A new year, a fresh start, a time to put new inspirations into action, with a lot of help from family and friends! Resolutions? You might think I’m crazy, but mine is to embrace happiness… Not be happy, find the secret to happiness, or even put on a happy face everyday… Just embrace it. This is a huge 180 for me. All my life I have pondered the meaning of happiness and tried to harness it by working harder at becoming a better person. Constantly focusing on my flaws, I reason that if I can just change this or that about myself, I will be happy. Needless to say, this approach has failed and since I’m not getting any younger it’s time I stop recreating myself and just be me. Don’t laugh. It took me a long time to get here! And what I have discovered is that I am happy. I just didn’t know it!
Here’s my story:
This Christmas the Kelly-O’Connell-Jernigan clan decided to buy a book for each other. My daughter-in-law, Jen, pulled my name and gave me a subscription to audiobooks since my RV lifestyle is all about less space and less things which create more “space that brings calm, reflection, and joy…” She also knows that I like to walk a lot. So, what a perfect fit! Walk and meditate. Walk and laugh. Walk and listen to a good book. And of course she shared some of her favorites.
So, I decided to practice walking and listening before I downloaded my first audiobook. I chose to listen to 2 TED Radio Hour broadcasts from NPR while I walked on one of my familiar routes, the Riverwalk. On the way out I listened to a podcast, Believers and Doubters, offering different perspectives on religion, faith, doctrines, and belief. On the way back I listened to Simply Happy hoping to find out what happiness really is. And that is when everything in my lived experiences came together!
Matt Killingsworth holds a Ph.D. in psychology and approaches happiness scientifically by studying and measuring it in real-time.
He created a phone app, TrackYourHappiness.org, that will send you a text several times a day that you must answer immediately. The text are questions, such as:
- On a scale between Very Bad and Very Good, how are you feeling right now?
- What are you doing right now?
- Do you have to do what you are doing right now?
- Do you want to do what you are doing right now?
- Are you thinking of something else than what you are doing?
So, he collects all this data and looks for patterns and variables and discovers that the 3 brightly highlighted questions are the most indicative of happiness. And, most importantly, the answer to the last question above holds the key to unlocking that door to our happy place. Killingsworth theorizes that when we are thinking about something else than what we are doing in any given moment, which he calls, mind wandering, we are less happy because we are usually thinking about unpleasant things.
Now, we can debate this simplified premise, but in my lived experiences this mind wandering pattern has ruled the greater part of my life. As a little girl I worried about dying and going to hell, failing tests, being too fat, not being good enough, making my mother get mad at me. As I grew older I continued filtering my experiences in such self-conscious negative ways. On the outside I looked happy. On the inside I felt unworthy. And yes, after years of hard work with mental health therapists, I now realize how my obsessive mind wandering caused so much unhappiness for me. I have learned to stay in the moment. Sometimes it is easy and trivial. Like today at the laundromat… I watched laundry wash, rinse, and spin through its cycles instead of wishing I was doing something more productive with my down time or being some place else. It was kind of a meditative experience. Other times I have to re-direct my thoughts. Like earlier today when I stood in line at the post office. I felt fat since I had just eaten and was full. All I could think about was my weight and I began to chastise myself for enjoying food so much. So, I mentally slapped myself out of my negative mind wandering and noticed the people around me. I started fabricating stories about their lives and why they were here in line with me. If being happy involves noticing where your attention is at any given moment, and recognizing when your mind wanders down dark alleys, and re-directing your mind to the present, then I already live this practice and embrace the happiness it brings me!
Carl Honore, the author of In Praise of Slowness, believes that we need to slow down since our culture is so marinated in speed that we are just hurrying through life instead of living life.
Slow has negative connotations, such as being a slacker or being stupid. But speed takes its toll on our health, work, relationships, and happiness. We are living the fast life instead of the good life. Speed also builds a wall so that we don’t have to ask ourselves if we are happy or face our fears. For instance, you wake up in the middle of the night and find your mind pre-occupied with some problem or worry in your life. By sticking with the anxiety, we either find a solution or fall asleep to wake up with a resolution.
Honore talks about finding your inner tortoise. I prefer the suggestion to stop and smell the roses. My husband, Jeff, embodies this cliche and reminds me to appreciate whatever moment we are in. From star gazing to cloud watching to finding scenic treasures on hiking trails to noticing the subtle colors of nature outside our windows, Jeff and I share the moments that fill us with awe. Besides, our younger days of running have been replaced with walking and hiking. And driving a motorhome means covering less miles per day in the slow lane. If being happy involves slowing down and enjoying the moment, then I already live this practice and embrace the happiness it brings me!
Graham Hill is a visionary, entrepreneur, designer, and journalist who lives a life of minimalism and sustainability. As founder of LifeEdited.com and TreeHugger.com, he encompasses my “less is more” mantra.
Long story, short: He made tons of money, bought tons of stuff, got rid of tons of stuff, and now lives in a 450 square foot apartment with tons of time to enjoy life. I can attest to that! Downsizing to an RV makes my life so much simpler and so less cluttered. As Hill points out, horizontal space collects disarray, while vertical space tames the temptation to collect a pile of anything. There’s not much horizontal room in an RV for accumulating piles of papers and junk as most surfaces have dual purposes, i.e., the table becomes a bed and the kitchen counters uncover the sink and stove. If being happy involves owning less stuff, then I already live this practice and embrace the happiness it brings me!
Dan Gilbert is a Ph.D. psychologist, professor, and writer.
He claims that our evolutionary pre-frontal cortex has tripled the size of our brains with its unique function as an experience simulator. This means we can have an experience in our head before trying it out in real life. Unfortunately, this simulator tends to not work so well due to what Gilbert refers to as impact bias which convinces us that different outcomes are more different than what they really are. Huh? This means that we expect the great lows in our life to have more impact on our happiness. But, it ain’t so! After just 3 months, in most cases, the negative impact on happiness is gone. But that doesn’t mean we necessarily get over the trauma. It just means we return to our baseline of happiness. Huh? We are hard wired to be happy. We have the ability to synthesize and re-frame our experiences into happiness. So, we have some input into controlling our happiness.
Again, mental health therapy has helped me to re-frame the biggest tragedy in my life, so far, and view it as a constructive and positive experience. It only took me 20 years to finally accomplish this! Yeah, it’s hard work and I’m a slow learner, but I am doing it, to my sons’ joy! If being happy involves re-framing negative experiences, then I already live this practice and embrace the happiness it brings me!
And who better personifies the embracement of happiness but children! These love-loves keep me smiling:
This wall plaque from my brother sums it all up:
And this song is my 2016 HAPPY new year anthem to you and yours, which I have danced to, twirled to, raised my arms to, and shaked my hips to while walking in Lake Elsinore, CA (really!): HAPPY by Pharrell Williams