Flashback to one week ago—e-mail conversation with my daughter Jackie, who is currently in college…
Sarah: “ Jackie, can you please read the draft of my blog?”
Jackie responds: “When was the last time you wrote something happy?”
So I promised a “happy blog” for this week, but I am confronted with the hidden truth that I have pondered for years—I am not sure that I am a happy person. And that is really weird because, by all measures, I have literally nothing to be unhappy about. In fact, I am constantly grateful for the many wonderful people and aspects of my life, and I pride myself on my lightheartedness and casual demeanor…yet deep inside, there is an intensity that keeps me from letting down my guard and an inner voice that is forever worrying about the but wait, there’s more in any given situation. Sure, I have many happy moments, but I rarely feel truly, freely, joyously happy as I did when I was a child. Does that make me unhappy…or simply an adult?
Is this incessant worry due to genetics…or is it the result of being raised by parents (or, in my case, a father) for whom nothing was ever good enough? An upbringing in which no matter how hard you tried and how well you did, there was always just a little better that you could have done…another idea you could have tried…a small flaw that might have been corrected…a hidden aspect that needed to be considered.
So while I should be living a joyful life, there is a nagging beast of burden that is always worried that there is more to do and simply does not allow me to relax and enjoy.
That hidden fear is no surprise. Our automated, mechanized, computerized society, which was supposed to make life easier, has actually sped up our lives so much that there is always time in the day to cram in yet one more activity. Combine that with the increase in hyper-managed and hyper-scheduled families, where even toddlers need social calendars to track their array of lessons, classes and play dates, and it’s not merely fear that there is something more to do. There really is always something more that needs to be done. A 2015 study by Pew Research found that 56% of parents in two-income households said that it was difficult balancing work and family obligations. Who has time to be happy when there are schedules to meet?
The stats support this. According to the 2016 Harris Poll, only 31% of American adults considered themselves “very happy” on Harris’s happiness index, down from 35% in 2008. In addition, according to the World Happiness Report, the US dropped from third-happiest of the countries analyzed in 2007 to 19th in 2016, yet we live in one of the richest countries in the world where our every whim and desire can be satisfied.
Well, it’s time for all of this to change. There are hundreds (thousands?) of books written about happiness and countless articles—many of them on our website—that all say some version of the same thing: Happiness can be programmed into our bodies. We can teach ourselves to be happy…it is a choice.
In her book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at University of California at Riverside, talks about the formula for happiness. It is 50% genetic…10% circumstances of life…and 40% Intentional. By Lyubomirsky’s formula, there are no victims of circumstance because only 10% of happiness is derived from “conditions of living.” That means that all of those challenges about overwork and the pressures of life are 90% not true. It’s that 40% intentional piece that makes all of the difference, and it is enough to shift us toward or away from happiness. Happiness is our choice. We just have to practice.
When I was young, I was called the blythe spirit by a neighbor, because I so full of spirit and joy. Yet over the last 40 or so years, I have let life’s pressures replace much of that joy. It was a choice—a bad one. I often talk about Bottom Line’s mission to help people realize that they have a whole lot more power over their lives than they realize and to give them the tools and information to put them in control. Usually I think about it in terms of pragmatic things like surviving a hospital stay or getting the best price on a new car.
But the same holds true when it comes to happiness. Becoming a victim to the 40% intentional has caused so many people’s happiness to be suppressed. They developed habits of unhappiness. Of course, habits are just practice, and new habits can be formed with new intentions. In those thousands of books and articles, experts provide an endless list of suggestions about how to become happy—gratitude journals, listening to music, walking in nature, surrounding yourself with fun and funny items, consciously stopping the unhappy thought train and replacing it with a happy thought, force yourself to smile, etc. This last one is amazing. While you’re reading this, smile a giant smile. Go on. Try it. Just the pure physical act of smiling shifts how your whole body feels. Did you feel the difference?
Happiness can be created anywhere and everywhere—we just have to look for it and practice it. If you haven’t been happy or felt happy in a long time, you may need to start by reminding your body what it feels like it be happy. Eat an ice cream cone. Watch a funny movie. Hold hands with your spouse. Be aware of your feelings, and when you feel happy, remember how it feels so you can find it again…and again…and again. Like all skills, retraining our brains and bodies to a happy state takes practice that eventually turns into muscle memory, which then becomes habit.
My daughter Jackie came home from college for summer break today. When I hugged her…and cooked dinner with her…and then looked at her across the dinner table, I knew what happy is.