Saturday, October 2, 2010

Rules for happiness

Happiness is a state of being that has been elusive to me all my life. I don't know why. I am not wired properly perhaps?

I have so much to be grateful for in my life. Intellectually I know that. But my heart does not feel the happiness. Instead, of appreciating what is, I focus on what is missing in my life. I can't help it seems.

Lately, I have been trying to remedy this. There is hope for people like me. In an article in Time Magazine entitled The New Science of Happiness (2004) by Claudia Wallis the work of Martin Seligman on Positive Psychology is showcased. According to Seligman, we can raise our level of happiness. Happiness can be learned.

This involves working on the three components of happiness— getting more pleasure out of life (which can be done by savoring sensory experiences, although, he warns, “you’re never going to make a curmudgeon into a giggly person”), becoming more engaged in what you do and finding ways of making your life feel more meaningful.

Gratitude exercises can do more than lift one’s mood. I have kept a Gratitude Journal for over seven years. Every night before bed I pulled out my journal and wrote down five things I was grateful for in my day. I went to sleep thinking happy. As I look back on my journals now I notice that it is the small things that make me happy: the fresh cup of coffee in the morning, the compliment I got on a job well done, the hug from my husband when I get home from work, spending quality time with my daughters or the leaves changing colors in fall. I stopped writing in my journal a year or so ago when it began to feel like just another task on my "To do" list. Instead, I have gotten into the habit of doing a gratitude prayer just before I go to bed, rhyming off in my head all the things that made me happy during the day. (These days I can easily list over 10 things - it used to be hard to find five!)

Another happiness booster, say positive psychologists, is performing acts of altruism or kindness—visiting a nursing home, helping a friend’s child with homework, mowing a neighbour’s lawn, writing a letter to a grandparent.

I had dinner with my dear friend Bob this week. He was in town for a week-long meeting. He lives in Halifax and I live in Ottawa. We don't see each other much but we keep in touch by email and phone. This summer, when my family and I travelled to Cape Breton, we made a detour to Halifax to visit with my friend Bob and his wife Jill. We had a great evening together feasting on seafood at a local restaurant and enjoying the acts in the Buskers Festival in the port of Halifax. When I got back home I printed off some of the pictures I took during that evening and mailed them to Bob with a heartfelt note of thanks on a handmade card. Bob said that it was so nice to receive this card with mementoes of our evening together. He and his wife Jill were reflecting on how it used to be good manners to send a Thank You note to hosts after a dinner and that this tradition is being lost. They really appreciated the thoughtfulness.

The single most effective way to turbo-charge your joy, according to Seligman, is to make a “gratitude visit.” That means writing a testimonial thanking a teacher, pastor or grandparent—anyone to whom you owe a debt of gratitude—and then visiting that person to read him or her the letter of appreciation. “The remarkable thing,” says Seligman, “is that people who do this just once are measurably happier and less depressed a month later. But it’s gone by three months.”

Karen was my boss at the Health Department. She was leading an innovative health promotion initiative and hired me on the spot to be a Special Events Coordinator. I had no previous job experience in that field but she saw my potential right away. I am a creative and energetic person and I had a ball coming up with novel ways of promoting heart health in our community. Our pilot project was a huge success and maybe my most rewarding job as a public servant. Twenty years later Karen and I are still friends. A couple of years ago, I announced to Karen my intention of leaving my job with the federal government to start my own business. I seized that moment to thank her for helping me believe in myself. I told her that I had learned so much from her. She was a visionary leader with a can do attitude. She made her staff feel like they part of her family. We were so proud of what we accomplished together. Karen became a bit emotional when I told her this. I felt so good about giving something back to her.

Less powerful but more lasting, says Seligman, is an exercise he calls three blessings—taking time each day to write down a trio of things that went well and why. “People are less depressed and happier three months later and six months later.” according to Seligman's research.

So you see happiness can be learned.

Rubin Gretchen's book entitled The Happiness Project inspired me one beautiful summer day this July sitting on the deck of my mother`s cottage to write my own list of what makes me happy.

I listed every letter of the alphabet on the left margin of a page and found at least one word for each letter that represented something that makes me happy. Some letters were a challenge like X and Z but surprisingly, I easily came up with words for each letter and in some cases, many many words.

"A": art, angels, antiques, Australia
"B": biking, Buddhism, warm baths
"C": chocolate, candles, canoeing, fresh ground coffee

Gretchen Rubin developed a list of Twelve Commandments for her year-long experiment on happiness.

Some of her commandments are:
  • Let it go
  • Act the way I want to feel
  • Do it now
  • Lighten up
I decided that in the interest of learning to be happy, I would develop my own set of rules for happiness (15 rules so far and counting)
  • Be me (be Sylvie!)
  • Dance and sing
  • Ask myself: "Do I really want this?" and make a conscious choice
  • Move my body
  • Spend time in nature
  • Say "thank you" often
  • Give LOVE freely
  • My body is my temple: eat and drink accordingly
  • Breathe deeply
  • Get rid of clutter: mental and physical
  • See the world through a child's eyes
  • I am not alone...
  • Live life to the fullest
  • Don't sweat the small stuff
  • Imagine and create
One of the things that kept coming up on my lists of happiness was dancing. So I wondered, if I love dancing so much, how come I am content waiting for the next wedding or conference formal dinner to have a chance to dance? How could I make dancing a bigger part of my life? I could sign up for flamenco or tango classes but that would just add to my already jam packed schedule. Then it dawned on me. The fitness club where I teach yoga has Zumba classes twice a week that I do not have to pay or sign up for since I am an instructor there! I can just go when I have the time and the urge. Zumba is a mix of Latin inspired high energy dances. The first Zumba class I did I had a smile on my face the whole time. I loved it. Getting a real workout and having fun at the same time. It sure beats running my usual route in the neighbourhood to tally up the kilometres in preparation for my next race!

This week, I challenge you to think about happiness and more specifically to make your own "A to Z" list of what makes you happy.

Please share it with me and my readers. Maybe I will be inspired (or reminded) to add something else to my growing list of happy things.

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