Abraham Lincoln said that most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be. It does seem that we have a preset happiness setting or level that we naturally gravitate to. After the initial euphoria, lottery winners end up being about as happy as they were before. And the same goes for bad events, after the first six months adjustment to becoming a paraplegic, most settle into their prior level of happiness. That being said, is there a way to ramp up our happiness setting? Yes! We can take simple steps to be happier now, yes, even in the middle of a pandemic.
1. Focus on the happy times.
At the dinner table, I always ask, “What was the best bit of the day?” I want to hear the good news, the funny joke or incident, what they are proud of accomplishing, however small. If you are living alone, you might do this with a group of friends on a chat via social media or call a friend and ask. One of my clients dreaded calling her aging mother who always complained about her various health ailments. I asked her to redirect the conversation. “I’m sorry that you are in so much pain, mom, and I know you are doing everything you can to take care of yourself. How about telling me more about the good stuff in your life?” She was amazed to discover that her mother had some positive stories to tell and just needed a gentle nudge in that direction.
2. Put a positive spin on challenges.
Ask yourself how this might be a good thing? The toughest challenges and setbacks can lead us to new, better and more creative solutions. At the very least, challenges are character building as you learn to develop strength, patience and resilience in tough times.
3. Be kind.
My mom always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. It costs little to bite your tongue when tempted to criticize. Instead, work to find something kind or positive to say. Actively seek out a way to give a word of encouragement. If you are feeling down in the dumps, it helps to take the attention off yourself by doing a good deed, helping someone even worse off, providing company to someone who is lonely. In the midst of a pandemic, there is always someone worse off that you can help. The bonus is that it will distract you from your own misery and doing a good deed will give you a positive happiness boost, flooding you with feel-good endorphins.
4. Do things that make you happy.
A no-brainer, right? But if you aren’t regularly engaged in activities that make you feel happy, then by what right should you feel happy? Yes, you have to do something! Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research shows that we are happier and more energized when fully engaged in challenging or fun activities, whether that is playing a sport, going on a meditative long walk, dancing to music, painting a picture, writing a song, poem or love letter. The key is to do something that you enjoy that engages your body and mind. It can be something creative, fun or challenging. You’ll find that your sense of time collapses when you are engaged in a “flow” activity – hours pass by in what feels like minutes.
If you can’t participate in your usual high-flow activities, you may need to get creative about alternatives. I know many are doing exercise online. We’ve moved our book club meeting to Zoom. Others are having virtual game nights and cocktail hours with friends. It may not be quite the same, but it can still be fun. Or, it might be the perfect time to get stuck into a really long, good book, learn how to knit, paint, play the piano, sew or develop your handyman skills.
5. Eliminate the stuff that makes you unhappy.
Another no-brainer, but you’d be amazed at how few people do this either. Make a list of the 60- 100 petty annoyances in your life. The leaky tap, the broken mirror, the missing buttons, the broken blinds. Go around the house with a clipboard and take note of every single thing that has been bugging you. (Speaking of bugs, I recently noticed that there were a collection of dead flies accumulating at the bottom of our glass globe bathroom light. How did they get in there?) Now, pick the easy ones to sort out and start eliminating them. It is easier to be happy if we aren’t putting up with all these daily little annoyances. As a bonus, you’ll find you have more energy too!
6. Set aside time to worry.
Designate a regular time of day that is reserved for worrying, fretting and other anxieties. If you are a natural worrier, you might as well admit it and give into it, but keep the time limited (I recommend you set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes) and don’t allow yourself to worry throughout the day. If a worrisome thought crops up, just tell yourself, “I’ll worry about that at 7:30 pm tonight after I’ve tucked the kids in bed.” Then sit down with a pen and paper and write down all your worries, get them out of your head and onto paper so you can look at them more objectively and consider them.
7. Create happy emotions.
Get clarity on what is causing unhappiness in your life. Hint, the source of most unhappiness is an unmet personal or emotional need. Do you need to feel loved, cherished, appreciated, heard, understood, acknowledged, respected, admired, included, peace, security? There are over 100 different personal and emotional needs. Do you know what your top four needs are? Most people don’t. Take the free quiz here to find out what you need most. If you aren’t feeling happy, this is an obvious place to look! What are you currently doing in your life that makes you feel ______(fill in your top need)? If you aren’t taking action to satisfy your personal and emotional needs, it is very likely that you feel a rankling discontentment with life.
8. Orient your life and work around your values and passions.
If you aren’t happy in your work, then it is very difficult to feel happy because work consumes so much of our time, energy and thoughts on a daily basis. It is worth spending a bit of time doing some serious navel-gazing to figure out what career or work would make you happier. If you are retired, you may feel adrift if you don’t have engaging work or new challenges that stimulate your brain. It is well worth figuring out what your hard-wired natural talents and abilities are and building a life around those abilities and values. Thankfully, there are a number of excellent career tests and assessments that can help you figure out what you are meant to do with your life.
9. Reward yourself for positive actions.
Most people accomplish more than they realize, yet are constantly beating themselves up because they focus on what they didn’t get done instead. One of the most successful leaders I know makes a point of highlighting all the things he accomplishes on his to do list. His goal is to create a fully yellow page by the end of the day. Then, when he finishes a full page, he gives himself a small reward. Our brains are hard-wired to do more when we get a reward, however small. You’ll feel happier about yourself if you focus on your accomplishments, which will motivate you to accomplish even more over time. If you focus on what you didn’t do, you might end up feeling discouraged and stop moving forward.