Pathways to Happiness

North Dakota is the happiest state in the U.S. according to this year’s annual Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Minnesota follows close behind at number four. And why shouldn’t we be happy? We have a strong economy, the air is clean (often cold, but clean), crime is low, and we have our “Minnesota/North Dakota Nice” attitudes. In 2013, Prevention Magazine touted Fargo as one of the 25 happiest (and healthiest) cities in America. But happiness doesn’t just fall into our lives; it is something to be identified, cultivated, and self-directed.
Happiness is a choice. “Every morning when we wake up, we have 24 brand new hours to live,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese poet and Buddhist teacher. “What a precious gift. We have the capacity to live in a way that these 24 hours will bring peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others.” Here are some pathways to happiness.

Ask yourself, “Am I happy?” That advice comes from life coaches Eden Clark and John Germain Leto who explain: “It’s a simple question—and it’s the basis for life.” Following the question, carefully observe what happens to your body. “Do you feel a sense of contraction or expansion in your body? Does your stomach feel like it’s in knots? Does your heart feel light and open? When you ask yourself about your happiness, try to feel the answer within yourself. It’s there.”

Restructure your life to align with happiness. If, after answering the question, “Am I happy?”, you realize your happiness level needs to increase, then take the necessary steps. A place to start would be to become a student of happiness. That’s exactly what Dawn Kaiser, Lake Park, Minn., is doing this year. She has taken on the adventure of discovering joy in the journey and then sharing those “joy notes” with friends and family on her Facebook page. “I have learned so much about how to live joy-filled because I have been intentional in finding it in the everyday moments of life.” Dawn says the top lesson she has learned about joy and happiness so far is that “the root of happiness is gratefulness,” and that’s why every day she writes down three things that she can be joyful/grateful for in her life. Her goal at the end of the year is to have 1,000 things written down in her journal of joy to give her encouragement for years to come.

Be happy now. Don’t wait for a more ideal life circumstance. Start now. Learn from this sad tale of delayed happiness from a woman who says, “After working for 51 years, I’m finally nearing retirement and ready to start living my life the way I want.” How unfortunate this woman has postponed life joy and happiness for decades and is only ready to experience it now that she has entered the last years of her life. “Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future; act now, without delay,” writes French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.

Embrace the spirit of adventure. That advice comes from Mark Twain, who put it this way: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Forgive yourself. Living with regret and self-condemnation are not only time wasters, but they are also huge happiness killers. Let go of places from your past where you did not live up to the optimum. Remind yourself you are human, not super human. Everyone, yourself included, gets to make mistakes and have lapses in judgment. When she learned her mother had been diagnosed with advanced cancer, Elizabeth took weeks off work and went to be with her mother. When she died, Elizabeth returned for the funeral and to help settle the estate. Six months later, Elizabeth was plagued by regrets and too many “should haves.” “I should have held her hand…I should have wrapped her in my arms…I should have spent more time with her….I should have done more, etc.,” Elizabeth remembers thinking. Those regrets were eroding her quality of life. Finally, Elizabeth chose to forgive herself and apply self-compassion, not self-condemnation. Today she advises others, “Ask yourself if your pain serves you and choose to release unnecessary suffering by inviting forgiveness.”

Smile more. Your smile will bring happiness to others and, simultaneously, return happiness to you. “The simplest and most reliable way to make someone smile is to smile at him,” says psychologist Marianne LaFrance, author of “Lip Service.” “Smiles are the most contagious kind of facial expression, even among people who don’t know each other,” says LaFrance.

Keep your perspective balanced. When we become unhappy, it’s easy to feel dejected and despondent. Don’t give in to self-pity. Balance your perspective by placing yourself into a larger context. This is what British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking did. In his book, “My Brief History,” Hawking tells about being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1963, and being given two years to live. Initially, he was devastated by the diagnosis. “However, while I was in the hospital, I had seen a boy I vaguely knew die of leukemia in the bed opposite me. It had not been a pretty sight. Clearly there were people who were worse off than me—at least my condition didn’t make me feel sick. Whenever I feel inclined to be sorry for myself, I remember that boy.” Hawking turned 72 in January.

Learn about happiness from the dying. For several years, Bronnie Ware worked in hospice. Based on her experiences, she wrote the book, “Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” Those regrets are:

  • I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish I had let myself be happier.

Ultimately, the level of your happiness depends upon you. In her book, “Happiness,” Joan Chittister writes: “Happiness is within our grasp, but it’s not free. It doesn’t just happen. It takes a reorientation of our own mental habits to both realize it and maintain it. Most of all, the achievements of happiness require a commitment to bend the arc of our lives in the direction of things that count in life rather than toward the trinkets that decorate it.”
Victor M. Parachin lives and writes from Oklahoma. He is the author of a dozen books, most recently, “Sit a Bit: Five Minute Meditations for Greater Health.”

Filed Under: Spirituality

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