a long drink of fresh pure cool water, first homegrown tomato of the summer, listening to music, cooking for my book group, crawling into bed with a good read. Those are a few that popped into my head.
UC researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky lists the following practices as the top things that she found that the happiest people do:
1) They spend a lot of time with family and friends, nurturing those relationships.
2) They frequently express gratitude.
3) They step up to help others often.
4) They remain optimistic for the future.
5) They savor life’s pleasures and try to live in the present.
6) They do something for exercise at least a few times a week, often daily.
7) They remain deeply committed to their lifelong goals.
8) They find constructive ways to cope with the challenges and trauma of everyday life and to remain hopeful in spite of these.
Apparently it’s important to make happiness a habit. We can consciously practice happiness to increase its presence in our lives. (That sounds good to me because I have been meaning to eat more dark chocolate.) We often form habits that prevent us from experiencing happiness. Instead, we should make those things that bring us happiness our habits more often. One happiness expert suggests that we take a moment in the morning to think about the upcoming day and to find or create opportunities for happiness that we see possible as part of that day and then to anticipate them. Look forward to something. And if you find nothing in the day to look forward to, then add something into the day to look forward to. Evening walk with a friend. Fresh peaches after dinner. Changing the sheets to enjoy a clean bed. Phoning Dad who lives far away. Looking through an old photo album. Or plan an event in the future to look forward to, like a dinner party with good friends (call them up and invite them).
There are many sure-fire research-proven paths to finding happiness in the moment, such as exercising, dancing, singing, savoring good food, spending time with a friend, spiritual practice, doing a good deed (like helping someone out), being generous, setting and meeting a personal goal or challenge, and completing a good project. One research-based proven source of happiness that I find intriguing is finding meaning in life’s tragedies. Apparently people who find some benefit in their struggles are generally happier people. I would guess this is connected to that whole optimism-hope-positive thinking cascade. Lyubomursky found that men between the ages of 30 and 60 who had a heart attack and who perceived this as a wake-up call to slow down and enjoy their family and their life were in greater health six weeks after the heart attack (and less likely to have a recurrent heart attack) than those men who blamed their heart attack on other people or blamed themselves for getting too worked up but did not view the heart attack as an opportunity to change their lives for the better.
Austrian Jewish concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Man’s Search for Meaning was originally published under the title (in German) Nevertheless, Say “Yes” to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. Given his extraordinary luck at not being murdered or taken ill, Frankl clearly survived and made a future for himself with his positive attitude.
I have read quite a bit about retraining the brain to function in new ways. Since we each live in a reality created mostly by our own perceptions, it would be correct to say that we create our own reality. We create our days. We create our lives. We create our measure of happiness. If you want more happiness in your life then invite it in. Put some good music on and have some dark chocolate (the nutritionista says more than 70% cacao is the healthiest).
This is my current favorite dark chocolate: Theo Brand. Organic. 70% Cacao. Delish!