As I wrote in my last post, I’ve started a new project as a way to put into practice some of the things I’ve been wanting to do, like be happier. Happiness is one of those concepts that can easily become vague and elusive. Ask anyone what they want out of life, what they want for themselves and their kids, and more often than not, you’ll hear, “I just want to be happy” or “I just want them to be happy.” But what does that actually MEAN? And how do you actually DO it?
Well, you’re in luck, because I’ve come across some very specific and (I think) helpful advice. If you’re anything like me, you want steps, tips, how-to’s, a hand-drawn map, even. Just show me what to do and I’ll do it! OK, calm down. Now, here’s what I learned.
First up, the August issue of O magazine is chock-full of self-helpy quizzes and charts. Bring it, Oprah! But what caught my eye was a little sidebar on joy. Basically, here’s what it says: for well-being (happiness?) we need to feel both satisfaction AND joy. What’s the difference, you may ask? “Joy is more about relaxing into a realm where you aren’t controlling anything,” says psychologist Sarah Gundle in the article. Consider the following options. Can you spot the ones that qualify as joyful?
Option 1: You rearrange your beloved books, setting aside a few to donate.
Option 2: You go for a run. That’s your meditation time, and you’re training for a marathon.
Option 3: You wander through a museum, stopping to admire pieces that draw you in.
Option 4: You peruse the farmer’s market for your favorite activity: cooking a family meal together.
Answer? Option 3, because it’s the only one that’s not “productive” and doesn’t have an agenda. It’s just for you, and just for pleasure. And necessary to achieve true happiness. Interesting, right? (Says the lady who gets immense satisfaction from alphabetizing her spice rack.)
The next helpful piece of info I got from an article in More magazine, “Hardwire Yourself to Be Happy.” The article confirms what I’ve already heard about meditation and gratitude: they work because a) they are daily practices, not a one-and-done activity, and b) they actually, physically rewire your brain.
When you practice them over a period of time, you forge new “neural pathways” in your gray matter. (BTW, this is what I did, knowingly or not, when I found a new parking spot at my kids’ school that changed my life. Novelty, change, taking a different route are all ways to get your neurons firing. Do I totally sound like a brain scientist, or what?)
OK, so in the More article, a neuropsychologist explains that the key to rewiring your brain for happiness is to focus on positive experiences and memories. “By directing your attention, you can deliberately create and prolong the kinds of experiences that will shape your brain so that you are happier,” says Rick Hanson, Ph.D. I have read elsewhere that writing down or taking photos of positive moments can help you remember them more, too. What a great idea, right? 😉
Go read the article, because Hanson gives step-by-step instructions for how to actually focus your attention to “absorb” a happy feeling. I tried them recently during a positive experience of my own: sitting on the couch with a glass of wine watching the latest episodes of “Playing House.” (Have you seen this show? I LOL my head off several times an episode. And the theme music makes me tear up.)
Like anything else worthwhile in life, happiness takes some effort and practice. Unless you’re Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who’s been called the happiest man in the world. Who, incidentally, says the secret is to stop trying to be happy and go help someone else. Hmmm… didn’t I learn something once about giving and accepting help?
So who else has learned (and practiced and retained) any helpful advice about how to be happier?