I’m a big fan of happiness.
Shocking, I know. That’s like proclaiming, “I’m a big fan of peace, or love, or chocolate.” Obvious much? We all want to be happy, as often as possible.
Although happiness is a common objective, it’s never a given. Being alive doesn’t automatically equal being happy. It often equals the opposite. Regular tastes of happiness take intentional choice and concentrated effort. Even then, unfortunately, it’s not a sure thing. Effort definitely improves our odds of finding happiness, however, and it beats sitting on our butts waiting to be struck by joy.
We have to be willing to work for the things we want, right?
My question to Facebook
With that in mind, I announced a Happiness Challenge on my Facebook page. I asked the community to consider the following question: What is one thing you will do every day in February that serves your happiness and well-being? What one thing will you do, every day, that speaks to your willingness to take care of yourself??
I chose February, because it’s the shortest month of the year and thus automatically improved our odds of finishing the challenge. Self-care is damned hard work. I’m for any shortcuts that help make it easier.
I committed to doing at least one hour of Yoga each day for the month. Though I love how Yoga makes me feel, I’d never stuck with a consistent practice. Like doing Pilates, eating spirulina or swishing coconut oil in my mouth for 20 minutes each morning (oil pulling, anyone?), Yoga became one more holistic practice to skip. I wanted to change that trend.Many members of my Facebook community took the challenge—one planned to take photos of each sunrise throughout the month, another committed to painting daily and another to dancing around her apartment for at least 10 minutes every day. Several joined me in a Yoga commitment. Several more vowed to walk or jog each day. A whole bunch chose meditation as their challenge.
One woman, who struggled to relax, committed to doing absolutely nothing for at least 20 minutes every single day. She planned to sit on her butt, close her eyes or stare at the wall, and do nothing. That’s so not a challenge for me, by the way, and is, in fact, how I spend some part of most days. I’m quite expert at doing not a thing.
February arrived, and the challenge began. I checked in daily with words of encouragement and to report my own progress. I was downward-dogging like a champ. Many community members shared their progress as well. We kept each other energized, and it made a difference.
It’s usually more fun, and motivating, to take on a challenge with others. I’m about a thousand times more inclined to show up at the gym if I’m meeting a workout partner there. Five thousand times more inclined if we’re meeting at a bakery, but whatever. With the Happiness Challenge, I felt accountable to the community, and it kept me focused.
I did Yoga every day that month and kept up my practice three to four times a week after that, for a few more months. Um, anyway, let’s just say I’m off the Yoga kick for now. (But I did start swishing coconut oil again last week!) The challenge, however, confirmed some things about happiness for me.
Happiness isn’t a choice
Happiness isn’t a choice. Really, it’s not.
If it were, who would ever choose to be angry or jealous or depressed?
Wouldn’t we all be choosing happiness all the time?
I used to believe that happiness was a choice. In my book, Just Love, I even wrote the following: “Happiness is work. So is misery. Both are choices. Only one comes with smiles.” It’s not that simple, though.
I believed that if we focused hard enough on being happy, we would, in fact, become happy. That all moments offered the possibility of choosing happiness. Of course, I couldn’t understand why I found myself unhappy so much of the time. Shouting to the heavens, “I choose happiness!” didn’t seem to be making any difference to all my other emotions.
My Anger just scoffed, “You can scream all you want about happiness, but you’re mine today, and pissed off is on the menu.”
“I’m gonna need some time with him after you,” my Sadness mumbled.
“Not before we complain about the state of this effed-up world,” grumbled my Disgust.
If human beings weren’t designed to feel all the emotions, all those emotions wouldn’t exist.
If human beings weren’t designed to feel all the emotions, all those emotions wouldn’t exist. And that’s the thing: happiness is an emotion. A feeling. We can be choosy about our thoughts, but we can’t choose our feelings. We feel how we feel, no matter what we think.
Just consider all the times you’ve tried to think yourself out of feeling something. It doesn’t work. If a loved one dies, or your partner leaves you, you’re not going to be able to think yourself away from feeling sad about it. If you get fired from your job for no good reason, you can’t think yourself out of anger or fear. Thoughts and emotions are different animals. If our thoughts are domesticated horses that we can often manipulate, our emotions are wild stallions, free and unpredictable.
The idea that we can choose happiness has taken the personal-development world by storm. The problem there, for everyone not lucky enough to be happy all the time—which is all of us—is that we begin to think we’re doing something wrong when we’re not glowing with joy. We convince ourselves we’re flawed somehow, or that we’ve missed the happiness ship in this lifetime. So we become disappointed and sad.
I’d often attached happiness to my spiritual growth. I believed my inability to live in constant unbridled joy suggested I wasn’t nearly as spiritually evolved as I thought myself to be. Full disclosure: I realize several times a day I’m not as spiritually evolved as I think myself to be, but that has nothing to do with my happiness level.
Many of us put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to be happy all the time. I used to be the consummate Pollyanna, always smiling, relentlessly optimistic, full of “It’s all good, bro.” That’s some serious bro-shit. It’s not always all good, and it doesn’t need to be. That’s not how life works, not if you’re a human being with a human heart and mind.
Optimism is great, but not at the expense of authenticity. I’ll take real over happy, most days, anyway. I walked around for much of my life with a perma-smile plastered on my face—in part because I have a naturally positive attitude, for which I’m grateful. And in part because I wasn’t willing to look at the fullness of my life honestly enough to account for my shadow. My smile spent much of its time on the surface, refusing to acknowledge my pain.
I don’t believe there’s a Pollyanna alive without a landfill of pain beneath all that joy. Sometimes we use happiness as a defense against the world. We smile to keep from having to feel. That’s OK, but it’s still a wall, one that prevents us from realizing an even deeper, truer happiness.
But … we have some control over our happiness
I launched the Happiness Challenge not to suggest that we can choose happiness but to remind us that we can make choices that stand a good chance of leading to happiness. The more we do things that tend to make us happy, the happier we’re likely to become. That’s common sense, right? One-plus-one-equals-two spirituality.
We may not be able to choose our emotions, but we can choose the actions we take that affect our emotions.
I love to play tennis. It usually makes me happy (unless I’m playing like total crap). Generally, I know that by choosing to play tennis, I’m likely to evoke happiness. I’m not choosing happiness, I’m choosing to play tennis. There’s a difference. We may not be able to choose our emotions, but we can choose the actions we take that affect our emotions.
When I decide to watch a YouTube video I love, I invite happiness. When I decide to read the comments below that video, I invite anger. When I’m more selective about the invitations I put out into the world—and focus on those things that bring me joy—I invite a more peaceful, contented life.
Do you want to experience more happiness?
If yes, what are you doing to make that happen?
Are you choosing habits, activities, and relationships that support your desire for more happiness? If not, no problem, you can start right now. What tends to make you smile and feel good? If it’s fresh air, then get outside every day, even for five minutes. If it’s bowling, then drag a friend to the lanes once a week, or join a league. If it’s good conversation, then pick up the phone and call someone you love, someone who makes you laugh. If it’s reading, then read a … wait, you’re doing that!
We don’t have to imagine making positive choices. Instead, we can just make them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said to myself, “I need to get outside more.” Well, outside is literally just on the other side of my door. That desire is absolutely within my power.
Consider all the positive choices that are within your power right now. Even spending five minutes a day focused on activities that bring us joy makes a difference. It’s five more minutes spent feeding your soul. It’s also an energetic declaration that you matter enough to yourself to invite the possibility of happiness into your life.
Limit things that don’t support your well-being
The desire for more happiness also requires us to pay attention to the habits, activities and relationships that don’t support our well-being. What choices are we making that direct us away from the possibility of happiness? When we become aware of these choices, and clear about how they make us feel, we empower ourselves to stop making them. Awareness always comes first.
Whenever I eat a pint of ice cream in one sitting, I end up feeling like crap. Can you imagine that? Knowing this, it’s up to me to put down the pint before I’ve inhaled it all. If I choose not to, I’m also choosing to steer myself away from the possibility of happiness (and to the probability of diarrhea—sorry, that’s gross but true).
Just as we have the power to make healthy choices, we have the power to stop making unhealthy ones.
What choices are you making that don’t serve the possibility of happiness? What habits can you consider altering or getting rid of completely? What relationships leave you feeling depleted rather than energized? We can’t choose happiness, but we can choose to take care of ourselves. We can choose to say no to those things that don’t make us feel good. Just as we have the power to make healthy choices, we have the power to stop making unhealthy ones. If we want to find more happiness, that is.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, however, even when we make positive choices. I did an hour of Yoga every day that February, and I still felt moody and unhappy and anxious at different points throughout the month. That’s life.
Most of us want to believe in cure-alls, but they don’t exist. I’ve spent much of my adult life searching for the one book, superfood or habit to eradicate all my emotional or physical problems. If I just do Yoga, I’ll discover inner peace. If I drink more water, I’ll be energetic all the time. If I sleep eight hours a night, I’ll be less moody. Okay, that one works, but I’m still plenty moody. Healthy habits will always serve us, but they don’t guarantee happiness, either.
Still, there’s absolutely no downside to taking care of ourselves.
Along with choosing activities that stand to influence our happiness, we need to be more selective with our thoughts. Those, we can choose a lot of the time. Attitude matters in our experience of life, and a bad attitude never invites a good life. When I revert to viewing my reality with a negative slant, my reality turns darker. When I commit to staying open to the positive in any situation, my world glows brighter.
I’m not suggesting that we pretend everything is rosy when we’re stuck in a bush of thorns. But doesn’t it serve us to give at least as much attention to the positives as we do to the negatives? When I make an effort to integrate positive thinking 50 percent of the time, the quality of my life goes up about 5,000 percent. That’s a sensational return on investment.
Happiness is an inside job
Though the following has been stated four billion times, and we all know it in our hearts to be true, it’s worth repeating: lasting or recurring happiness has nothing to do with the outside world. One of the great barriers to happiness lies in the stubbornness with which we seek it outside ourselves—in clothes and cars and husbands and girlfriends and TV and drugs and, and, and. Your happiness lives within you, not in the stitches of your brand-new jeans or the salary increase from your promotion at work.
Have you ever felt miserable, even though things were going pretty well? Or content, even though you were out of work and late with the bills? I remember the day I got the offer for this book. I was sad that day, about the state of our world, and though I felt excited to get a book offer, my sadness stayed with me.
Our outside circumstances affect how we feel, but they aren’t the makers or breakers of our happiness. That will always be an inside job. And happiness, like all the emotions, will always be fleeting, moving in and out of our lives. Staying for a while, then retreating, then returning again.
Life isn’t just about happiness
Life is about more than happiness, anyway. It’s OK to feel all the things we feel. It’s human. Consider everything we’d miss out on if we were happy all the time. My sadness has taught me empathy and compassion for others in pain, a gift I cherish as much as any other. My sadness also brings a depth to my joy that wouldn’t exist without the contrast. When I really allow myself to be sad, I also open myself up to profound happiness.
All our emotions serve us. They all have wisdom to share, when we’re willing to listen.
My anger has ignited in me many calls to action and has been the catalyst for countless moments of change. Even the threat of shame, which never leads to happiness, has inspired me at times to make different, more meaningful choices than I might otherwise have. All our emotions serve us. They all have wisdom to share, when we’re willing to listen.
We all want to be happy, and we can use that desire in many ways to create a more fulfilling life. Though we can’t choose happiness, we can choose habits and activities that make us feel good and relationships rooted in acceptance and respect that support the truest expression of who we are. We can choose to honour ourselves by taking care of our bodies and minds, and by being grateful for the innumerable gifts that brighten our lives. We can choose to be kinder, more compassionate and more loving human beings, with strangers, friends, family and ourselves.
We can make all those important choices, and we can remember that we’re all connected—all brothers and sisters—and all worthy of love. If we do all that, we still won’t be able to choose happiness, but there’s a greater chance that happiness will start to choose us more often.
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