We all want happiness but it’s not always where we expect to find it. Executive coach Doug Sundheim, author of Time Management Tools And Techniques (Peak Performance Press), says: ‘We chase what we feel is missing in our lives, believing it will bring happiness, but when we achieve it, something still seems missing. New “if onlys” constantly crop up to replace the old ones. ‘We’re caught in a race with a moving finish line,’ he says.
The solution is to change our thinking. Happiness, it seems, is not a destination – rather, it’s a manner of travelling. And if we can’t feel it today, we won’t find it tomorrow. So how can we feel it now?
12 STEPS TO CHANGE UP
1 Take responsibility for your happiness. Stop assuming that other people, fate, money, new shoes or the government will make you happy. Give some thought to what really does it for you and work out a plan to incorporate more of it in your life – whether it’s dancing or doing creative writing, or leaving a dead-end job or relationship. ‘The people who become the happiest and grow the most are those who also make truth and their own personal growth primary values,’ says Stevens. They choose to be happy.
2 Live to your fullest potential. Our highest level of happiness comes from self-actualisation, says US psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience (Rider & Co). This means doing what you love and what you feel born to do, and getting paid fairly for it.
3 Be happy anyway. ‘We all face problems in life; it’s how we view them that counts,’ says Nelspruit psychologist Tembeni Mhlongo. If you take setbacks in your stride and learn from them, they can help you grow in strength and serenity. If you compare yourself with people better off than you – and you’ll always find them – you will never be happy. Studies show the happiest people aren’t those leading perfect lives but those who have learnt to appreciate less-than-perfect things.
4 Keep a gratitude journal. Durban life coach Cathy Yuill says: ‘List your five strongest points and three good things that happened to you today.’ Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How Of Happiness (Penguin), confirms that consciously counting your blessings and jotting down things you’re grateful for once a week will ‘significantly increase’ your satisfaction with life.
5 Do kind deeds. Five kind acts a week considerably boosted the happiness of Lyubomirsky’s study subjects. These can be anything from feeding a neighbour’s dog to calling an elderly relative or visiting someone you feel you owe a debt of gratitude.
6 Cultivate curiosity and a love of learning. Exposing yourself to new activities and learning new skills can increase your happiness, although Seligman says ‘cerebral virtues’ are less effective than ‘interpersonal virtues’ such as kindness, gratitude and capacity for love.
7 Build your inner power. Keep reaching for higher levels of development, urges Stevens. ‘Each new stressful event can be seen as an opportunity for growth instead of a disaster.’ You can fail to reach a goal but you can never fail to learn, he says.
8 Give! Research shows that giving – things, services or time – to others or to a higher cause makes us happy. It distracts us from our own existence and gives our lives a sense or purpose and meaning. Yet, as Rob van Alkemade points out in What Would Jesus Buy?, his satirical documentary on today’s unchecked consumerism, we spend less than an hour a week on spiritual matters and more than five hours shopping. And young people spend more than 40 hours a week engaged in media (online, cellphones) and less than 40 minutes engaged in meaningful conversations with people close to them.
9 Cultivate friends and a social network. We almost all feel happier when we’re with others, says Csikszentmihalyi. Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard lecturer in positive psychology and author of Happier (McGraw-Hill), describes relationships, whether with friends or family, as ‘the number-one predictor of wellbeing’.
10 Cultivate a healthy life. Doing regular exercise, even just a brisk 30-minute walk each day, releases feel-good hormones and revs up your system for an ongoing feeling of wellbeing, says Durban fitness and lifestyle trainer Noeleen Bridle. ‘Looking better will also feed your confidence and happiness. And the structure that exercise gives your day, and the satisfaction of “sticking with the plan,” can all add to it.’ Eating healthily has a similar effect, and can allow you to enjoy the odd glass of wine or piece of chocolate without succumbing to guilt, bingeing or depression. But how do you stick to it? Asked how she runs 7km a day, Oprah once said, ‘I recommit to it every day of my life.’ With time, strategies can turn into habits – and become easier.
11 Savour the moment. To find happiness in the now – in each step of your life journey – you need to practise being in the present. Meditation can help, says Yuill. So can jotting down a half-dozen ‘if onlys’ that may be keeping you from feeling happiness now. Don’t expect them to disappear instantly but when you spot them, understand they’re stealing your present happiness and bring yourself back to the moment.
12 Start NOW: ‘Don’t postpone your happiness to later, because tomorrow you might not be living in this dimension any more,’ says Arne Klingenberg in Yes I Am Happy Now! (Beam). ‘Make your happiness your very first priority in life! Nobody else can or will do that for you…. And nobody will ever come to you and say “Thank you” for leading an unfulfilled and unhappy life in sacrifice for this or that.’ Chances are you’re already happy, if you’ll just pause long enough to see it – and give yourself over to experiencing it. Right here. Right now.