For better or worse, we believe that happiness is a natural born right, and maybe even an obligation — if you aren’t happy, you have an obligation to your family, your work, and yourself to make it happen.
But as a recent program on NPR’s TED Radio Hour pointed out, happiness isn’t a final destination, nor is there a secret to attain it permanently. When show host Guy Raz asked his first guest, musician Pharrell Williams, if he had the secret to happiness, Williams was nonplussed.
“Okay,” he said slowly. “Well, look. I’m not some guy who’s walking around smiling every day. We all have our ups and downs lefts and rights and diagonals.” This, from the man whose song “Happy” is a worldwide hit with a 4-minute video of pure joy.
To think of happiness as an ultimate and long-lasting goal is, in fact, missing the point. Look at the Declaration of Independence again. The unalienable rights aren’t life, liberty, and happiness. What we get is the pursuit.
The pursuit of happiness. To me, this means that happiness is an approach to life. It’s a mindset that, sure, includes moments of glee, but is really about responding to those ups and downs and diagonals with a commitment to health. When you pair an attitude of happiness with the skills of resilience, you can keep from being dragged down by everyday stressors, giving you a better shot at staying buoyant. (Read more about the skills of resilience.)
Because if there’s an obligation here, perhaps it is to use your life well; to be the healthiest person you can be for self, family, work, community. That’s happiness with a purpose, which is happiness on a lifelong scale.
Here are three ways we zap our own happiness — and how to build it back.
1. You try to do too much at once. Busyness is our common malady. I’ve written before on how busy is the new black — a badge of honor and an unspoken expectation for success. Whether you’re over-scheduling client meetings or taking on yet another school fundraiser, you blow out all your circuits when you stay in constant cram mode.
Try this. I have committed to three things that put me on a path to create a reliable ebb and flow between busy and not-busy:
- No smart phones at meals — with friends, with family, with colleagues and clients.
- Taking a long walk three times a week – yes, without my phone.
- And last, and this one is hard when you have many commitments: One day off the grid each week (at least, while there is daylight!).
2. You’re consumed by troubling thoughts. You know them well: The thoughts that hang around poking at you all day, posing impossible questions (“But what if this happens? What if that happens? What if this goes wrong?”). Contrary to what you think, you’re not at the mercy of those thoughts. Far from it. You have the power to shift your whole mood, by catching that thought early on.
Try this. Zap it. As soon as you feel your mood start to cloud over, stop. What thought just made that happen? Was it about not having enough money? Where did that thought originate (an unpaid bill, a higher price tag than you anticipated?). Trace that thought to its root and challenge it. Just because you’re short on cash at the moment doesn’t mean you always will be, for instance. But when that thought is allowed to run rampant, you can see how it would waylay your day. (Read about how your beliefs are stressing you out.)
3. You’re seeking digital connection as source of warmth and support. No question, Facebook posts, tweets, and text messages can do wonders to help you feel connected and appreciated. But nothing replaces real-time, in-person connections, whether you’re in Qatar or Atlanta. Actually sharing a table at a crowded coffee shop, or walking in a spring forest, or browsing the sale rack at Macy’s — these are things that can only be done together, that create a trove of rich, shared memories and give this place and this time meaning. (Read: Three ways to keep Facebook in perspective.)
Try this. Listening is a powerful way to bolster important relationships. When you listen, you express to that the other person that he or she is worthy of your attention and respect; gain more insight into this person and your relationship; improve the quality of your relationships, which in turn provide you with much-need support when you’re stressed or down; and transform an ordinary conversation to one that fosters growth and higher self-esteem. (More on how to become a superb listener.)
I’ll let Pharrell Williams have the last word on happiness:
Here come bad news talking this and that
Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold back
Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine
No offense to you, don’t waste your time
Because I’m happy.